Frontier Films

Frontier films Inc. was a non-profit organization formed in March 1938 out of the Worker's Film and Photo League and Nykino, meant to continue the tradition of producing films for social change in a documentary format.


Nykino 1935-1937

By 1936, the FPL was dissipating. Three members of the FPL split from the group in 1934 to create their own radical productions. This league was known as "Nykino," an abbreviation of "New York Kino."

Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, and Irving Lerner abandoned the FPL and its strict adherence to the documentary form. They wished to expand the aesthetic attributes of the documentary by adding dramatic reenactments, creative photography, editing, and presentation. Steiner stated that the plan was to develop "a production group within the Film and Photo League for the purpose of making documentary-dramatic revolutionary films--short propaganda films that will serve as flaming film-slogans, satiric films, and films exposing the brutalities of capitalist society."

Willard Van Dyke joined Nykino in 1935, the same year that he and Strand visited the Soviet Union. Pare Lorentz then soon hired Strand, Steiner, and Hurwitz to photograph The Plow that Broke the Plains. The experience of making Lorentz's film inspired the Frontier Films script and production of Hands (Steiner, Ralph and Willard Van Dyke, 1934), a work displaying close-ups of hands idle until launched into action by the WPA.

In 1936, Dutch film maker Joris Ivens came into contact with Nykino. Ivens "became a powerful influence in the group's commitment to independent, left-wing documentary production and his films...exemplified to them an aesthetic which transcended the reportage basis of Film and Photo League work, while avoiding the thematic impersonality of a government product like The Plow That Broke the Plains (Lorentz, Pare 1936).

Nykino was a transitional grouping...and its total output, in terms of production, was slight. But in the scope it allowed members to assess, question, and redefine their aesthetic goals it was of great significance.

Frontier Films 1936-1942

In March of 1937, Nykino was formally converted to the non-profit organization Frontier Films. Its members were all part of the former group, including Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner, Lionel Berman, Willard Van Dyke, Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers, Irving Lerner, and Jay Leyda. Joris Ivens was also listed as a member.

Four major productions were completed including: Heart of Spain (Kline, Herbert and Geza Karpathi, 1937), based on Spanish Civil War footage, China Strikes Back (Dunham,Harry 1937), edited from scenes obtained by Harry Dunham in northwest China, People of the Cumberland, Frontier's first original domestic production, and Native Land (Hurwitz, Leo and Paul Strand, 1942), known as the group's most culminating achievement.

Towards the end of the decade, Frontier Films was issuing trustee certificates to pay the bills, and despite the sympathetic support of Eleanor Roosevelt, the break-out of the war was too much for the company. The organization disbanded in 1941 and most of its members became actively engaged in war efforts. As Russell Campbell points out, "The Depression decade was over, and it would be many years before committed, left-wing filmmaking collectives like Frontier Films would be seen again in America." It would also be several years before the radical films from this era were again brought to life.


Ralph Steiner

Born in 1899 in Cleveland to a lower-class Czech family, Ralph Steiner studied chemical engineering at Dartmouth before starting his career in photography. In 1921 he began studying at the Clarence H. White School of Photography. One of his first jobs was to make illustrative plates for Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and Steiner experimented in making his own avant-garde films, including H20 and Mechanical Principles. In 1926 or 1927 he met Paul Strand in New York and became a founding member of the Film and Photo League.

Agreeing with Leo Hurwitz's outlook on the aesthetics of documentary film, Steiner broke from the FPL to start Nykino. Believing it difficult to capture immediate events, especially with police intervention and time constraints, Steiner saw the limits of the documentary and wished to expand its potential. Following Strand and Hurwitz, he left Nykino to form Frontier Films. He was a cameraman for Pare Lorentz in addition to shooting films for Frontier, such as People of the Cumberland (Meyers, Sidney and Jay Leyda, 1937) and The City (Steiner, Ralph and Willard Van Dyke, 1939)writer/executive for four years. He then returned to commercial photography and film making

Paul Strand

Paul Strand was born in New York City in October of 1890. With Ralph Steiner and Leo Hurwitz, Strand photographed The Plow that Broke the Plains, and despite his previous "straight" art with nature and landscapes, two years later Strand established and presided over Frontier Films. After his departure from Frontier, Strand worked on several films for U.S. government agencies and with Hurwitz created a gallery of photographs featuring Roosevelt and his administration. Strand published several articles and continued his still photography in Europe until his death in 1976.

Joris Ivens

Joris Ivens, born in Nymegen, Holland in 1898, started making films at twelve years old. Ivens studied photography at the University of Charlottenburg in Berlin and in 1927 founded FILM LIGA. His films attracted international attention, especially those dealing with controversial social issues such as the rights of working people.

In March of 1936, Ivens came to the United States to show his films--radical works combining form and content, reenactment and reportage, romanticism and realism. During his stay he was in touch with Nykino members and left his influence on their work. Irving Lerner refers to Ivens's arrival as "a turning point...a shot in the arm...In him we encounter a complete socially integrated artist, one whose great craft is stimulated by a deep sense of unity with his fellow human beings." Ivens officially joined Frontier Films although the extent of his membership did not exceed beyond his impact on Nykino members. His work on The Spanish Earth (Ivens, Joris 1937) and The 400 Million (Ivens, Joris, 1939) secured his position as a master radical film maker. In 1955 Ivens was awarded the World Peace Prize, the international Lenin Prize for science and culture in 1967, and was knighted in the Order of the Dutch Lion in 1998, in addition to numerous other awards.

Willard Van Dyke

Willard Van Dyke grew up on a farm in Denver and moved to California when he was twenty-eight. There he was taught photography first by his father and then Edward Weston. Dealing mostly with the abstract and beautiful, it was not until Van Dyke personally felt the effects of the Depression and organized a Shell union that he turned his interest to documenting society through the medium of film.

Van Dyke joined Frontier Films, but split with Steiner to finish the production of The City. Van Dyke went on to make over fifty films, including wartime film work for the Foreign Policy Association (The Bridge) and the Overseas Motion Picture branch for the Office of War Information. He also became director of the Department of Film at the New York Museum of Modern Art and established a film program at the State University of New York.

Herbert Kline

Herbert Kline grew up in Davenport, Iowa and traveled the country throughout his high school years. He began to write about the poverty he saw, publishing his works through the John Reed Club and in the journals The Left and Left Front.

In Spain, Kline and Geza Karpathi were commissioned by the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune to make a film to raise money for the medical services. Although neither one had previous experience in making motion pictures, Heart of Spain was the result of Kline and Karpathi's ambitious and dangerous work. Kline soon returned to Spain to film Victory of Life (Bresson, Henri-Cartier and Herbert Kline, 1938), which also focused on hospitals and how new technologies in medicine were helping the cause.

Independent of Frontier Films, Kline again took risks in filming Crisis in Czechoslovakia, posing as a Nazi supporter to gain access to behind the scene events and rallies. In 1939 he moved his crew into Poland, capturing the German invasion in Lights Out in Europe. Kline continued to make films in later decades, including Walls of Fire (Kline, Herbert, 1971) and The Challenge… A Tribute to Modern Art (Kline, Herbert, 1977), narrated by Orson Welles.

Leo Hurwitz

Leo Hurwitz's father came to America from Russia in 1898 and worked in Philadelphia and New York until he could bring his family across the sea. On scholarship he attended Harvard where he studied Chaplin, avant-garde film and Soviet film makers. In 1930 he became assistant editor of Creative Art and began taking still and moving pictures. Soon he met Jay Leyda, Paul Strand, and Ralph Steiner and in late 1931 joined the Film and Photo League. The suffering of the Depression fueled Hurwitz's desire to promote social action.

Hurwitz began making films such as The Scottsboro Boys (Hurwitz, Leo, Lewis Jacobs, and Leo Seltzer, 1934) while teaching at the Harry Alan Potamkin Film School. He was also an editor of the New Theatre magazine. With Steiner and Irving he split from the Film and Photo League to form Nykino and went on to become vice president of Frontier Films. After Frontier Films, Hurwitz continued to make films including Strange Victory (Hurwitz, Leo, 1948) and The Specialist (Hurwitz, Leo,1961).

Irving Lerner

Irving Lerner (Peter Ellis) also grew up in a Russian family with leftists ideals. He was an anthropology major at Columbia University in 1929 and supported himself by compiling bibliographies and taking still photos for the college. In 1931 he joined the Film and Photo League in order to use a camera in a political atmosphere. He covered the May Day Celebration and the W.I.R. Young Pioneer Camp. In 1935 he was a strong supporter of Nykino, believing that the Film and Photo League's newsreels had been "formless and as poorly made as the commercial reel." Lerner was also a part of Frontier Films, assisting in the editing of films such as China Strikes Back, yet his participation became less and less until his departure in 1938.

Sidney Meyers

Sidney Meyers (Robert Stebbins) was born to Jewish immigrant parents in New York in 1906. In 1930 he married Edna Ocko. Through Ocko he met Lionel Berman who urged Meyers to give up the violin for film making. Meyers joined the Film and Photo League as a still photographer and then moved into film. He also wrote film reviews and was an editor for New Theatre. His work includes China Strikes Back, People of the Cumberland, and The Quiet One (Meyers, Sidney, 1948).

Jay Leyda

Jay Leyda (Eugene Hill) from Ohio, worked as assistant to Ralph Steiner and made the experimental film A Bronx Morning, which brought him a fellowship to the Soviet Union from 1933-1936. It is likely he was predominantly in the photography division of the Film and Photo League, yet when he returned he became part of the Nykino group, working full-time as assistant curator of the Museum of Modern Art film library. Leyda published articles on film, was on the editorial board of Films and stayed with Frontier Films after Nykino. He is credited for his work on China Strikes Back and People of the Cumberland.

Ben Maddow

Ben Maddow (David Forrest, David Wolff) was born in Passaic, New Jersey in 1909. He attended Columbia University, studying biophysics and literature. After college he held odd jobs, working as a hospital orderly and a social investigator. Drawn to poetry to express the human suffering he witnessed, his poems were published in Poetry, Symposium, New Masses, and Dynamo. His film credits include China Strikes Back, Heart of Spain, Native Land, People of the Cumberland, Victory of Life, and Valley Town (Van Dyke, Willard 1940).


  • The City (Steiner, Ralph and Willard Van Dyke, 1939)
  • Native Land (Hurwitz, Leo and Paul Strand, 1942)
  • Power and the Land (Ivens, Joris 1940)
  • People of the Cumberland (Meyers, Sidney and Jay Leyda, 1937)
  • Valley Town (Van Dyke, Willard 1940)
  • The Spanish Earth (Ivens, Joris 1937)
  • Heart of Spain (Kline, Herbert and Geza Karpathi, 1937)
  • Victory of Life (Bresson, Henri-Cartier and Herbert Kline, 1938)
  • China Strikes Back (Dunham,Harry 1937)
  • The Plow That Broke the Plains (Lorentz, Pare 1936)


Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Documentaries  –  Film  –  Film History  –  Film & Video  –  Filmmakers  –  Labour History  –  Organizations & Movements formed 1900-1949  –  Photographs  –  Photography  –  Social Change   

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