Portrait of an artist so American

PBS: The `American Masters' series takes a look at Norman Rockwell, one of the most influential image shapers in U.S. history.

November 24, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

What a nice piece of scheduling by PBS -- an "American Masters" portrait of Norman Rockwell on Thanksgiving eve.

Is there a more representative image of the idealized Thanksgiving than the one found in Rockwell's "Freedom from Want"? You know the painting: It shows several generations gathered around a long, food-laden dinner table while Mom places a platter with a perfectly browned turkey before them and Dad looks on approvingly.

"Norman Rockwell: Painting America" attempts to take us behind such images and inside the man who created them. It is only partially successful on either count, but there is still a lot to like in the 90-minute documentary by Elena Mannes. If you want a film that will help you understand not only one of the most important image-makers of the century, but also how some of our expectations of holidays and family life have been shaped, "Painting America" is time pleasantly and well spent with the tube.

While some might not be familiar with the man, who was born in 1894 and died in 1978, it is hard to imagine anyone who has not seen his work. Still in art school at the Art Students League in New York City, he sold his first illustration to Boys Life magazine when he was only 16. By the time he was 19, he was art director for the magazine. Three years later, in 1916, he created the first of his 360 covers for the Saturday Evening Post. His magazine work would also appear over the course of his career in McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal, Life and Look.

In the early 1940s, his famous "Four Freedoms" illustrations -- which includes the Thanksgiving dinner scene -- were used by the government to sell Savings Bonds. By the 1950s, he was the darling of Madison Avenue, with his images used to sell everything from corn flakes to tires, toothpaste to airlines. The freckle-faced kid holding up the report card and saying, "Look, Ma, no cavities," for Crest toothpaste is by Rockwell.

The film makes some important cultural connections in analyzing Rockwell's imagery and its impact, especially during the 1940s and '50s. One of the smartest moves in this regard involves its use of filmmaker Steven Spielberg as a talking head who is seen and heard a lot.

Spielberg lovingly describes Rockwell's "Freedom from Fear" illustration, showing a pair of young parents tucking their two children into bed, and then he explains how he re-enacted the Rockwell scene in his feature film, "Empire of the Sun." It is clear that Rockwell was an enormous influence on him.

"They were portraitures of Americans and America without cynicism," Spielberg says of Rockwell's illustrations. "I was raised in the late '40s and early '50s. And I look back at these paintings as the way America was right after the Second World War."

Jerry Della Femina, an advertising executive, picks up the thread, adding, "There was a sort of idealism. We believed we were as good as we told ourselves we were, and he [Rockwell] told us we were very good. Certainly James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" was Rockwell. If you stop the action in the scene where he's with all his friends and he's holding his little daughter, what you have is a Rockwell painting."

As Della Femina says this, we see the scene from the Frank Capra film that he's describing, and the connection is impossible to deny.

This is Mannes at her best. But I wish she had done more with Capra, such as connecting Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech" illustration with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," for example. I also wish she had shown how Rockwell's images exploded exponentially through the culture when they were imitated not only in films but also in television series like "Leave It to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best." Mannes never mentions television.

"Painting America" suffers its worst moment in describing the man. For all the optimism of his illustrations, the film tells us Rockwell experienced bouts of depression. But it never goes the next hard miles. Was he clinically depressed? Did it ever find expression in his life?

The film is downright maddening when it comes to details of Rockwell's second marriage to a woman who was clinically depressed and hospitalized several times for what is described as "mental illness." She was also an alcoholic who tried to commit suicide. But as close as we ever get to an explanation is the suggestion that she married too young and was overwhelmed by having to take care of the family finances.

We should expect more from biography, especially one flying under the distinguished "American Masters" banner. But "Painting America" is still a fine piece of work. It's public television telling a story about a representative American that helps us better understand our dreams, our traditions and ourselves.

`American Masters'

What: "Norman Rockwell: Painting America."

When: Tonight 8 to 9: 30. Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

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