Year by year our cities grow more complex and less fit for living. The age of rebuilding is here. We must remould our old cities and build new communities better suited to our needs.
So begins the 1939 documentary THE CITY. First shown at the 1939 World’s Fair, THE CITY was created by the American Institute of Planners to promote the aims of Franklin Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration as part of the New Deal. Filmed with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke photographed from the screenplay by Lewis Mumford, founder of the Greenbelt movement, and Pare Lorentz.
With minimal dialogue, THE CITY begins its three-act drama in a quaint country milltown in New England. The middle act derides the evils of city life. Factory smoke stacks choke the barely breathable air while human life struggles to survive in the dilapidated tenements in their shadow. The noise and hustle and bustle, coupled with quick cuts in the film editing, give us a taste of dangerous, congested city life. The final act extolls the idyllic life of Greenbelt, Maryland, a resettlement community planned with children in mind, and built to put people to work, help alleviate the housing shortage, and serve as a model of urban planning for private industry.
Unlike earlier documentaries such as THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS and THE RIVER (both directed by Lorentz), the filmmakers inject humor into THE CITY to play to large, middle-class family audiences at the Fair. Audiences flocked to see images onscreen of themselves, making THE CITY one of the most popular attractions at the Fair.
The film’s release on DVD represents the world premiere complete recording of Aaron Copland’s first film score. In 2001, Jonathan Sheffer and the Eos Orchestra recorded an eight-movement suite from the score on the Telarc CD, Celluloid Copland. This Naxos DVD features Angel Gil-Ordonez conducting the Post-Classical Ensemble in a spirited reading of the score, with Francis Guinan, a veteran of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, providing the narration. I wish a separate score audio track had been included without the narration, but that’s a minor quibble in such an excellent presentation of the film.
Bonuses include the 2000 documentary from the Greenbelt Museum—Which Playground for Your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter?—and a 2007 conversation with Joseph Horowitz, artistic director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, and prominent documentary filmmaker George Stoney.
For those who want to experience the film as it was heard in 1939 (and you should), the film, with its original soundtrack conducted by Max Goberman and Morris Carnovsky as narrator, is also included as a bonus feature. Though the mono recording is obviously missing the clarity of the stereo version, the energy of Goberman’s conducting is palpable, especially in swirling, nervous energy of the lunch counter sequence in the second act.
Gil-Ordonez serves Copland’s score well, bringing out intricacies in the music that are missing in the original mono version. Highlights include the raw, jazz energy of the lunch counter, the ironic dance rhythm accompanying the miles and miles of traffic, and the winding flute melody for the Greenbelt sequence.
Horowitz points out, as did Gil-Ordonez in a special screening at the New York Public Library, that Copland seemed “less inspired” by the film’s third act, as if the harmonic suburban convergence, while pleasing to World’s Fair audiences, misses the vitality of life in the city. The music repeats and repeats the main theme with little, if any, musical development, a sign of the bland world offered by Greenbelt.
Copland followed in the footsteps of Virgil Thomson’s music for PLOW and THE RIVER, notes Horowitz. Thomson composed “in sentences or paragraphs, where Copland is composing as a symphonist in chapters.” As such, THE CITY serves not only as an important historical chapter of the Greenbelt experiment, but also as the first page of Copland’s film career.
Fans of Copland’s film music will be happy to know that Naxos will be releasing premiere recordings of the complete scores for OF MICE AND MEN and OUR TOWN later this year. Talks are also underway about possibly recording THE HEIRESS in the near future as well. To borrow a quote from THE CITY’s title card: “The age of rebuilding is here.”