Browsing this web site you accept techinical and statistical cookies. close [ more info ]

1 | Films on town planning from the archive</br>Frame from the film The City of Tomorrow, Berlin 1930

The City, U.S.A. 1939

Significant sequences and the main passages
from Lewis Mumford's commentary

Leonardo Ciacci

Made in New York and sponsored by the American Institute of Planners, "The City" was intended for screening at the 1939 New York World Fair. It seems that Lorentz, the author of the film's subject, moved from being film critic to producer and authentic pioneer of a type: the documentary with a socio-political background, not then common in the USA as it was in Europe. He went on to create a successful series of films dedicated to the propaganda of the New Deal, to which "The City" also belongs (cf. F. Dal Co, From Parks to the Region: Progressive Ideology and the Reform of the American City, in G. Ciucci et al., The American City: From the civil war to the New Deal, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1979, p.143-291). After The Plow That Broke the Plains, a 1936 documentary on the problems of agriculture, Lorentz received financing from the government to make The River, a film on life along the Mississippi, completed in 1937 and which was to receive the documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival. The success of its powerful images and its appreciation by President Roosevelt led to the opening of the US Film Agency, and the launch of many new projects focusing on themes such as unemployment (with the provisional title of Ecce Homo), electrification (provisionally titled Power and the Land) and soil protection (The Land) (cf. Erick Barnouw, Documentary. A history of non-fiction film, Oxford University Press, New York 1993).



The City, U.S.A. (1939)

Directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke
Original outline by Pare Lorentz
Script by Henward Rodakiewicz
Commentary by Lewis Mumford
Music by Aaron Copland
Promoted by the American Institute of Planners with a contribution of the Carnegie Corporation, New York
Produced by the American Documentary Film inc.
Technical information 35 mm, b&w, sound, time 44 min.
Archive: (USA) Museum of Moder Art, New York (Ital.) Carlo Montanaro, Venezia

Watch the film online | Complete version:
• The City



The subjects dealt with by The City prompted The American Institute of Planners to sponsor its production and commission Lewis Mumford, the author of The Culture of Cities published the previous year (cf. L. Mumford, The Culture of Cities, Hartford, Brace and Co., New York 1938), to provide the commentary. Mumford had previously been one of the founding members of the RPAA, the Regional Planning Association of America, set up in New York in 1923 to support study into alternatives to metropolitan cities and matters concerning the regionalisation of the country. It is therefore not surprising to find one of the covers (May 1925) of The Survey, the RPAA's magazine, portraying a happy family in the fields of a 'green town' in one section and, above, black smoke from chimneys hanging over the big city. This was a perfect summarising precursor of the message that was to be transformed into cinematographic sequences fourteen years later (cf. P. Hall Cities of Tomorrow, Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass., 1988, p. 149). Alongside Mumford in the RPAA were the architects Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and Frederick Lee Ackerman. Stein and Wright, the designers of Radburn, the green town that appears in several sequences of the film, had been experimenting with American applications of the garden city plan produced in England by Ebenezer Howard (cf. Clarence Stein, Towards New Towns for America, Cambridge, Mass., 1951) since the early 1920s. Mumford and Wright, with Albert Mayer, were also the authors of an urban renewal program in 1934 (cf. A. Mayer, H. Wright & L. Mumford, New Homes for a New Deal. A concrete program for slum clearance and housing relief, The New Republic, New York, 1934)


The City, a film dedicated to the big themes of the future of the modern city, contrasted two prospects for transformation that were radically different and for this reason offered up to the public for consideration. The composition of the film is structured on the weft of two parallel commentaries: the negative one emphasising the congestion of the industrial city, and the completely positive one of the government plan for 'green cities'. Indeed, a service town for a hydroelectric plant built by the Tennessee Valley Authority was at that time under construction. The film begins with the images of a 'remembered countryside', 'Sias Farm, 1791, Shirley Village', contrasted with the deterioration of city life and recognised as a tradition from which to recover the values needed to construct the America of the future. The age of rebuilding is here. We must remold our old cities and build new communities, better suited to our needs'.


In the life of the small rural community, 'The town was ours and we were part of it [and] we never let our cities grow too big for us to manage', asserts the commentary accompanying the opening frames. From blacksmith's forge to sparks from steel being poured from a blast furnace, the move is dramatic. In the city the smoke from factories merges with that of the railway in a crescendo urged on by the music: 'Machines to make machines. Production to expand production. Millions, millions, faster and faster'. Squalid working class suburbs look like a grey, sick desert: 'Don't tell us that this is the best you can do in building cities'. Unsmiling children play amongst the filth. In the center, in the city of skyscrapers, crowds of commuters move following the laws of money: 'the people, yes. The people, perhaps'. Recurring scenes of accidents, traffic jams and sirens describe daily life. A life beset by prohibitions that can't be escaped, even when, during the weekend, a desperate race to the country inevitably reproduces the same problems as those of working days.


It is at this point that the second part of the film begins, against the metaphorical fall of a car down a precipice. The new images offer an alternative to both the city of chaos and the 'remembered countryside', promoting the new solid reality of the 'green towns'. The hydroelectric dam built by the Tennessee Valley Authority gives an indication of the power of the new project. A shiny steel plane takes the observation point up to show the layout of the new city. The images are those of Redburn, New Jersey, planned in 1928. The narration accompanying the already eloquent images announces that 'Green cities take form. The new city is organised to make co-operation possible between machines and man and nature. Each has its place. The sun and air and open green are part of the design. Safe streets in quiet neiboroughs are not just matter of luck'. Even the distance from the city doesn't seem to be a problem. Fast highways make for easy connections. 'A million people spread in a dozen or two of open cities are free to move about much faster than if they journey together in an overcrowded center'. In the new cities built in the countryside, the distances are so short that it is possible to go home for lunch. The houses, services and community equipment are combined in a single environment. 'Bringing the city into the country. Bringing the parks and gardens into the city'. On the screen, children can be seen playing freely in the green spaces between the houses, and riding bicycles along special lanes, protected from the traffic. This time the images are those of Greenbelt, a new city just completed in Maryland. The town planning criteria shown in these sequences is definitive: a calculated distance from the city, a maximum, pre-established size for the town, 'green' protection as the external limit and separation of the traffic lanes. Principles justified by the commentary in this way: 'With smaller cities, planned for living, we live in a bigger world'.


The film then goes back to a comparison between the sick city and the new cities in the countryside through the drawings of primary school children. The images alternate while the commentary presses each spectator to decide: 'You take your choice. Each one [of these situations] is real, each one is possible.' The appeal is aimed at adults, while the screen shows images of confidant, smiling children, with their eye on the future. These are evidently the children of those who have already chosen to live in the newly conceived towns.


Lewis Mumford made this comment on the project shown in the film: 'Strangely, the most enduring of Roosevelt's early constructive efforts was the very first on his agenda, his creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. This was a foresighted effort to utilize the potential national resources of a great river basin, capable of generating electric power sufficient to pass beyond state lines and make use of underutilized human and natural potentialities. Though it took years to carry out this project and work out experimentally this details for distributing both power and social advantages, it for long remained the most creative American image of democratic social reconstruction' (cf. Lewis Mumford, Sketches from Life. The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford. The Early Years, 1982, p. 479).


The comparison made by the film with the political propaganda circulated by the governs of countries like Germany, the USSR and Italy in European cinemas is obvious. As is the reference to Die Stadt von morgen, a social democratic German film of 1930 dedicated to the popular 'explanation' of the town planning project for the 'city of tomorrow'. In 1938 Mumford had defined the new 'regional city' (the film's protagonist), as an example '... not merely for a more efficient industrial order, but for a new social order and a new type of urban environment' (cf. Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, cit. p. 324). A few years later, after the War, the Italian edition of the same text was more explicit: 'Even before the Second World War the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) proved that imagination and audacity are not just the prerogative of a dictatorship. They are also possible in a democracy that has its eyes open' (cf. Lewis Mumford, La cultura delle città, Einaudi, Turin 1954m p. 329).