UNFINISHED PROMISES TO
AN ORPHANED TIME
The aim of the book is [to] gather for scholars and labor etc.
people, especially the young, in one place some basic facts and
areas of experience I am tentatively calling A Missing Chapter
in American Film History: Social and Political Films of the
TOM BRANDON TO HIS EDITOR, JUNE 11, 1975
Deep within the archives of the Museum of Modern Art rests Tom Brandon’s incomplete manuscript of A Missing Chapter in American Film History: Social and Political Films of the 1930s. Back in 1970, when Brandon initiated the project, A Missing Chapter was to be the first booklength study to chronicle the emergence of U.S. Left film criticism during the 1920s, its developments throughout the 1930s, and its relation to radical and progressive Depression-era film groups like the Film and Photo Leagues, NYKino, and Frontier Films.1
In many ways, Brandon was well positioned to write this history. Not only had he meticulously collected thousands of Left film reviews, along with related brochures, mimeographs, and paraphernalia, but he had also served as a cameraman, producer, lecturer, and programmer for the New York Film and Photo League (NYF&PL) during the white-hot years of the Depression, 1930 to 1935.2 During Brandon’s tenure, the league represented the front lines of radical filmmaking in the United States, countering the reactionary subject matter and form of commercial newsreels with its own montage-inflected documentaries that brilliantly illuminated the flashes of social protest that were being ignited across the country but banned from its mainstream screens. As the radicalism of the early decade became tempered into the populism of its later half, Brandon established his own distribution company, which specialized in foreign, documentary, and orphan films. Through this company, he gained the rights to key Left films of the 1930s.3 Armed with both an intimate, firsthand knowledge of the NYF&PL and a vast collection of primary sources concerning U.S.