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Sandburg at the Movies

There are two excellent books about Carl Sandburg's days reviewing movies:

Fetherling, Dale and Doug Fetherling, editors. Carl Sandburg at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era: 1920 to 1927. Scarecrow, 1985. 207 pp. [Order from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk]

Bernstein, Arnie, editor. "The Movies Are": Carl Sandburg's Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928. With an introduction by Roger Ebert. Lake Claremont Press, 2000. 397 pp. [Order from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk]

Review of "The Movies Are"

"The Movies Are": Carl Sandburg's Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928.
Bernstein, Arnie, ed.
with an introduction by Roger Ebert
Lake Claremont Press, 2000 (397 p.)
ISBN: 1-893121-05-4 (softcover with 71 photos, bibliography, and index)

Carl Sandburg is best known as a poet and biographer of Abraham Lincoln. What is less known about Sandburg is that he was also a folklorist who gathered songs from across America, an entertainer who toured on the Lyceum circuit giving lectures and reciting poems, a social activist who helped organize political parties in Wisconsin, a children's author whose Rootabaga Stories were some of the earliest successes in this now burgeoning market, and a newspaper journalist whose coverage of the Chicago Race Riots of July 1919 remains one of the great critical studies of America's racial conflicts. In addition to all this, Carl Sandburg was also a film critic.

Sandburg reviewed films when the industry was in its infancy, still bound by the silence of early technology. He wrote for the Chicago Daily News and was allowed to schedule his work-load so he viewed motion pictures mostly on Sundays and Mondays. This allowed him to write the six reviews required each week on Monday night and Tuesday. Sandburg would spend the rest of the week writing his poetry, children's stories, and his various Lincoln projects, and traveling on the lecture circuit. Between 1920 and 1928, Sandburg wrote over 2,000 pieces on the motion picture industry, of which Bernstein has selected a fine representative sample.

The time spent in the motion picture halls allowed Sandburg to escape into the films and into the works he was creating within the darkness of the theater. Sandburg wrote his reviews about the unique educational qualities of film, the "silent teacher," and the importance of imagination and reality within a motion picture's production (Fetherling, 19). Sandburg believed film was able to educate so effectively, because it "doesn't need any translation. It can be understood by everybody" (Fetherling, 82). The creativeness of the motion pictures helped inspire Sandburg's development of his children's stories; "his fertile imagination, engrossed in the children's stories, was simultaneously energized by the potent new stimulus of the motion picture" (Niven, 365).

Bernstein's historical commentary about Sandburg's film writing is a welcomed addition to Sandburg scholarship. Bernstein does a nice job relating Sandburg's early film reviews to his later involvement in the film industry, particularly with George Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told. As an editor, Bernstein is intimately aware of the depth and intricacy of Sandburg's film writing in an way reserved for someone who has ardently and obsessively pursued his subject. Roger Ebert's introduction adds a personal twist to his understanding of Carl Sandburg and offers an initial credibility to a collection that eventually builds its own integrity through its own intelligent and pleasantly presented content.

"The Movies Are" is highly recommended for anyone interested in Carl Sandburg the man, the poet, the biographer, the author. In Sandburg's film reviews rests the heart of his other creative writing.

Books Cited in This Review

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. Macmillan, 1991. 608 pp.

Fetherling, Dale and Doug Fetherling, editors. Carl Sandburg at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era: 1920 to 1927. Scarecrow, 1985. 207 pp.

Ryan Roberts, February 2001


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