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Ray, Nicholas (1911-1979)  
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Promoting Grass-roots Culture

In 1937, Ray was hired by the Resettlement Administration (later Farm Security Administration) to promote a grass-roots cultural revival. Working for that bureau from 1937 to 1938, and subsequently for the Recreation Division of the WPA from 1938 to 1940, he established theatrical and musical programs throughout the United States. Through his involvement in community arts programs, he became a nationally recognized expert on American folk music. In On Dangerous Ground (1952) and other films, he drew on his experiences in the WPA, realistically expressing the harshness of life in rural America.

In July 1940, due to retrenchment of government programs in the arts, Ray lost his position in the WPA. Shortly thereafter, Alan Lomax, formerly one of his supervisors at the WPA, hired him as director of the news and entertainment programs at CBS Radio. In programs for CBS, Ray introduced national audiences to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, "Blind Lemon" Jefferson, and other folk and jazz musicians from the South and the Midwest.

In 1941, FBI agents opened a file on Ray, noting that he owned socialist literature and that he associated with numerous African Americans.

Voice of America

A few days after the invasion of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Ray applied for military service, but he was declared unfit due to rheumatoid arthritis and other medical problems. Shortly thereafter, he was hired to work for the recently established Voice of America by John Houseman, Head of Overseas Programming, who knew Ray from the Theatre of Action. Convinced that the Voice of America needed entertainment to attract viewers, Houseman entrusted Ray with developing international folk music programs.

On Voice of America, Ray presented American musicians whom he had featured on CBS as well as displaced foreign entertainers, including the Czech comic team of Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich, who synthesized European Dadaism and American vaudeville in their routines. The pro-labor slant of Ray's programs appealed to anti-fascist listeners overseas but disconcerted administrators in Washington, D.C. In January 1944, Ray was forced to resign on the basis of FBI reports, which reportedly documented leftist political sympathies and homosexual liaisons.

Hollywood and New York, Mid-1940s

In March 1944, Ray went to Hollywood to serve as Kazan's assistant on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ray contributed to many aspects of the film, including script and architectural setting, and he also helped composer Alfred Newman coordinate his score with the film.

In March 1945, Ray returned to New York, where he worked as director on the television version of Sorry, Wrong Number, produced by Houseman for CBS, and as Houseman's assistant on two Broadway musicals, Lute Song and The Beggar's Opera.

They Live By Night (Thieves Like Us)

Houseman again hired Ray as his assistant when he returned to Hollywood in 1946 to work for RKO. By August 1946, Ray had completed a screen adaptation of Thieves Like Us, a novel by Edward Anderson, concerning an adolescent couple, Bowie and Keechie, who become fugitives from justice in Depression-era America. Disconcerted by the anti-capitalist slant of the script, RKO executives initially shelved the project, but in February 1947, Dore Schary, recently appointed head of production, assigned Ray to direct the film. At this time, Ray was given a one-year contract with options for renewal at the studio's discretion.

For a beginning director, Ray showed exceptional boldness. Instead of utilizing established stars, Ray cast virtually unknown contract players, Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, as the lead characters. This film served to establish Granger's reputation as an important actor; he still regards Ray as one of the most inspiring directors that he worked with during his long career.

Furthermore, Ray insisted that the opening sequence be filmed entirely from a helicopter, at the time an innovative and technically difficult process. Drawing upon his experience as a musical programmer, he organized the film around various sounds, including not only the components of the score, composed by Leigh Harline, but also popular songs and everyday noises, such as train whistles. These sounds are skillfully employed in counterpoint to the primary incidents of the narrative.

Through his sensitive direction, Ray infused Thieves Like Us with a tender mood that differentiates it from other film noir, and he enhanced its lyrical romanticism by filming many scenes at night and utilizing soft-lit close ups. However, he also emphasized the social message, for example, through subtitles explaining the oppression of the couple. By depicting actors through latticework, bed frames, and other architectural elements, Ray created the impression that they are imprisoned.

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