Bam White, the father of Melt White, was the unlikely star of a classic documentary about the Dust Bowl by filmmaker Pare Lorenz. Earning a month’s wages in two hours, White had no idea what the film was about. “The Plow that Broke the Plains” was a propaganda film promoting the New Deal’s agricultural reforms. White played the original farmer who plowed the Great Plains, breaking the pristine ground with the farming techniques that would lead to the disaster of the Dust Bowl.
Lorenz had wanted to create a series of government documentaries covering the full range of American life. He presented his idea to Rexford Guy Tugwell, Director of the Resettlement Administration, which would later become the Farm Security Administration. Tugwell had already planned creating an extensive photographic record of the agency’s work and those affected by it, so he was very receptive to the idea of using film to educate the public. Under his program, photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Siskind and Marian Post Wolcott would produce an archive of more than a quarter of a million photographs depicting life during the Great Depression.
Drawn by images of the Great Plains, Lorenz and Tugwell agreed that the first subject would be the Dust Bowl. “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” completed in 1936, was a propaganda film promoting the New Deal’s agricultural reforms. Lorenz had hoped to have the thirty-minute film distributed as a short by a major film studio, but studios, also hit hard by the Depression, were playing it safe by shying away from controversial subjects, focusing instead on Shirley Temple films, period dramas, and screwball comedies. The film was shown at a few independent theaters and received some critical success.