The 1939 documentary ‘The City’ calls for return to nature

The iconic short documentary ‘The City’ takes a critical look at the industrialized city.

It opens with an idyllic look at the rural life — with bushels of apples, fields of wheat, and smiling children, the rural life is nothing short of Eden.

The biblical narrative continues with molten steel and black smoke billowing; here is the mind-numbing hustle and bustle of disease and automation, where we have truly fallen from paradise.

“Machines! Invention! Power! Blackout the past!” says the narrator, “smoke makes prosperity… no matter if you choke on it.”

Above all else, the city is no place to raise a family.

The documentary ends with a utopian look at a world where man, city, and nature live in perfect balance. Belts of green encircle the city, never allowed to grow “too big to manage.” At the center of this suburban dream are schools where streams of happy children ride to homeroom on bicycles via paved paths that wind through tall pines. Markets are an extension of the kitchen, and fresh food is shipped in from local farms.

Perhaps that the message which opens the documentary holds the most insight for our present city builders: “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.” It is a statement packed with hope and belief that humanity can (and will!) do better.

The City was produced by American Documentary Films Inc. It was directed and photographed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke. Music by the great American composer Aaron Copland.

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