For his encyclopedic book Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies (1998), Arnie Bernstein tracked down almost 700 films made in Chicago. His new book is an excavation of another sort: in the archives at the Chicago Historical Society, the Harold Washington Library Center, the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Carl Sandburg Historic Site in Galesburg, Bernstein sifted through some 3,000 movie reviews and related essays penned by Illinois poet Carl Sandburg for the Chicago Daily News in the 1920s.
Born in Galesburg, Sandburg moved to Chicago in 1913 and four years later hired on at the Daily News, where he wrote features and editorials and covered the infamous 1919 race riots. In 1920 he began to write film reviews–still an emerging form–and by 1928 he’d stopped. He was earning enough income from his popular biography of Abraham Lincoln to devote all his time to literature.
“Sandburg was the first daily critic, at least in Chicago, who took the movies dead seriously,” says Bernstein. “In his reviews there’s a sense of wonder–and a demand that the audience not be insulted.” Already a highly regarded poet, Sandburg brought to his criticism the same cadenced, down-to-earth language, and he taunted aesthetes with his conviction that film could be not only popular culture but high art. “The cold, real, upstanding fact holds–the movies are,” he declared in December 1926. As early as 1922 he was raising alarms about film preservation, writing, “How can photoplays of today be preserved for future generations? Will school pupils in 6922, or even 1000 years from now, be able to study early examples of the cinema art as pupils of 1922 study Virgil and Homer?”
Lovers of Sandburg’s poems will find in his movie reviews the same eye for the human physique. “One might almost go back and see Manhandled a second time,” he wrote of the 1924 comedy, “because of the knack and skill, the refined grace with which Gloria Swanson removes her shoes.” In 1921 he interviewed Charlie Chaplin as the international star was preparing for his bath: “The naked, sinewy, frank, unaffected Charlie Chaplin paused for a short interchange of thought.” Chaplin, he wrote, was “clean physically and has a body that he can make obedient to many kinds of service.” In a laudatory review of Josef von Sternberg’s gangster saga Underworld (1927), Sandburg praised George Bancroft’s Capone-like gang boss as “a magnificent animal, many animals all in one, leonine, tigerish, rogue-elephantine, but animals with the sublime gift of being able to grin.”
Bernstein detects in Sandburg’s criticism a hint of auteurism at a time when many reviewers sounded like starstruck fans. “In all pictures the big main star is the director,” Sandburg notes in 1924. In his equivocal review of Sherlock, Jr. that same year, Sandburg reports that Buster Keaton and company toss in “odd scraps of experimentation,” though they had “no idea what the public wanted; they put these spots in just to be artists.” His rave of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) describes the German expressionist masterpiece as a “creepy, dank, dismal, amazing, terrible and wonderful motion picture,” adding, “Here is one Shakespeare would enjoy coming back to have a look at.” In the present age of regular-guy reviews and invented blurbs, Sandburg’s criticism deserves its own second look.
Bernstein will autograph copies of “The Movies Are”: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928 (published by Chicago’s Lake Claremont Press) after tonight’s 7:30 performance of Wishes, Suspicions and Secret Ambitions: The Stories of Carl Sandburg at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted. For information call 312-335-1650.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Edward Steichen-Bettman/Corbis.