Tuesday, November 26, 2013

City, The (1939)

Starring: Morris Carnovsky


An exhibit of the 1939 World Fair in New York City shares a “documentary” that was most likely the most seen documentary motion picture up to that point in cinema history. The City, for a lake of a better term, is an artistic documentary that presents modern living conditions in select cities in America, highlighting the negatives and introduces the idea of improved planned communities. It is a drably centric picture with marvelous editing that is seen as one of the finest documentaries of the early part of the twentieth century.

The City is a commissioned documentary motion pictured used as a promotional piece and a glorified advertisement for what a select few city planners envisioned life could be like in America if citizens put their efforts together to make a conscious effort to create better communities. The film introduces the idea of pastoral living of the past, where people lived off the land and in harmony with what they cultivate. This evolves quickly to the world of a factory town, where people work in dirty conditions and live in the smoke of the ever running plants. Additionally displayed is the congestion of large cities like New York City, where children play in the dirty street, both physical pollution and noise pollution fill everyday living, and harmony of existence is replaced by the rushed, mechanized world of the city that never sleeps. All this leads to the idea that people need to get back to living in a peaceful place, where work, pleasure, and leisure interact in a harmony that is peaceful, relaxing, and safe, using the example of a Greenbelt, MD as a planned Green city of future living. The film leaves you with a question of where you would rather want to raise your children, either in the dirty, dangerous big city or one of the peaceful communities.

The picture seems very much a mix of an infomercial and a type of utopian propaganda. That is no mistake as the motion picture was commissioned by the American pavilion at the New York World’s Fair to manifest the idea of “City of Tomorrow,” which was the theme of the 1939 fair. Originally the pavilion planned for a model community, a mini version of these “Green” cities, but due to cost and planning constraints was scrapped, and this film was specially made instead.

Hired were two directors Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, photographers by trade, but both with work in artistic films as well. The cinematography can best be described as stock footage like, recording montage images of cities, highlighting everyday situations with the ugliness of street and air pollution. At times there are awkward angles, a trade of many artistic photographers, but what makes the imagery dramatic is the style it is edited, fast paced forms of smash cuts and hurried imagery all meant to give the feeling of being out of control in the scenes of city life.

To dramatize the images were the works of composer Aaron Copland and narration of Morris Carnovsky. Carnovsky was a New York stage actor who was beginning to dabble in movie roles. Here in The City his voice adds a feeling of hurried stress. All visuals in the picture were without audio, so for the narration it was important to have a singular voice that translated the message shared by the filmmakers. Carnovsky’s performance can be likened to that of US propaganda films of World War II just a couple of years later. Aaron Copland was a well travels composer and The City was his “in” for work in the motion picture buisness. His dramatic scores would be rather well received especially here in this documentary, but Copland’s future in Hollywood was would not make for happy memories for him as he was a serious music scholar.

The film was featured in the Science and Education Building at the fair and would be a fine example of Depression Era documentation for America. By this time the Depression was a full decade old and not as great as it was earlier in the 1930s, but The City encapsulated the idea of survival for the working class of America and those just “getting by.” As an exhibit that played for two years The City would have been ran for many audiences, playing to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of guests, preaching the word of what can be. This would make The City possibly the most viewed documentary in the history of cinema being that most documentaries played only a short time in only a handful of theaters in select cities through its lifetime.

You can liken The City and its energy in filmmaking to that of Leni Riefenstahl’s work for Nazi Germany. It was quick and powerful, meant to stir emotions from within audiences to win over their minds. The drawback was that as the film exhibits the city of Greenbelt, MD, a small planned community made to look like a perfect world of what would become suburban living in America, the picture becomes less interesting. This might have been on purpose by the filmmakers as they were not excited by the idea of selling a product like a planned community, therefore there was not as much heart in the editing as there was in the scenes featuring New York or the smoke filled Pittsburgh, PA.
The World of Tomorrow was the Fair's theme.

Though The City played in The World’s Fair, the world would not be even near ready to respond to the humble documentary. As 1939 carried on Europe would fall into war. Countries with pavilions at the fair pulled their exhibits through the escalating year and by 1940 the fair was a skeleton of its intended image as it came to an end. The film itself would be hailed as a mastery of the art of filmmaking at its time, manifesting what filmmakers could do with the medium with full understand of its power. Unfortunately its timing hindered it from making a cultural impact of any kind. Decades later the Library would elect it for preservation naming it to the National Film Registry in 1998 as a culturally important piece of recorded history in America.

The City is a true time capsule of a motion picture that is interesting to study for images it provides from that time in history. Greenbelt and other cities like built of that same model would not pan out, sitting primarily as relics of the past as normal city growth took over their once vast, open land surrounding them. Now The City sits as a memory of what some felt about what Americans should have done, that is before World War II changed everything.

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