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Grandpa Called It Art (1944)

Americans as a collective were known as being artistically challenged. During Grandpa's time, art in America was looked at a bit differently than it is today. Typical of the American ideal ... See full summary »


Walter Hart


John Nesbitt


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Cast overview:
John Nesbitt ... Narrator (voice)


Americans as a collective were known as being artistically challenged. During Grandpa's time, art in America was looked at a bit differently than it is today. Typical of the American ideal of art of the time, Grandpa filled his parlor with as many knick-knacks as he could fit in the room. Grandpa wanted things that had some flair to them, and if it was imported, it must be art worthy. But if he could make the art functional, so much the better. Thirty years since Grandpa has passed on, Americans view art a little differently. Simplicity, cleanliness and honesty typify what is considered art. The changes are a result of education available for all, and a more balanced life between work and leisure, which allows the population to appreciate beauty around them that they may not have previously noticed. Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh are among the new generation of American artists who are bringing art to the common man and who are featured in this movie. Written by Huggo

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Plot Keywords:

art | taste | education | parlor | artist | See All (42) »







Release Date:

15 July 1944 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Passing Parade #48: Grandpa Called It Art See more »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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User Reviews

An important film for American Art
3 July 2017 | by mpohlad-58890See all my reviews

This is a fascinating document of American history. It includes rare film of several important artists, many shown actually making artworks. It also reflects nationalistic aspirations for art and design in the mid-twentieth century.

At the beginning, still photographs of an American field, a small-town church, and the NYC skyline turn into realistic drawings. (It is not known who drew these, perhaps a studio artist). But the message is clear: America will be both the subject and the production site for a new, more modern, more middle-class art. Next is a humorous treatment of Victorian art and taste ("Grandpa's" generation). It mocks the portraits, architecture (a still shot of an 1870s house is referred to as a "gingerbread love nest"), interiors, and bric-a-brac of that earlier era. Americans, we are told, used to believe that "nothing really had culture unless it was imported." A reproduction of the Venus de Milo with a clock inserted into its stomach illustrates the vulgar taste of that era. The new ideals for art and decorating, the film claims, are "simplicity, cleanliness, honesty." This is exemplified by modern dinnerware, tabletop sculpture, and interiors all made in a sleek, art moderne style. "Are we Americans really a bunch of artistic morons?," the narrator posits, "Not any longer!"

The footage of artists seen here was taken from an earlier film, "Art Discovers America: An American Commentary" (Regency Pictures, 1943; R. T. Furman, writer and producer). It was bought by Loew's, reorganized, and rewritten by Nesbitt as "Grandpa Called it Art," for his popular "The Passing Parade."

Now the film changes tone to something more earnest. We see, in order of appearance, artists Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Abraham Walkowitz (1878- 1965), John Sloan (1871-1951), Ivan (1897-1983) and his twin brother Malvin Albright (1897-1913), and Raphael Soyer (1899-1987). Even though their scenes are staged, it's nevertheless invaluable to see these artists actually painting, drawing, and making marks. Benton receives the most attention. The film goes out of its way to present him as a rural laborer. He "still likes to hike across the hot plains of the middle west, looking like a working man," Nesbitt informs us, "which is just what he is." Benton is seen walking along a country road, and speaking with a farmer near a horse. He plops down, pipe in mouth, and makes an impromptu sketch. This image of the artist going back to the land--certainly not to Europe--and back to its people as subject and inspiration is what the Regionalists (including Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and others) projected about themselves. More important for art history, Benton is shown here painting a tiny plaster diorama of a scene from which he makes a finished painting––a rare glimpse into his actual working method.

Marsh is seen next. Originally an illustrator, his art was devoted to people on the street, and almost always included leggy young women (which is what he draws here). Marsh was known to have used binoculars from his Union Square, NY, studio to observe passersby below. It's startling to see this staged here in what may be his actual studio. The distinguished looking Abraham Walkowitz--we are told he modeled for other artist—is shown drawing a skyscraper picture in a semi-abstract style. Walkowitz was an important early twentieth-century modernist associated with Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery 291. It appears that, for this film, he has made this drawing from start to finish. John Sloan's appearance here is startling, as he was a leading painter of the Ashcan School of American Realists around 1900-15. Renowned for painting images of New York and the experience of the city, he had a long career as an illustrator and teacher. The Albright brothers—they were identical twins who died in the same year--are shown painting from a monstrous dummy. It's a model for the painting on the easel which was shown as a startling color insert in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945). Some theorize that the decrepit figure in the picture (now at the Art Institute of Chicago) was based on the brothers' artist- father. Finally, we see Raphael Soyer, a painter of solitary urban subjects, at the easel smoking furiously.

Not surprisingly, the artists depicted here are all white males––note that there are no women or artists of color among them, though Walkowitz and Soyer were immigrant Russian Jews––nor are there any people of color in the film overall. In terms of audience, however, the film claims that art is more popular and accessible now than ever. In this period, American artists, we are told, "took art out of the museum and brought it to the average man." And it's because of the successes of American labor and the economy that art is now part of middle-class lives. An actor dressed as a workingman embodies how "decent working hours and a high standard of living… gave the average man time to get his mind off the job; time to look at the sky." Artists, too, are now relevant to the war: "Few industries in the country today can even exist without the help of men that we once called crack-pot artists." The Albrights painting the Dorian Gray portrait--it is unfinished on its easel—corroborate this kind of useful production, at least in Hollywood. In a final scene, children are seen looking over the shoulder of an artist who is painting in a field.

The message is that art is finally American, popular, and interested in reflecting national subjects and values. Made during WWII, the film remains an important––though heavy-handed and overproduced––reflection of the era and its aspirations for art. It offers a populist and comforting vision of this country's shared aesthetic during a terrifying global conflict. "Art Discovers America," the slightly earlier Regency Pictures film on which "Grandpa Called it Art" is based, can be seen on YouTube and at the Archives of American Art.

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