PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA (Peter Miller, 2015) & THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A JEEP (Irving Lerner, 1943)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. between Eighth Ave. & Broadway
Wednesday, January 13, 1:30 & 6:00
Festival runs January 13-26
The twenty-fifth annual New York Jewish Film Festival gets under way January 13 with a look at a little-known part of the U.S. propaganda effort during WWII. In Projections of America, director Peter Miller details how the U.S. Office of War Information used specially made short documentary films to show the rest of the world the positive aspects of the American way of life, particularly as U.S. soldiers helped liberate many cities and countries in Eastern and Western Europe. “The films were idealized versions of what America could be, created by politically engaged filmmakers who, while fighting tyranny abroad, wanted also to fundamentally change America itself,” narrator John Lithgow explains. At the center of it all was Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin, who had written eight Frank Capra films, including It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe. Riskin, fellow scribe and chief of production Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, and FDR speech writer Robert E. Sherwood (The Petrified Forest, Abe Lincoln in Illinois) enlisted such directors and producers as John Houseman and Josef von Sternberg and such stars as Ingrid Bergman in making such short propaganda films as Swedes in America, Cowboys, Steel Town, The Valley of the Tennessee, and Watchtower over America, which people flocked to in Europe, North Africa, and even Germany. “It all came together as the greatest collection of filmmakers working toward one common goal that we will ever see,” notes film historian Cecile Starr.
Miller also interviews historians Ian Scott, Marja Roholl, and Stéphane Lamache, film critic Kenneth Turan, screenwriter David Rintels, and assistant film editor Aram Boyajian in addition to Normandy residents Michel Ollivier and Margit Cohn Siebner, Cummington resident Bill Streeter, French Resistance fighter Paul Le Goupil, Berlin resident Klaus Riemer, and German projectionist Heinz Meder. “We wanted to know: How did the Americans live?” Riemer remembers. In addition, Miller speaks with Riskin’s daughters Victoria and Susan and son Robert Jr., who talk about their father and mother, King Kong actress Fay Wray, with cherished memories. Projections of America is not only about the power of the movies but is also very much a love story between Riskin, a Jewish American from the Lower East Side, and the Canadian-born Wray, who appeared in some one hundred Hollywood films.
Projections of America features telling clips from many of these thought-to-be-lost shorts, including Arturo Toscanini, which was made to combat the evils of Fascism with footage of the great Italian conductor working in the West; The Cummington Story, about a small town that suddenly gets an influx of war refugees; and The Autobiography of a “Jeep,” which is being shown at the Jewish Film Festival along with Projections of America. The extremely popular nine-minute short anthropomorphizes the military vehicle, which got its name because of its “general purpose,” through first-person narration that equates it with the American soldier, except that it is 60-horsepower strong, 2200 pounds, 11 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 3 feet high. Among those photographed riding in a Jeep are Franklin D. Roosevelt, Laurel and Hardy, King George VI, Douglas MacArthur, and the Queen Mother as it hypes the future of the United States. Together, Projections of America and The Autobiography of a “Jeep” shed light on a fascinating aspect of what the country believed itself to be and what its hopes and dreams were for the future. The two films are screening on January 13 at 1:30 and 6:00 at the Walter Reade Theater and will be followed by Q&As with Miller; the festival, a joint project of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, celebrates its silver anniversary with a slate of old and new gems, continuing through January 26 with such other films as Yared Zeleke’s Lamb, Amos Gitai’s Rabin, the Last Day, Andrzej Wajda’s Holy Week, Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, and Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse as well as panel discussions and a master class with Alan Berliner.