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The American Experience
The Film & More
Program Description


A film by David Grubin Productions, Inc.
Produced and directed by David Grubin
Written by Judy Crichton and David Grubin


Part 1

Spirit of the Age (45 minutes)

On New Year's Day 1900, President William McKinley and his wife, Ida, greet thousands of visitors at the traditional New Year's Day reception at the White House--despite the First Lady's failing health, and the recent assassinations of Empress Elizabeth of Austria and the President of France. American newspapers trumpet tales of horror half a globe away in the Philippines, where the United States is embroiled in a guerrilla war. McKinley fears his chances in the November election hinge on the outcome of a war he does not know how to win.

In San Francisco, John Muir, a Scottish immigrant who considers nature sacred, warns Americans about the environmental price of progress. Already much of the nation's virgin forest has been cut, and the buffalo driven to extinction. Muir finds hope in the vast beauty of America, and in a new craze for hiking and mountaineering that is sweeping the country.

Americans are dazzled by the onrush of new inventions: motion pictures, x-rays, automobiles, phonographs, the electric light, indoor plumbing. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson sets the standard for idealized womanhood with his "Gibson Girl," while an ambitious photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston, pioneers a new career for women in photojournalism. Johnston travels across the country, documenting the people of her day: coal miners, sailors, immigrants, sharecroppers, politicians, factory workers, scientists, war heroes, authors, philanthropists, suffragists.


Part II

Change Is In the Air (30 minutes)

In New York City, the entertainment capital of America, a Broadway play about a seductive woman with many lovers provokes a debate about public morality. Yet a police inspector who sees Sapho six times "in the line of duty" claims that he finds it not at all offensive. When its star and director, Olga Nethersole, is arrested and charged with violating public decency, her trial becomes a national sensation.

The year 1900 sees a huge wave of immigrants--over a half-million people--arriving in the United States. With nearly three million residents, almost one-third of them foreign-born, New York is America's largest city--and the second largest in the world. Seeking to escape the poverty and squalor of the city's tenements, millions head West to work in Pennsylvania's coal fields, Pittsburgh's steel mills, Chicago's stockyards.

On the morning of May 1, a violent underground explosion kills more than two hundred coal miners in Scofield, Utah. Vowing to "remember Scofield," miners band together to form a union.


Part III

A Great Civilized Power (50 minutes)

A national census taken in the summer of 1900 counts more than 76 million Americans--including four thousand millionaires. There are only eight thousand cars and less than ten miles of concrete roads, but there is no income tax. Vacations are a new part of American life. Trains filled with Northerners head south in wintertime, and huge trans-Atlantic steamers carry thousands of Americans to the Paris Exposition, where several exhibits tout the racial superiority of white colonial powers.

Nowhere is the issue of race more explosive than in the South, home to nine out of ten black Americans. Denied freedoms other citizens take for granted--including the right to vote--blacks have seen gains realized after the Civil War stripped away by poll taxes, literacy tests, even lynching. Representative George White of North Carolina--the only black US congressman--attempts to make lynching a federal crime, without success.

A rift opens between black leaders Booker T. Washington, who calls for a focus on economic development, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who advocates greater political power for African Americans.

Scott Joplin, a young composer from Missouri, popularizes a new musical style called ragtime. Copies of his "Maple Leaf Rag" fly off the shelves of five-and-dime stores across the country, as a new industry--the music business--is born.

In June, at the Republican Party Convention in Philadelphia, delegates cheer as war hero Theodore Roosevelt is nominated as McKinley's running mate. But a new foreign policy crisis threatens McKinley's hopes for reelection.

Among the thousands of Western missionaries spreading the gospel in China are Eva and Charles Price of Iowa, who have been running a school three hundred miles south of Peking for more than a decade. In the summer of 1900, a Chinese sect known as the Boxers calls for the extermination of foreigners and begins attacking missionaries. When McKinley sends American troops into China, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for president, labels him an imperialist.

In August, Peking is liberated and the captives freed. But Chinese soldiers sent to escort the Price family to Peking suddenly attack them. Eva, Charles, and their seven-year-old daughter Florence are hacked to death, and their bodies thrown into a ditch.


Part IV

Fall, Anything Seemed Possible (45 minutes )

The presidential campaign heats up as Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan blasts McKinley first for his foreign policy, then for his alliance with the trusts--giant corporations that were squeezing competition, depressing wages, and manipulating prices. The Republicans counter with their rallying cry of "Prosperity!"

In early September, the most destructive hurricane in the nation's history devastates Galveston, Texas, a popular tourist town perched on a slim spit of sand along the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly half the homes in the city are swept away, leaving more than six thousand people dead and twenty thousand homeless. Clara Barton and the Red Cross arrive in a city "lifeless and bloomless, streets choked with debris and corpses" to care for the survivors.

In Pennsylvania, the president of the United Mine Workers, thirty-year-old John Mitchell, calls for a strike against the mightiest monopoly in America: a group of wealthy coal operators controlled by America's most powerful financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. On September 17, Mitchell's coal miners walk out, demanding recognition of their union and a living wage. As the strike drags on into October, more than ninety percent of the state's mines are closed, leaving mills, factories, and homes across the country low on coal. But with miners suffering more than anyone, Mitchell accepts a compromise offer from the owners, and his men return to work.

As 1900 draws to a close, stories of change continue to herald a new era. In Boston, the last horse-drawn trolley is replaced by an electric bus; the first overseas telephone call is made between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba; scientists announce they are searching for messages from Mars. Newspapers and magazines predict marvelous things for the next hundred years: great air-ships would fly across the seas, wireless telephones would span the world, people would watch moving images in their own homes. There were even predictions that the twentieth century would see an end to poverty and war. Anything seemed possible.


(Film credits)


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