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‘Items for criticism (not in sequence)’: Joseph DeLee, Pare Lorentz and The Fight for Life (1940)



In the late 1920s, the American obstetrician Joseph DeLee brought the motion-picture camera into the birth room. Following that era's trend of adapting industrial efficiency practices for medical environments, DeLee's films give spectacular and unexpected expression to the engineering concept of ‘streamlining’. Accomplishing what more tangible obstetric streamlining practices had failed to, DeLee's cameras, and his post-production manipulation, shifted birth from messy and dangerous to rationalized, efficient, death-defying. This was film as an active and effective medical tool. Years later, the documentarian Pare Lorentz produced and wrote his own birth film, The Fight for Life (1940). The documentary subject of the film was DeLee himself, and the film was set in his hospitals, on the same maternity ‘sets’ that had once showcased film's remarkable streamlining capacity to give and keep life. Yet relatively little of DeLee was retained in the film's content, resulting in a showdown that, by way of contrast, further articulated DeLee's understanding of film's medical powers and, in so doing, hinted at a more dynamic moment in the history of medicine while speaking also to the process by which that understanding ceased to be historically legible.

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      ‘Items for criticism (not in sequence)’: Joseph DeLee, Pare Lorentz and The Fight for Life (1940)
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1 de Kruif, Paul, The Fight for Life, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938 (previously published 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937). The Fight for Life (1940), directed and produced by Lorentz under the auspices of the short-lived United States Film Service, is viewable online via the International Documentary Association at On the Film Service see Couch, Richard and Hunt, Thomas, ‘The rise and fall of the United States Film Service’, International Journal of Instructional Media (1994) 21, pp. 239253 .

2 Lorentz, Pare, FDR's Moviemaker: Memoirs and Scripts, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1992, p. 124 .

3 Bosley Crowther, ‘Lorentz experiments’, New York Times, 10 March 1940, p. 156.

4 For more specific details on the score see especially Nisbett, Robert F., ‘Louis Gruenberg and the Fight for Life ’, Musical Quarterly (1995) 79, pp. 231255 .

5 For those interested in parsing the apparent contrast between DeLee's two approaches to childbirth – one at the Maternity Center, the other ‘the streamlined birth’ of his films – see Leavitt, Judith, ‘Joseph B DeLee and the practice of preventive obstetrics’, American Journal of Public Health (1988) 78, pp. 13531360 ; and Caitjan Gainty, ‘The pursuit of “happiness minutes”: medical efficiency in the United States, 1910–1940’, PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 2012, esp. pp. 202–245.

6 Frank Nugent, ‘The screen: Pare Lorentz again goes to fact for his drama in his new film, “The Fight for Life,” at the Belmont’, New York Times, 7 March 1940, p. 27.

7 Joseph F. Coughlin, ‘“The Fight for Life”: problems of parturition’, Motion Picture Herald, 16 March 1940, p. 34.

8 ‘Columbia, only major bidder, gets distribution of “Fight for Life”’, Motion Picture Herald, 25 May 1940, p. 12. See also Butters, Gerald R., Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915–1966, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007, pp. 222223 .

9 ‘Film reviews: The Fight for Life’, Variety, 6 March 1940, p. 18.

10 Lorentz, op. cit. (2), pp. 207–208.

11 Lorentz, op. cit. (2), p. 132.

12 Only one implies that the film might be a call for socialized medicine. See the untitled commentary, Motion Picture Herald, 19 October 1940, p. 26. See also ‘“The Fight for Life” makes film history’, Better Times (5 April 1940) 21, p. 1.

13 ‘Surveying the struggle: Pare Lorentz goes into the lists for his new film “The Fight for Life”’, New York Times, 17 December 1939, p. 127.

14 Frank Nugent, ‘Grim reality note’, New York Times, 10 March 1940, p. 156.

15 Nugent, op. cit. (6).

16 Coughlin, op. cit. (7).

17 Letter from Nathaniel Davis III to DeLee, 13 January 1940, Papers of Joseph B. DeLee: Manuscript and Motion Pictures, Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archive (subsequently NMH), Box 49, Folder 2. The head of the AMA, Morris Fishbein, is quoted as commenting on this same issue in an untitled editorial on the film, Motion Picture Herald, op. cit. (12).

18 Coughlin, op. cit. (7).

19 On the FDR administration's views on health care see, for example, Kooijman, Jaap, ‘Soon or later on: Franklin D. Roosevelt and National Health Insurance, 1933–1945’, Presidential Studies Quarterly (1999) 29, pp. 336350 .

20 ‘Fight in Congress over “Fight for Life” hits US documentary films’, Motion Picture Herald, 30 March 1940, p. 13. See also ‘Who'll have “Life”?’, Motion Picture Herald, 6 April 1940, p. 9; and Coughlin, op. cit. (7).

21 ‘Fight in Congress’, op. cit. (20).

22 Lucile Driftmier Verness to Lorentz, 4 October 1940, Pare Lorentz Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York, Folder: Press Notices Scrapbook – The Fight for Life.

23 Driftmier Verness to Lorentz, op. cit. (22).

24 Driftmier Verness to Lorentz, op. cit. (22).

25 Davis to DeLee, op. cit. (17).

26 DeLee to Paul de Kruif, 15 January 1940, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

27 DeLee to de Kruif, op. cit. (26).

28 Joseph DeLee, addendum to letter to Paul de Kruif, 15 January 1940, ‘The Fight for Life: items for criticism (not in sequence)’, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

29 Addendum, op. cit. (28).

30 Addendum, op. cit. (28).

31 Addendum, op. cit. (28).

32 Addendum, op. cit. (28). Lorentz, however, denied these inaccuracies. See Lorentz to DeLee, 25 March 1940, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

33 Addendum, op. cit. (28).

34 Joseph DeLee, ‘The motion picture in obstetric teaching’, unpublished manuscript, NMH, Box 49, Folder 3.

35 Aljean Harmetz, ‘Hollywood hails Lorentz, documentary pioneer’, New York Times, 22 October 1981, p. C22.

36 Vera Brown, ‘Specialist employs “talkie” to depict operation’, Detroit Times, June 1930, NMH, Box 49, Folder 4.

37 Joseph DeLee to Albert Lasker, undated letter (c.1932), NMH, Box 49, Folder 6.

38 Addendum, op. cit. (28).

39 Letter from DeLee to Lorentz, 1 April 1940, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

40 Letter from DeLee to de Kruif, op. cit. (26).

41 See e.g. Ostherr, Kirsten, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013 ; Orgeron, Devin, Orgeron, Marsh and Streible, Dan (eds.), Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012 . The DeLee films are divided between the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archive and the University of Chicago Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology Archive. Some have been digitized by the National Library of Medicine.

42 See DeLee, Joseph, ‘The maternity ward of the general hospital’, Modern Hospital (1926) 6, pp. 6772 ; DeLee, , ‘What are the special needs of the modern maternity’, Modern Hospital (1927), 28, pp. 5969 ; DeLee, , ‘How should the maternity be isolated’, Modern Hospital (1927) 29, pp. 6572 . See also DeLee, Joseph and Seidentopf, Heinz, ‘The maternity ward of the general hospital’, Journal of the American Medical Association (1933) 100, 1, pp. 614 .

43 Dreyfuss, Henry, Designing for People, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955, p. 74 .

44 See, for example, Tomes, Nancy, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999 .

45 See especially Cogdell, Christina, ‘Smooth flow’, in Currell, Susan and Cogdell, Christina (eds.), Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006, pp. 217248 ; and Cogdell, , ‘Products or bodies? Streamline design and eugenics as applied biology’, Design Issues (2003) 19, pp. 3653 . See also Lupton, Ellen and Miller, J. Abbott, The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste: A Process of Elimination, New York: Kiosk, 1992, p. 2 .

46 Kellogg, John Harvey, The Itinerary of a Breakfast, New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1919 .

47 Kellogg, op. cit. (46), p. 37.

48 Tomes, op. cit. (44).

49 J.P. McEvoy, ‘Our streamlined baby’, Reader's Digest, May 1938, pp. 15–18, 15.

50 McEvoy, op. cit. (49), pp. 15–16.

51 McEvoy, op. cit. (49), p. 16.

52 See, for example, MacDonald, Betty, The Egg and I, New York: Harper & Row, 1945 .

53 On the political currency of twilight sleep see Wolf, Jacqueline, Deliver Me from Pain, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, pp. 4472 ; Leavitt, Judith Walzer, ‘Birthing and anesthesia: the debate over twilight sleep’, Signs (1980) 6, pp. 147164 ; Stokes, Patricia, ‘Purchasing comfort: patent remedies and the alleviation of labor pain in Germany between 1914 and 1933’, in Betts, Paul and Eghigian, Greg (eds.), Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering Twentieth-Century German History, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, pp. 6194 .

54 DeLee, Joseph B., ‘The prophylactic forceps operation’, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (1920) 40, pp. 3444 . See also the description of DeLee's methods in Leavitt, op. cit. (5), p. 1353.

55 This arrangement is detailed in DeLee's correspondence with Mrs John A. Spoor, 30 December 1927, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

56 DeLee to R.W. Green, 10 January 1928, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

57 Herman Liebes, recounting his association with DeLee to Helen Joseph, 28 April 1963, NMH, Box 49, Folder 2.

58 DeLee, op. cit. (34).

59 Joseph DeLee (dir. and prod.), Science and Art of Obstetrics: Forceps and Episiotomy (1934).

60 DeLee, op. cit. (34).

61 DeLee, , ‘Sound motion pictures in obstetrics’, Journal of the Biological Photographic Association (1933–1934) 2, pp. 6068 , 62–63.

62 DeLee, op. cit. (61), p. 62.

63 DeLee, op. cit. (61), p. 62.

64 ‘Trick movies’, undated, NMH, Box 49, Folder 1.

65 De Lee, op. cit. (61), p. 67.

66 DeLee to de Kruif, op. cit. (26).

67 This was certainly also a goal of Paul de Kruif's many works. About this film, he wrote that it was also ‘the story of the power and glory of a new breed of man – the modern doctor’. Paul de Kruif, ‘Speech to the WMCA and Inter-City’, 6 March 1940, Box 30, Folder 1, Pare Lorentz Papers, Columbia University Archive.

I am indebted to Sue Sacharski at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives for her generous archival assistance. I am also grateful to Agnes Arnold-Forster for collecting further material on Pare Lorentz, and to Gail Isenberg for critical information about the DeLee film collection under her stewardship at the University of Chicago. I thank especially Tom Gunning, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, Kathryn Schoefert, Tim Boon and Oliver Gaycken for their insights. And finally I thank Lucas Canino for his thoughtful comments and editorial guidance over many many drafts.

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