- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

Better known as a recording company that takes a special interest in American classical compositions, Naxos has recently expanded into movie restoration, reviving semi-legendary documentary films whose musical scores have proven more durable than their pictorial aspects and thematic pretensions.

The first example was a Pare Lorentz set: his Depression period pieces about water and land reclamation, “The River” and “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” both scored by Virgil Thomson.

A recent follow-up, which has arrived as a 70th-anniversary item, restores the urban planning polemic “The City,” originally shown at the U.S. pavilion during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. This project prompted Aaron Copland’s first film score, and two of its movements were later incorporated into his suite “Music for Movies.”

Both the Thomson and Copland scores were newly recorded for the Naxos editions, utilizing the Post-Classical Ensemble, organized eight years ago in the Washington area by conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez and artistic director Joseph Horowitz. A supplementary feature of the “City” DVD is a half-hour conversation between Mr. Horowitz and the esteemed documentary filmmaker George C. Stoney, now 93 and a faculty member at New York University.

They discuss “The City” and how it has aged — severely in the case of its defective line of argumentation, supplied by Lewis Mumford’s commentary, which envisions a planned community of the New Deal era, the original Greenbelt, Md., as the idyllic answer to the ills of factory towns and congested metropolitan habitats. The most conspicuous habitat: a bustling New York City, destined to play host to the earliest public showings of “The City.”

Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Stoney let their subject down gently, with the former deferring to the latter on points of documentary methodology and the latter deferring to the former on points of musical stylization. Despite the circumspect approach, it’s difficult to get around the fact that “The City,” even when melodically enhanced by Aaron Copland, labors under the burden of an outmoded agenda.

Moreover, Mr. Stoney’s presence calls attention to the fact that his most famous documentary, the beautifully titled and durably heartening “All My Babies,” circa 1952, is also available in a recent DVD edition, augmented by an authoritative commentary from the filmmaker. Both “The City” and “All My Babies” have been named historically significant movies by the Library of Congress.

At the outset, they were sponsored, institutional projects — “The City” by the Carnegie Foundation and the American Planning Association and “Babies” by the Georgia State Department of Health. One might also acknowledge similar humanitarian motives, but the lasting advantage belongs to Mr. Stoney, who discovered an exceptional embodiment of his subject, small-town Georgia midwife Mary Frances Hill Coley (1900-66), whose singular authenticity and radiance provide the camera with an irresistible life force.

A white Southerner, Mr. Stoney recalls how he initially resisted Mrs. Coley, or “Miss Mary” as she was familiarly known to clients, friends and family. He felt her too much of an “Aunt Jemima” stereotype to be desirable for a reform-minded project designed to set a good example. Luckily for him and movie posterity, no alternative emerged to rival Mrs. Coley as a plausible role model.

Intended for only a regional and specialized audience, the movie radiated impressively throughout the medical profession, attracted the attention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and became a down-to-earth favorite with film societies in the 1950s and 1960s. Among other things, it probably provided a generation of college students with their first unflinching look at a human childbirth, as Mrs. Coley attends a client called Ida.

In retrospect it seems right and just that the modesty of the aims advanced in “All My Babies” should have proved far more sensible and enlightening than the overblown social engineering that animated “The City,” which now suffers both cinematically and philosophically from exaggeration and wishful thinking. I have faith in these kind of reckonings. Here’s one to bank on: As time goes by, only diehard fanatics will prefer a polemical documentary as bombastic as “Fahrenheit 911” to a human-interest documentary as stirring as “The Story of the Weeping Camel.”

TITLE: “The City”

MPAA RATING: Unrated (released in 1939 and exhibited at the New York World’s Fair, decades before the advent of the film rating system)

CREDITS: Commentary by Lewis Mumford. Photography by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke. Music by Aaron Copland. Newly recorded score conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez with the Post-Classical Ensemble.

RUNNING TIME: 44 minutes, plus supplementary material


WEB SITE: www.naxos.com


TITLE: “All My Babies”

MPAA RATING: Unrated (originally shown as a training film for rural midwives in 1952 and 1953; sustained and graphic footage of a childbirth)

CREDITS: Written, directed and produced by George C. Stoney, on a commission from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Photographed by Peaslee Bond and Robert Galbraith. Editing by Sylvia K. Cummins. Music by Louis Applebaum, with gospel songs performed by the Musical Arts Chorus.

RUNNING TIME: 54 minutes, plus supplementary material that includes a commentary track with Mr. Stoney

DVD EDITION: Image Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.image-entertainment.com

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