Lost Histories of Work: Lester Balog & the Film and Photo League

Death

Lester Balog died in February of 1976 at the age of seventy. His body was taken from the Kaiser Foundation Hospital and donated, unembalmed, to the UCLA School of Medicine’s Anatomy Dept.   California Certificate of Death #0190-007005 states that his last occupation was Maintenance Man at Fisher Body Auto Manufacturing.

History is the effect of the dead on the living. It is lighting a candle for the dead, and reading by candlelight.

Datebooks

Balog wrote his daily activities during the 1970s in diaries and datebooks. They show that in the last years of his life, he traveled California with his projector (noting fastidiously how many hours were used on each bulb) screening films in alternative venues. He showed Salt of the Earth at the United Farmworkers Union Hall, Inheritance at the Labor Committee office, Tupamaros at the Art Center in Las Palmas, Requiem 29 at East L.A. College, and Hunter’s Point Uprising at a Unitarian Church. Bulldozed America and Why We Boycott played at Suzy Loper’s home in Chatsworth to benefit the Farm Workers Union. Screenings were often free and labor was always donated.   Balog was living off a monthly Social Security check and a small pension from the United Automobile Workers.

Turning back, looking again and again, re-search finds unintentional indications, scattered remains gathered in preservation sites, decaying in garage boxes, pointing toward the people who held, made, wrote them. To unearth and re-invent absence, follow breadcrumbs, footprints on a circuitous path. Fabrication of lost treasures.

Origins

Lester Balog began his career as a projectionist/organizer/filmmaker in the 1920s in New York City. He had come to the U.S. as a teenager from Hungary in 1922. His mother, Yolanda, was active in the Workers Alliance of Greater New York, and could be seen at demonstrations for the rights of working women. As a youth, Balog was a member of the Metropolitan Workers’ Soccer League and the Labor Sports Union. His participation in the sports league brought him into the social venue of the Hungarian Workers Club of the Bronx, also known as the Hungarian Workers’ Home. Social life and politics were intertwined at the Workers’ Club, and Balog’s first experience with political artwork was making posters to put up around the hall during the Sacco-Vanzetti campaign. He soon learned how to project films for the cinema screenings held there, and became the club’s regular projectionist. At the same time, he was studying chemical engineering at Cooper Union. One year from his degree, at the age of 21, he quit school and immersed himself in the radical politics of the era. [i]

An old film carries the traces of the dead in motion, a photograph holds a part of the soul. But the photographer, the camera, the lab technician and the projectionist are forgotten. They touched the film, brought it to life, but who remembers the baker? Only the taste of the bread.

Class and Consumption

Balog’s participation in the Hungarian Workers’ Club film showings was part of an international movement to counter the consolidation of the film industry in the 1920s. Before the establishment of “Hollywood,” when film production, distribution and exhibition in the United States came to be controlled by a small number of well-financed companies, movie producers had expressed a range of ideological perspectives unequaled in the United States at any other time. As the vertically-integrated film industry coalesced, pressure grew from Wall Street investors and local government censors to rewrite movie messages, and depictions of a unified working class declined. [ii]

After World War I, films stressing messages of social harmony and focusing on human relationships that traversed class lines replaced earlier more class-conscious films.   The cinema of the 1920s “stressed individualism rather than collective action, acceptance rather than change; and contentment with one’s class position rather than aspiring to something more.”[iii] The era of the movie palace replaced storefront theaters in working class neighborhoods with sites of reception that appealed to an “American Dream” of upward mobility.   Nineteen-twenties advertisers of mass produced goods gave expression to a similar vision of classlessness, promoting the notion of equality through consumption. Roland Marchand writes about the era that “the humblest citizens, provided they chose their purchases wisely… could contemplate their essential equality, through possession of an identical product, with the nation’s millionaires.” [iv]

Bill Nichols has noted that the “aura of the star” was developed at the expense of “equally plausible figures of social space, specific groups, coalitions, or collectivities.”[v] While positive representations of collective action and an empowered populace could be found in Soviet film, Nichols cited these portrayals as a “cinematic possibility” that became marginalized and/or suppressed in Western Europe and the United States. Discourses of mass identity and nationhood may have been transmitted through film, but the notion of positive collective action was disappearing to the new consumer of cinema.

From crowds on the corners, to families in front of a TV, to each person looking into their device, our experiences of each other evolves.

Picturing Power

Depictions of a successfully unified working class declined in number during and after World War I, according to Ross, and when they were woven into a Hollywood plot, portrayals of collective class action were usually menacing. Films treated actual events such as the Seattle General Strike of 1919, AFL organizing in the steel industry, and IWW activities in the Midwest. In these films, murderous foreign radicals worked to foment dissent among misdirected workers.   If a strike did occur, the strikers were dangerous, unruly mobs shaking fists and wielding clubs. On the silver screen, labor organizing of any sort was a Bolshevik plot.[vi]

The phenomenon of the new corporate film industry and its transmitted messages did not pass unnoticed among diverse groups of moviegoers. People in labor unions and left political groups noticed the changing character of cinematic messages and reacted to Hollywood depictions of society and class relations by producing their own films. The American Federation of Labor, International Workers’ Aid, and private companies formed specifically to make labor films heightened their production activities in the mid-1920s.[vii]

One of the films produced in the 1920s by International Workers Aid, associated with the Communist Party, was The Passaic Textile Strike (1926). Like other labor films of the period, it was a dramatized account of an event, pursuing the goal of “activist entertainment.” Steven Ross describes the film as the “cinematic bridge between the melodramas of earlier worker-made films and the social realism that was to dominate films of the 1930s.”[viii] The movie was a seven-reel feature that combined the drama of one immigrant family trying unsuccessfully to earn a living wage, with actual footage of (orderly) strikers and a police attack on the picket line.[ix]

Lester Balog went to Passaic, New Jersey to work as one of the movement cameramen on the film, the same year that he dropped out of the engineering program at Cooper Union. Sam Brody was also on hand to shoot the documentary scenes of the strike. As the producer, Alfred Wagenknecht recalls, they “got together a staff from the strikers and photographed the real happenings.”[x] Though most likely not textile workers, and not actually on strike in Passaic, Brody and Balog’s politics brought them to filmmaking, and they were associated, even in the mind of the film’s producer, with the community of workers represented on celluloid.

I found the missing part of Passaic in a closet in New York – The Communist Party library’s kind archivist allowed me in. Orange dust made us cough when we opened the box. Ownership establishes itself in the recesses where the debris of past lives settle and collect. Stories are stored in quiet molecules. Now that the collection has been transferred to a preservation institution, I cannot touch it.

 

Exhibition

Workers’ films were not going to play in the new movie palaces or even in smaller established theaters, where exhibitors were required to buy block programming from distributors. Worker film companies did eventually succeed in forging an alternative distribution network that relied on labor, ethnic, and radical organizations to arrange local exhibition of the films. By the end of 1923, 30,00 movie projectors had been installed in churches, schools, labor temples, and other community venues. Two hundred labor bodies were serving as local workers’ film distributors. .[xi]

In England, Workers’ Film Societies had grown around the censorship of Soviet films. Bert Hogenkamp outlines the development of these worker exhibition groups in the context of European politics. Rather than forming around production, societies of workers came together to circumvent government censorship policies by watching films in private clubs that could escape regulation.[xii] Real fear of the Soviet Union and Communist revolution in Europe colored the attitudes of the British administration after the 1926 British General Strike. When films such as Battleship Potemkin, Strike, and Mother turned up in Britain, fear of military insurrection and civilian disturbances were behind the banning of public showings of these films.[xiii]

In the U.S., censorship took place on a local level, and seems to have been less organized than in Europe. William Alexander recounts some of the film showings in the New York area in 1930. Eisenstein’s Potemkin played at the Ukrainian Labor Hall in Newark; at the John Reed Club, A Shanghai Document by Yakov Blyokh was introduced by film critic Harry Potamkin; Fighting Workers of New York, a compilation film put together by local filmmakers played at the New York Coliseum, and a melodramatic film by a workers’ group in Germany, Harbor Drift, played at the Hungarian Workers’ Home.[xiv]   It was with the growing threat of social unrest during the Depression in the early thirties, that local governments found cause to close down film showings that seemed radical or prone to incite unrest.

 

Anonymous authors with questionable motives seem to have so much say in the way we define ourselves.   What makes an idea illegal, if not its potential power?

The Film & Photo League

The Workers International Relief[xv] was associated with the international distribution of Soviet films as well as the production of dramatic films with a “worker perspective,” including Passaic Textile Strike. With the coming of the Depression in the U.S., there was a new urgency for public communication. Newsreels were becoming a popular cinematic form, and people began to see the potential for news and information sharing through the cinema.   The WIR supported film production as part of its campaigns to aid striking workers around the U.S. and internationally. Four years after Passaic, Lester Balog and Sam Brody were present at the formation of the New York Film and Photo League, a group formed to act as a news production unit, with support from the WIR.[xvi]

Writing in 1980, Film & Photo League member Leo Seltzer recounted that because of the Hoover administration’s policy of denial, and the complicity of the media in suppressing news of the economic crisis,

Workers in one city or industry had no way of knowing what was happening in the other areas, and many felt that their unemployment was the result of some personal failure.[xvii]

After a 1930 Communist-led demonstration filled the streets around New York’s Union Square, and the commercial newsreels of the event were suppressed due to the savagery of the police beatings that took place, a film laboratory worker wrote a letter which was published in the April issue of New Masses, relating the censorship and describing the recall by authorities of 250 copies of a newsreel of the event.[xviii] Sam Brody wrote an article in the May 20, 1930 issue of The Daily Worker in response:

“the motion pictures are not merely an industry in the same sense as say, the steel or oil industries. Besides being a tremendously profitable enterprise almost entirely in the hands of four powerful trusts (Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount-Famous-Lasky and Radio-Kieth-Orpheum) it is at the same time a powerful instrument….. I want once more to emphasize the news-film is the important thing; that the capitalist class….has learned to use this kind of film to its own advantage. Hence the concentration on the newsreel in the past year…. If the capitalist class fears pictures and prevents us from seeing records of events like the March 6 unemployment demonstration and the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, we will equip our own cameramen and make our own films.” [xix]

 

If the social fabric started to unravel, which sewing club would you join?

The boxes in the garage were full of mouse nests – where did all those threads and fibers come from? They were in boxes filled only with books. In a leather suitcase that no mouse had found entry to, were his diaries from 1967 to 1976. 1967 was lonely. 1976 was empty.

1933 Road Trip

After three years of membership and activism in New York with the Film and Photo League, Balog set off for the west coast. Ed Royce and Lester Balog started their 1933 trans-continental film tour in New York on September 7, with a screening at the New York City Film Foto League to an audience of 200.[xx] Leaving from New York in Ed’s car, they brought a projector, a print of Pudovkin’s “Mother”[xxi], and some New York Film & Photo League newsreels to 51 locales across the country, showing the films at workers’ halls, ethnic clubs, and community theaters. The second half of the tour was in California, where they traveled down the coast and back up the valley during the fall of 1933 at the time of California’s largest agricultural strikes in history.

The average size of the audience was about 230, ranging from 25 at a private showing to 1000. Along the way, Balog shot footage of strikes, demonstrations, the Worlds’ Fair in Chicago, and a trial of labor organizers in Utah. The trip served as a benefit tour for the Workers International Relief, raising money to support striking workers (and the benefit film tour). Ed Royce was the featured speaker. Balog ran the projector and the film camera.

Showing the connection between the film screening and the political activities that they encountered in their trip across the U.S., Balog describes the screening in Milwaukee on Sept 26, 1933 to an audience of 500:

This was one of the most enthusiastic showings. It was also very useful as a last minute mobilization for a demonstration that day (Sept. 27) in front of the Civic Club against Fascism on the occasion of a banquet for German Ambassador Luther. Took pictures of the whole affair. About 300-400 participated in it. They had no permit. Speakers were held on shoulders while others formed solid arm in arm around them. It proved to be a quite impenetrable human barricade. It lasted a full 60 minutes. 7 or 8 spoke while the police charged several times. For a half an hour the cops found it impossible to reach the speakers. They had to be torn away one by one. ….. By the way, the John Reed Clubs of other cities ought to learn from the Milwaukee JRC for the whole affair was organized in their hall… The club is not only in “contact” with the movement, but it is an important factor. [xxii]

After an adventure in Utah that resulted in Balog’s undeveloped film being confiscated by authorities while he was recording a trial of union activists, and an evening screening at the roller rink between Price and Helper, the film tour proceeded to the west coast.

We arrived in Frisco on our very last gallon of gas. We didn’t have one penny, and we thought we can get into California for free. The only things we didn’t figure with were the Vallejo Toll Bridge and the Oakland Ferry. We solved the problem by leaving my 97 cents watch at the bridge and getting rid of Ed’s sweater (worth several bucks) at the Ferry.[xxiii]

The night of their arrival in San Francisco, Balog and Royce showed the film to an audience of 1000 at the Fillmore Workers’ Center which Balog described as “very enthusiastic.” Balog spent October 9 preparing for the continuing tour down the California coast, by helping to print 15,000 publicity leaflets. Over the next two months, they showed the films throughout California.[xxiv]

The last pages of Balog’s letter detailing the journey are lost, thus the recounting of the exhibition tour stops abruptly on October 14, in the middle of his stay in Tulare County during the 1933 Cotton Strike.[xxv] Before the account ends, Balog describes in detail the volatile scene in the San Joaquin Valley. Royce, Balog and Sam Darcy, the regional head of the Communist Party, traveled together to the strike area, arriving on October 10. They stopped off first in Fresno, where they attended the trial of leaders in the grape pickers’ strike. After camping for the night outside of Tulare, they arrived at the cotton strike headquarters just in time to join 500 strikers as they set off to the county seat of Visalia to protest the murders of two Mexican workers by vigilantes in Pixley the day before. Balog remarked that “They had no parade permit, so I got the camera ready.”

Echoing backward “The whole world is watching”

Someday I will find the second half of the letter. I am the strange friend of the family who wants to go through the closets.

After the Missing Part

In May 1934, Balog was returning north from Los Angeles with some films and a projector, passed through Tulare County, the site of the Cotton Strike and the Pixley murders the year before. Balog recounted in a later interview that

some of the farm workers, they caught us, saw us, and they said, hey, what about the pictures you took? So all right, I said, let me show you. So that night they closed the pool hall for business and had a movie. And Pat Chambers was there… And while we were running it – no charge, of course, there was no admission fee or anything, and the business was closed – no pool. So while I was projecting, about four troopers came in, big son-of-a-guns, you know? I am not tall, but they were about 6 1/2 feet, and they stood around me – I didn’t know what to do, I finished the film. I understand Pat meanwhile sneaked out, and when it was over they practically picked me up and took me to jail… they charged me with running a business without a license…they kept me 13 days in the police station, and then I got 45 days.[xxvi]

The arrest was reported in the Visalia Times Delta, which characterized the screening as a presentation by Chambers, who was notorious in the area for his organizing efforts with the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) the year before:

Pat Chambers, strike agitator, and communist candidate for United States senator, lost motion picture equipment, a ten-reel soviet picture and an operator last night when he ventured to appear as a showman in exhibiting the communist propaganda picture, “The Road to Life” in a mexican pool hall in Tulare….. Between 75 and 100 persons, most of them Mexicans 20 years old or younger, attended the four hour performance. Members of the Tulare police department sat through the entire show. [xxvii]

Of course neither the equipment nor the films belonged to Chambers, much less the operator.   The Western Worker of June 18 reported the results of the short court trial on June 5th for Balog and Lillian Dinkin, an organizer for the Communist Party. [xxviii]

Taking only five minutes to arrive at a verdict they were already sure of, the jury yesterday found Lillian Dinkin and Lester Balog “guilty” of showing a picture without a license, and Judge Cross lost no time in slapping on a sentence of 45 days and $100 fine for each… Deliberate mis-statement by prosecution witnesses of the talk Comrade Dinkin gave between the Bonus March film and the “Road to Life” formed a large part of the “evidence” the jury used to justify their helping the frame-up.[xxix]

While Balog was in jail in Tulare, the 1934 San Francisco General Strike was getting underway. He returned to San Francisco just in time to be present for the vigilante raids on the second day of the strike. Smashed and destroyed were the many sites of political/cultural activity that flourished in the early thirties – among them – The “Workers Cultural Center” at the Ruthenberg House on Haight Street (which housed the San Francisco Film and Photo League, as well as a library, a dramatic troupe, a writers union and a soup kitchen), the Western Worker editorial offices and the printing plant that the paper contracted with , the longshoreman’s strike kitchen, the Mission Workers’ Neighborhood House, and the Workers’ Open Forum at 1223 Fillmore[xxx] – the location of the film showing that Balog and Royce had presented upon their arrival to San Francisco in October, 1933. Vigilantes, followed by police, broke in and demolished as much as possible of the workers’ cultural movement as the General Strike began to affect the city.

The ghosts live all around me, but I can’t usually see them. Some of the buildings became parking lots. Old houses have been emptied, restored.

 

Gone

In 1953, Louis Rosser named Lester Balog during the state Un-American Activities hearings. When asked in the seventies what had happened to the films, he answered:

Burned them! Believe it or not. I must have had 7 or 8 400-foot reels, silent, 16mm. And what happens is, there were many people on it, some of whom were Lefts, Communists, Socialists, who were in demonstrations that may have had signs… in ’52, we had some “visitors” and that worried me, and my wife too… I didn’t want to incriminate people who may have changed since then… after three or four days, I burned the stuff. Yea, I know, it broke my heart.[xxxi]

The collective cultural movement that Balog participated in during the 1920s and 1930s passed into oblivion through political repression, disillusionment, and persecution.   The impetus to create non-commercial sites for communication and interchange can still be found all around, though technology evolves. Establishing relationships across time is a way to establish and strengthen community.

I found new friends in the past. The danger is in preferring to spend time with the departed . Life is such a hasty fuss, full of chores, and endless battle with decay.

Using the fragile threads that connect the past and present, the living with the dead, we tangle with our history and culture. By unearthing what has been lost or suppressed, a more intricate and genuine collective memory might exist. In our era of rushed resignation and rapacious rationalizing, reality might seem self-evident, but it is not. Discounted, omitted, challenged, dismissed, debated, it is still the stories that make the people. As the script is altered, the forgotten remembered, authority questioned and crevices swept, the chronicles that we discover, channel and invent will survive as long as they are useful.

The mice were uprooted. Most of the journals in the garage were intact. Some books had to be thrown away.  

[i] Yolanda Balog, family history, Cooper Union: Balog, Leslie “Lester Balog,” in Left Curve/7, 1978. Participation in the Hungarian Club and Workers’ Sports League: Interview with Lester Balog by Tom Brandon, 1974. See also Denning, Michael The Cultural Front for a treatment of ethnic Workers Clubs in the formation of radical culture in the 1930s.

[ii] See Ross, Steven J. Working Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

[iii] Ibid p. 176

[iv] quoted in Ross p. 180: Roland Marchand, Advertising American Culture: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940 (Berkeley, 1985)

[v] Nichols, Bill. “The American Photo League” Screen Winter 1972-73

[vi] Ross p. 135-142

[vii] Ibid p 143-172

[viii] Ibid p. 162

[ix] A copy of Passaic Textile Strike is at the MOMA Film Study Center, NY, New York, and at the Library of Congress, apparently deposited by Film & Photo League member Tom Brandon, and missing 2 reels. The Communist Party USA, kept a complete copy in a storage closet in New York. The film was transferred to the Tamiment Library at NYU in 2006 with the entire Communist Party archive.

[x] quoted in Ross, p 162.

[xi] Ibid p166, 224

[xii] Hogenkamp, Bert. Deadly Parallels: Film and the Left in Britian 1929-39 London: Lawrence & Wishart.

[xiii] Willcox, Temple. “Soviet Films, Censorship and the British Government; a matter of the public interest” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 10. No. 3, 1990.

[xiv] Alexander, William. Film on the Left: American Documentary Film From 1931 to 1942. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. p 6

[xv] International Workers Aid was changed to Workers International Relief in the late twenties.

[xvi] The Film & Photo League is treated in Campbell, Russell. Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in the United States 1930-1942. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982, as well as in Alexander, Film on the Left. The 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the League, when Tom Brandon toured the surviving films around the country.

[xvii] Seltzer, Leo. “Documenting the Depression of the 1930s: The Work of the Film and Photo League” in Platt, David, ed. Celluloid Power: Social Film Criticism from the “Birth of a Nation” to “Judgment at Nuremberg” Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 1992 p. 254

[xviii] Campbell, p. 35

[xix] Brody, Sam (byline is “S.B.”) “The Movies as a Weapon Against the Working Class” The Daily Worker May 20, 1930.

[xx] The road trip is described by Balog in a letter to his mother. Museum of Modern Art, Brandon Collection box I-158.

[xxi] The film was also called “1905” in some publicity ads. It was based on the novel “Mother” by Maxim Gorky.

[xxii] Balog letter in Brandon Collection box I-158

[xxiii] Balog letter in Brandon Collection box I-158

[xxiv] The film tour is also described in detail in Leshne, Carla. “The Film & Photo League of

San Francisco” Film History, Volume 18, pp. 361–373, 2006.

[xxv] 1933 was the year of the largest agricultural strikes in California history. The Cotton Strike involved over 18,000 workers. See: Weber, Devra. Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal. University of California Press, 1994.

[xxvi] Balog interview, Brandon Collection box I-158

[xxvii] “Communist Film Seized at Tulare: Pat Chambers Escapes After Presenting Show” Visalia Time- Delta, May 25, 1934, p 6.

[xxviii] The Visalia Times-Delta reported that Dinkin was a waitress residing in Tulare.

[xxix] Western Worker. June 18, 1934. p. 2

[xxx] Selvin, David F. A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1996. p. 194-196.

[xxxi] Balog interview, Brandon Collection box I-158

2 comments for “Lost Histories of Work: Lester Balog & the Film and Photo League

  1. September 16, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    interesting work. I have only ever heard his name and wondered who he was. It would be nice to put the name of the archives where all this material is now – at the end, so people can access it online, or in person.
    I would have only a marginal idea of where to look.

  2. gabe
    July 18, 2016 at 5:32 am

    Hi Carla, This provides a nice personal touch for a project on the Metro Workers Soccer League, that I am currently working on. Thanks for putting it out there.

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