Movie: The Fight for Life (Pare Lorentz, 1940)

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By Jill Arnold

Footage from Pare Lorentz’ documentary, The Fight for Life, was used heavily in Kartemquin’s 1977 film, The Chicago Maternity Center Story, a movie about Joseph DeLee’s maternity center which, according to its web site, “interweaves the history of the center with the stories of a young woman about to have her first baby and the center’s fight to stay open in the face of the corporate takeover of medicine.”

If you don’t watch Lorentz’ entire film (below), at least watch the first scene, which gives a glimpse into the management (an understatement) of childbirth in the first half of the century. However, if you’re not in the mood to watch a mother die in childbirth, you might want to skip it.

A reviewer from The New York Times had this to say about Lorentz’ film on March 7, 1940:

“The Fight for Life” is on the borderline between documentary, as we know the word, and fiction film. For the first time in his government-picture-making career, Mr. Lorentz has employed actors, has—in some cases—used sets, and has shaped a plot of sorts to bring his film into a semblance of dramatic unity. At the same time his material is factual, many of his scenes were made on the spot, with real people in them; we have government mortality tables, reports of Boards of Health and medical societies to support his word that 90 per cent of the nation’s babies are brought by men with 5 per cent training, that maternity causes more deaths than cancer and half of these preventable, that puerperal fever (which generally is avoidable) is the chief assassin.

In reciting statistics that way we do Lorentz’s film an injustice; for he has not been that bald. He has brought them in unobtrusively, slipping them into lines and scenes pulsating with the beat of his drama. He has told it as a personal history—the history of a sensitive young doctor who has watched a mother die on a delivery table in a great urban maternity hospital and has asked himself whether there was one balanced second when they could have held the life flowing from her. “Maybe there’s a design,” he wonders. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.”

“Perhaps there is a design,” later replies an older doctor, “but we don’t know it… . Floods and erosion are normal in nature. Perhaps human erosion is normal. Too many still think so.”

So the young man goes to a maternity clinic in Chicago’s slums, and there he works and learns; and there, at last, he faces another case where there is the “one balanced second” when life may be saved or lost. And this time the process of human erosion is stayed.

A slight story framework? Perhaps. But the drama has been solidly built on human experience, on the tissue of life, on the beat of the human heart itself. Louis Gruenberg’s score, dramatic as the film’s imagery, has exploited that heartbeat magnificently, has used its rhythm with drums and strings to create a haunting symphony of birth and death and the long, suspenseful, muted passage between. Lorentz always has been fortunate in finding his composers, but never has he been more beautifully served than here. He has been happy, too, in his drama’s performance. Had we not seen them on Broadway and in occasional pictures, he might have pretended successfully that Myron McCormick, Will Geer, Storrs Haynes and Dudley Digges really were men of medicine, that Effie Anderson was a professional receptionist at a clinic, that Dorothy Urban (that magnificent study of a slums grandmother) really had been found in some ramshackle tenement near the yards.

We don’t know what it is that’s wrong with Mr. Lorentz for thinking there is drama in the greatest adventure of life, for thinking nice people want to be told that hundreds of thousands of mothers and infants die needlessly each year through an almost criminal lack of proper care and attention, for thinking any of us may be interested—no less fascinated—by the workaday routine of visiting nurses and physicians on maternity duty in the slums. But whatever it is that’s wrong, we wish more film makers had it, and we wish there were some form of Pulitzer award for the kind of cinema journalism Mr. Lorentz has been doing.