People who have never cared for documentary pictures, even when they were as impressive, eloquent, and meaningful as The Plow That Broke the Plains or The River, will have to revise their opinions when they see The City, that extraordinary documentary arguing for city planning. It will be shown several times daily at the little Theatre of the Science and Education Building at the World's Fair.
If there were nothing else worth seeing at the fair, this picture would justify the trip and all the exhaustion.
The City shows what One Third of a Nation could have been in the movies and was not. It contains more thrillingly genuine shots of life in New York City than all the feature pictures ever made, and this in merely one section out of the five. It is filled with tragedy, beauty, magnificence, ugliness, and sheer cinematic genius. It will be a revelation and an education to the public. For the benefit of Hollywood, one could hope it would be the same to the West Coast treadmill athletes.
One lesson should be emphasized: the enormous effectiveness of actors who don't act or, as in this picture, amateurs. This seems very hard to learn. It must be learned over and over again. The living theatre is constantly sending its stage-trained folk into motion pictures, a different medium, though many have trouble believing it. The City is a rich demonstration of things that can be accomplished on the screen with images and music and commentary. These unique effects cannot be even approximated in any other way.
The film is divided into five parts. A foreword begins, "Year by year our cities grow more complex and less fit for living. The age of rebuilding is here. We must remold our old cities and build new communities better suited to our needs. . ."
Thus the American Institute of Planners, who decided to make this propaganda film. It is a fair enough statement, one which could have led to a dull little treatise--but didn't.
PART 1: "In the Beginning"--New England.
Out of the life that was New England years ago, the camera picks out things like a boy on a wagon looking at the sky, a barrel of apples, a white spire of a church sticking up from a fold in the Connecticut hills, a town meeting with an old man speaking while his wife's hand plucks at his sleeve, a blacksmith's shop. The man walking beside the blacksmith has overalls which have been worn long, and hard. An old cemetery, the flat tombstones; and death is a ripe seed falling into the earth, ready for rebirth. This part is a New England idyll, beautiful and quiet, like something that Sarah Orne Jewett might have written, translated into screen imagery.
PART 2: The Industrial City--"City of Smoke."
The camera riots among the mighty stacks, turrets, girders, long and hard. An old cemetery, the flat tombstones; and death and belching smokes of a steel town. It angles up at the steel skeleton of giant basic industry. Those shots are infernally magnificent, like the valley of a thousand smokes, like the ground floor of a Hell where business is great. Then it turns to houses where workmen live. Identical rows of boxes dim in smoke, dirty children playing on railroad tracks, streets of mud, leaning shacks, outhouses everywhere, water coming from a hand-pump, men washing in bowls, not at faucets. The commentator remarks, "Smoke makes prosperity, they tell you here, even if you choke on it." He says, "'There's prisons where a guy for doing wrong can get a better place to live than we can give our children." These shots of a steel town are footnotes for a feature that cries to be made. They are beautiful and terrifying.
PART 3: The Metropolis--"Men into Steel."
Never has a camera been so cannily directed into catching the mood and appearance of the big city. The tempo is wonderfully repeated in mechanism (the tight pieces of toast which repeatedly hop up, and the automatic pancake turner), in the cutting of the film, and in the music. People cross streets, stop, start, stop, are caught between cars. Traffic congeals, fire sirens scream, and an amazingly comic, anonymous little man steps out from the curb, is motioned back by the cop, goes back to his curb. Satire sinks its teeth into our city life in what is a small masterpiece of camera observation. The commentator remarks. "Cities, where people count the seconds and lose the days . . . ."
PART 4: The Highway--"The Endless City."
The insanity of the Sunday highway jam is treated in a manner that makes you wonder why people do it. They're all here: the flat tire, packed car, crying children, the horn that won't stop blowing, the ugly highways, the automatic stops and goes, the small wreck and the big wreck. You can almost feel the heat and strain of it out on the shadeless, white cement strip of highway. It's funny, and it's crazy.
PART 5: "The Green City."
This is the happy ending. It is what the city planners want: homes with grass around them, trees a little way off, factories that look like the Modern Museum of Art, schools that look the same (glass bricks so the sun shines through), kids on bicycles, lakes, men playing baseball (wholesome, like Y.M.C.A. secretaries), throwing one of their number in the lake, flowerbeds, libraries, happy faces of children, clean kitchens with modern conveniences, women who play bridge while washing-machines complete the labors that used to break backs.
Like many happy endings, this section has the dreamy aspect of wishful thinking. But since it utilizes scenes of such realities as Radburn, N.J., where children cannot get run over by automobiles, and Greenbelt, Md., a model community, the dream is not too remote. That it is couched in terms of grass, earth, sky, books, and baseball, making a nature-lover and intellectual's paradise, doesn't rule out the many other desires. They might also have added the ways and means, what it would cost to set up everyone in a "Green City."
At any rate, the first four sections of The City, the parts which show a country and the city life it grew into, constitute one of the most brilliant jobs of filmmaking ever accomplished.
If all documentaries could be like this one, there would he no reason why they shouldn't run for two hours, instead of this forty-four minutes, and delight millions of people. A new horizon has come into clear sight.
The names of those who worked on the picture make its quality less surprising. Ralph H. Steiner (Plow That Broke . . . cameraman) and Willard Van Dyke (The River cameraman) directed and photographed the picture. Oscar Serlin underwent the headaches of supervising production. Henwar Rodakiewicz, who worked on The Wave, wrote this scenario. Lewis Mumford wrote the narrative and Morris Carnovsky spoke it. Pare Lorentz furnished the original outline. Aaron Copland did the musical score, his first for picture.
No one should do himself the injury of missing The City.