Search - The City: The Classic 1939 Documentary with a newly recorded soundtrack of the score by Aaron Copland on DVD

The City: The Classic 1939 Documentary with a newly recorded soundtrack of the score by Aaron Copland
The City The Classic 1939 Documentary with a newly recorded soundtrack of the score by Aaron Copland
Actor: Post-Classical Ensemble
Directors: Ralph Steiner, Willard van Dyke, Angel Gil-Ordonez, Joseph Horowitz
Genres: Music Video & Concerts, Educational, Documentary
NR     2009     2hr 11min

Made for the 1939 New York World's Fair, The City is a seminal documentary film distinguished for the organic integration of narration, cinematography (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke), and music(Aaron Copland). The sco...  more »


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Movie Details

Actor: Post-Classical Ensemble
Directors: Ralph Steiner, Willard van Dyke, Angel Gil-Ordonez, Joseph Horowitz
Creator: Aaron Copland
Genres: Music Video & Concerts, Educational, Documentary
Sub-Genres: DTS, Educational, History
Studio: Naxos DVD
Format: DVD - Full Screen
DVD Release Date: 01/27/2009
Original Release Date: 01/01/1939
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/1939
Release Year: 2009
Run Time: 2hr 11min
Screens: Full Screen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 0
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

A Fascinating Copland Score for a Depression Era Documentary
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 03/09/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This DVD rescues a virtually forgotten documentary from the Depression Era: 'The City', made for the 1939 New York World's Fair. The primary reason for releasing it, it would seem, is that it is Aaron Copland's first movie score which has languished virtually unplayed for these many years. That is largely because, unlike for some of his other movie scores, Copland never made a concert suite from the music. Credit goes, then, to Joseph Horowitz, the artistic director of D.C's Post-Classical Ensemble, for seeing that this release was made. The DVD includes two presentations of the documentary, one with the score newly recorded as played by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and another of the documentary with its original score, recorded in mono and conducted by Max Goberman.

The documentary was made by filmmakers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke with a narration written by Lewis Mumford, the distinguished city planner and read by the then-famous actor Morris Carnovsky. It has no dialogue and the narration is spare. The visual images are striking, although viewed from a distance of eighty years the treatment of the subject matter seems quaint and to partake of then-current idealistic notions about how society should be organized. The flow of the narrative forms an inverted arch, beginning with idealized pictures of village and farm life in New England, progressing to the increasing horrors of living in a mill town with its factories belching black smoke, and then to the overcrowding, inhuman pace and lack of space in the big city (New York, in this case), but ending with the idealized possibilities of the rehumanizing 'new town', or 'greenbelt town', which of course had been one of Lewis Mumford's own enthusiasms.

Copland's music, which is virtually continuous throughout the 43-minute film, features both his 'American' sound, as typified in such works as 'Appalachian Spring' and used in the idealized scenes, and his spare, astringent 'modern' sound as heard in the urban scenes. For me it is the urban music that is most engaging, but all of it is echt-Copland and very much worth hearing. The mono recording from the original documentary is very listenable, but the modern recording by Gil-Ordóñez and cohorts is sensational. One rather strange feature of the modern version of the documentary is that the narration, done nicely by actor Francis Guinan, follows Virgil Thomson's suggestion that 'when film music is mixed with the human voice, voices should be no louder than is required for the words to be understood.' For me, frankly, this is rather overdone because I did indeed have some trouble understanding the narration at times because of its low sound level. (I will add that since I'm a geezer it's possible that the problem is with my hearing, rather than the sound level itself.)

There are two other features on this DVD. One is a fifteen-minute set of interviews with people who lived in Greenbelt, Maryland (the 'new town' featured in the documentary) in the 1930s. One of them was actually in the film itself; he's the boy with bicycle with the flat tire. The second feature is a half-hour conversation with Joseph Horowitz interviewing fabled documentarian and film educator George Stoney. He talks about some of the artistic decisions made in the making of documentaries.

This DVD is probably not for everyone. Certainly it is intended for those who have an interest in that blossoming of documentary-making during the 1930s and 1940s. And it is definitely intended for those who adore the music of Aaron Copland. The DVD is brilliantly presented; obviously great care was taken with its presentation of both versions of the documentary and particularly for the modern recording of Copland's marvelous score.

Total running time: 131:44mins; NTSC: No Region Code; Aspect ration 4:3

Scott Morrison"
Can too much of a nice dream (come true) turn into a nightma
fCh | GMT-5, USA | 05/06/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This is a piece of late-depression American propaganda referencing the result of FDR's (one) take on urbanism. Greenbelt was a newly developed community in Maryland, whereby a public works program and some bright minds in architecture and urbanism were giving an enlightened answer to the blithe of the industrial habitat characterized by smoke and dark gray tones, lifeless if not for the hopeless children acting rather like animals in a zoo. I hold the "lifeless" back for Greenbelt was conceived also in contrast to the massified urbanity of places like New York City.

Greenbelt, MD, was intended to show the way to a new type of urbanism, children-, and eye-friendly, surrounded by nature and away from the means of industrial production. And what a way it showed! Indeed, I don't know how much of the urban sprawl can be attributed to this pre-war episode of planned urbanism (more debt going to 1947-51 Levittown NY), nonetheless it was a seed to a lot we've come to despise about our post-war suburbia.

The film itself is a gem: great mix of images, music, and story (revelatory of high goals and aspirations of earlier generations). If the story were absent, I posit, this could have been the American answer to two earlier masterpieces of the city-life genre, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man With A Movie Camera (Enhanced) 1929.

I find the extras of little value. The quality of the film is decent, yet it pales in comparison to anything Criterion would put out.

Go get it and you'll come to treasure this piece of near-contemporary American history. If nothing else, it can explain where we came from and where we may be headed."