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

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

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 score, arguably Copland's highest achievement in film, was also his ticket to Hollywood; it has been called "an astonishing missing link not only in the genesis of Copland's Americana style but in American music and cinema." (Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times). As the film contains no dialogue, it is possible to create a fresh soundtrack and discover musical riches inaudible on the original monaural recording. As Copland created no suite from The City, this DVD at the same time marks the WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING of this music in its entirety.

The City with the original 1939 soundtrack featuring narrator Morris Carnovsky.
A documentary film from the Greenbelt Museum.
A conversation with Joseph Horowitz, the legendary film maker.


Commissioned by the American Institute of Planners to be shown in daily rotation at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair ("The World of Tomorrow"), The City is called a documentary. But it's more of a cinemagraphic--and musical-- meditation on the de-humanizing evils of modern urban life and, in the second half filmed at model community of Greenbelt, Maryland, on the remedy for those evils. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke directed and supplied the striking cinematography, while the narration was written by urban historian, critic, and city planner Lewis Mumford. All of this is bound together by a mature Copland score in the composer's best populist, "Americana" style of the 1930s and 40s. The blurb on the back of the box claims this is Copland's "highest achievement in film". I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far, though I'll agree it's a substantial score that's well worth hearing and well served by this ensemble.

The film's premise is pretty simple. The City of the present (i.e., 1939) is dirty, oppressive, chaotic, corrupting, and de-humanizing, while the country is a wholesome, idyllic, democratic place where life is lived on a human scale and the Common Man can be comfortable and contented. In the City, we see dirty tenements, smokestacks belching black smoke, and dirty, sad-faced children. In the Country, we see kids playing in a swimming hole, sturdy country artisans plying their rural trades from horse-drawn wagons, and men cutting wheat with hand scythes. City work is back-breaking or tedious, and always depressing; Country work is so wholesome and rewarding it's not like work at all! In other words, the basic premise is largely built on a city slicker's view of the country. But before we snicker at the naivete, let's consider that if cities seem less oppressive and more livable now, maybe it's due, at least in some part, to the urban planning ideas depicted in The City.

The main interest for most ARG readers is probably going to be the new recording of Copland's complete score for the film by Gil- Ordonez and his committed band of players. Rarely has music been more closely interwoven with cinematography, even in straight dramas, let alone a documentary. Excerpts from the score have been recorded, but they're less interesting and evocative when separated from the visual element. So praise to executive producer Joseph Horowitz and Naxos for giving us the opportunity to experience the score in its intended setting--and in modern sound (Dolby and DTS Surround).

The film opens ominously enough with an epigraph by Mumford: "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." A bit chilling but not surprising given that the piece was commissioned by folks whose business was to plan and build new cities. In contrast to the lushly orchestrated scores of contemporary Hollywood film, Copland's music is spare, forthright, and uncluttered, but also melodic. The opening music is very reminiscent of the Fanfare for the Common Man.

One problem with the film as a whole reflected in Copland's music is that the first half, depicting the bustle and chaos of the city, is more engaging than the idyllic vision of the second half, for which Copland writes suitably wholesome, uplifting, but somewhat bland music. More engaging are the sections depicting the 1930s equivalent of fast food, gridlocked city traffic, the fire and fury of blast furnaces, and the "smoke that brings prosperity". There's a bit of anti-capitalist, socialist propaganda, accompanied by suitably mocking music, but then the piece is a product of the New Deal.

As elder documentary maker George Stoney points out in the accompanying material, this is one of the very few documentaries that makes effective use of humor in the music as much as in clever editing. It captures the unintentional humor of people going about their daily business, and the music helps the humor balance out the weighty, somewhat apocalyptic message. Copland's contribution goes a long way toward keeping that message from becoming preachy.

Copland consciously used his work for The City as a springboard to Hollywood film work--and what an excellent calling card it was. It led directly to the full-length Hollywood movie scores for Of Mice and Men, Our Town, The Red Pony, and The Heiress. Naxos also claims this is the "world premiere recording of the complete score", which isn't exactly accurate since the score premiered as part of the original film!

The print of the film used for the DVD (4:3 aspect ratio) is fairly crisp, if not up to the best restorations of material from the same period, with the narration newly recorded by Francis Guinan. Freed from its original constricted low-fi monophonic soundtrack, Copland's score can finally make an effect that the original audience could only imagine. How do I know that? Because the DVD also contains the complete documentary with Morris Carnovsky's original narration and the original studio orchestra soundtrack conducted by Max Goberman. Nice for comparison. In the new soundtrack, Guinan narrates well enough, but I prefer Carnovsky's hard-boiled, slightly brash period delivery.

But wait! As a much-parodied TV commercial used to go, there's more! The disc is filled out with another 45 minutes of documentary material. There's a 30-minute interview of documentary maker and film-cinema professor George Stoney conducted by Mr Horowitz, with perceptive comments about The City and the film's broader historical significance. Still not enough? The last "bonus" is a 15-minute documentary from the Greenbelt Museum with interviews of folks who grew up there in the 1930s and 40s. Interesting to watch once or twice.

Despite the exemplary production values, only 45 minutes of real meat is rather short measure for a DVD. Copland compleatists will want this for sure. Others may want to put it in their Netflix queue and watch before they decide to buy. -- American Record Guide, Lawrence Hansen, May/June 200

"an astonishing missing link not only in the genesis of Copland's Americana style bun in American music and cinema" -- The Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed

Copland never composed anything finer for film than the music he provided for this documentary, a period curiosity made for the 1939 New York World's Fair. The didactic script by city planner Lewis Mumford draws a simplistic contrast between life in America's crowded urban jungles and the idyllic life afforded by planned suburban communities.

The film's true worth lies in its seamless integration of music, cinematography and narration, newly recorded by Chicago actor Francis Guinan. Copland's score, reflecting both his homespun manner and a harder-edged proto-minimalism, is recorded for the first time in its entirety by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordonez.

This refurbished artifact from an earlier recession era amounts to a valuable and splendidly produced release. -- Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein, February 19, 2009

Two years ago, as if presciently planned, the Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble took a fresh look at a 1939 documentary called The City that boasts a vivid score by Aaron Copland. The film, made by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and scripted by urban planner Lewis Mumford, examines the most unattractive aspects of modern metropolitan life and promotes an environmentally friendly, government-spearheaded alternative.

This Great Depression-era product has now re-emerged on DVD by Naxos, with Post-Classical's freshly recorded soundtrack, just as the country is in the grip of the Great Recession and the air is full of talk about government projects, large-scale and green. Seems like great timing to me.

Movie and history buffs will want to check out The City, which looks and sounds great on the DVD - and is sure to make a strong impression when shown at the Charles Theatre this weekend, part of the Cinema Sundays series there. And music buffs will not want to miss the chance to hear what Post-Classical's artistic director, Joseph Horowitz, asserts is "arguably Copland's highest achievement as a film score."

That score, here conducted by the ensemble's music director, Angel Gil-Ordonez, with his usual care and expressiveness, comes through as vibrantly as the camerawork. This is particularly true in the brilliant urban scenes. It sounds as if Copland had more fun composing music for those city shots; that's where the music really jumps out at you. -- Baltimore Sun, Tim Smith, January 22, 2009

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Post-Classical Ensemble
  • Directors: Ralph Steiner, Willard van Dyke, Angel Gil-Ordonez, Joseph Horowitz
  • Format: Multiple Formats, NTSC, Full Screen, DTS Surround Sound
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Naxos DVD
  • DVD Release Date: January 27, 2009
  • Run Time: 131 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,448 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "The City: The Classic 1939 Documentary with a newly recorded soundtrack of the score by Aaron Copland" on IMDb

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
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.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By fCh on May 5, 2009
Format: DVD
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By walter pitts on December 9, 2012
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful piece of American film history which stands the test of time. Aaron Copland's music written for the documentary film is simply as good as it ever gets. The story line of the documentary takes the life of a city and tells it in an interesting set of visually telling scenes full of vintage and 20th Century Modern images. The footage is true Americana. The music written in segments for each section of the 43:40 minute film is diverse and surprising. It shows many sides of Copland of compositional style and a few which are very surprising. It's obvious that much of the music and images in Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass was inspired by this documentary. The music to the coffee shop theme is a forerunner of the incessant movement of Glass' and Adam's music. The first time I heard it -- I had an "Aha Moment" -- So that's where they got the idea. The Naxos DVD production seems to be flawless.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Robert P. Armintor on November 20, 2012
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
"Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it." This 1939 non-narrated film classic "The City" gives persons of the 21st century a history lesson in what 20th century American urban life was really like, and what it could become. Produced for the New York World's Fair General Motors pavillion "The World of Tomorrow," this film gave one hope, at that time, for the future as the Great Depression was ending. Scripted by city planner/author Lewis Mumford with music by composer Aaron Copland, this film is a must own for US history buffs. It provides each viewer a yard stick to measure how far we have come (or not) in urban planning and living.

Additional features include interviews with persons involved in the original 1939 production.
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The City: The Classic 1939 Documentary with a newly recorded soundtrack of the score by Aaron Copland
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