John Barnes' Autobiography
see also his filmography, and the
astounding story of the
controversy surrounding his
John Barnes saving the sole of Marcel
Marceau prior to the
filming of 'The Art of Silence' (1975)
Note: Some time before John Barnes passed away, he asked me to write his
obituary. I told him he'd probably last longer than I would, but he
didn't, and I honored his request, a very sad task for me.
That obit is printed here as his biography, retitled John Barnes: a
Celebration of his Life and Films. Below it, you'll find an
autobiography that he penned for this website in 1997. Also, please visit
his filmography, and the fascinating story of the
controversy over his Macbeth series of films. View
Equality Under the Law: The Lost Generation of Prince Edward County,
Along the Mississippi,
Into Film: Clark's 'The Portable Phonograph'
- Geoff Alexander
John Barnes: a Celebration of his Life and Films
Filmmaker John Wadsworth Barnes, an Academy Award nominee
whose robust body of work changed the face of educational film in the United
States, died in New York on Tuesday, June 27, 2000 at the age of 80.
Barnes, who directed, produced, or wrote over 100 films,
was best known for the intellectually challenging themes in his humanities
films, as well his insistence on interracial casting in an era in which
educational film companies eschewed integrated casts and curricula in order to
boost sales in southern states. Barnes wrote, filmed, and co-produced director
Gordon Weisenborn’s People Along the Mississippi for Encyclopaedia
Britannica Films in 1951, which, in its portrayal of the interaction between two
boys --- one African American, the other white --- as they face the challenges
of racial prejudice, may have been the first educational film to claim an
Willing to fight to have his films shown in southern
schools, Barnes fought institutional censorship by appearing before the state
school board in Georgia to successfully argue the historic veracity of the peer
relationship between Sir Francis Drake and his black first mate, thus paving the
way for educational film companies to expand the making and distribution of
integrated thematic material.
Born in Belford, New Jersey, on March 25, 1920, Barnes
attended the University of Chicago, where he edited the school’s literary
magazine. To pay a printing bill, Barnes, at the age of 24, began writing for
the local CBS radio affiliate, producing a critically-acclaimed series of radio
dramas hosted by Ken Nordine. He soon started experimenting with a Bolex film
camera and war surplus film, and received funding in the late 1940s from the
Chicago Anti-Defamation League to produce a film --- his first of approximately
112 --- on interracial refugee camps (To Live Together).
In 1953, he was nominated for an Oscar for The Living
City, a documentary on urban issues. His work in educational film was
recognized by the New York Times, whose Howard Thompson wrote: “Almost
single-handedly, (Barnes) has lifted the classroom drama for older students to a
fresh, stimulating plane”. Barnes made a landmark series of films on classical
western civilization and Shakespearean themes from 1959 through 1971, hosted by
noted scholars John Canaday, Clifton Fadiman, Maynard Mack, Gilbert Highet,
Mortimer Adler, and Bernard Knox, and featuring actors such as Richard Kiley,
Peter Donat, Judi Dench, Frances Sternhagen, Donald Moffat, and Douglas
Campbell. In 1975, Barnes made a classic series of fourteen films with
pantomime artist Marcel Marceau. He collaborated with poet Archibald MacLeish
and composer Ezra Laderman on two films, Magic Prison: the Poetry of Emily
Dickinson, and Keats: His Life and Death.
His magnum opus was considered to be the three-part
Shaw vs. Shakespeare series, written and directed by Barnes, with Donald
Moffat in the role of George Bernard Shaw, alternately elevating and denigrating
Shakespeare’s characterizations, as compared with Shaw’s own.
Social themes were never absent from Barnes’ work: he made
several films in Encyclopaedia Britannica’s ‘Bill of Rights’ series including a
sensitive portrayal of Clarence Earl Gideon, whom Barnes describes in the film
as "ex-convict, wanderer, a former gambler, the devoted father of three
children, and a man with a deep sense of his legal rights," whose Supreme Court
case reaffirmed a defendant’s right to counsel. Perhaps Barnes’ most powerful
film was his last, made in 1977, an adaptation of Walter van Tilberg Clark’s
The Portable Phonograph, in which four survivors of the apocalypse attempt,
through memories triggered by a 78 rpm recording of Debussy’s Nocturne,
to recover their pasts.
For the remainder of his career, Barnes concentrated on
writing plays, several of which were produced in the U.S. and Canada.
Barnes was considered iconoclastic by his peers during the
more than twenty years he contributed films to Encyclopaedia Britannica, and
distanced himself from the politics of the organization by living and working in
England, Spain, Italy, and Greece, away from company headquarters in Chicago.
Although championed by Senator William Benton, president of EB, Barnes faced
continual battles from other executives, who were concerned that his content was
too intellectual for high school students and teachers.
He summed up his philosophy on film by stating: “I have an
idea -- a faith, I suppose it really is -- that some of my films -- or a single
film, or even a single sequence in a film or a shot in a film -- will light up a
young mind somewhere: light it up so that nothing -- unsympathetic teachers,
lack of a decent place to live, or lack of love -- can ever plunge it into
Barnes received numerous film awards, and retrospectives of
his work were held in 1966 at the Instituto Mexicano Norteaméricano de
Relationes Culturales in Mexico City, and in 1998 at ciné16 in San
Jose, California. He is survived by his wife, violinist Jeanne Weinstein,
daughter Judith, an opera singer and sculptor in Brooklyn, two sons,
actor/director Ezra Barnes of Brooklyn, and astrophysicist Joshua Barnes of
Honolulu, and two grandchildren.
The following autobiography was written by John Barnes in 1997:
Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money
in my purse, I left the University of Chicago without taking a degree. My first
choice of profession: the theater, but for various reasons (mostly a compelling
need to make a living) drifted into radio, film, and later television. Thus
began a number of incomparable years of working and living (together with my
wife and an ever-growing family) in England, France, Italy, Spain, Greece,
Canada and America as a film-maker (writer, director, producer, sometimes editor
and cameraman) of documentary, theatrical, non-theatrical, and art films --
perhaps a hundred or more with such titles as The Living City, The Odyssey,
Spirit of the Renaissance, John Keats, The Portable Phonograph, Leonardo da
Vinci, Michelangelo, Magic Prison, Chartres Cathedral, Marcel Marceau's Art of
Silence, Shaw versus Shakespeare, The Cherry Orchard, and so on.
AWARDS picked up along the way: Academy Award Nomination; Venice, Edinburgh
Film Festivals, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Atlanta, and
American Film Festivals; Golden Eagle; Freedom Foundation; NVPA; others; some
several times. At some point, the awards ceased altogether. Reason? I was told
(off the record) that Britannica execs were angry at all festivals, considering
them unfair and stopped entering them. The underlying reason, I was told, was
that my films were the only EB productions which got awards. Whether any of this
was true, I can't say; might have been, might not have been.
REVIEW QUOTABLES (Howard Thompson, New York Times): "The Living City,
brilliantly-made" by "the gifted John Barnes"
. . . "superior craftsmanship" . . . "the brilliant young
director-producer" . . . "Hollywood take note" . . . "fresh
and stimulating" . . . "the remarkably ingenious John Barnes . . .
"a stunning ambitious art-film" by "the amazing director-producer
John Barnes" . . . etc.
FAMILY cleaved to all the years: Joshua, now an astrophysicist at the
University of Hawaii; Judith, now a singer and sculptor; Ezra, now an actor and
artistic director; and of course my wife, Jeanne Weinstein, ever a violinist.
The above, as may be imagined, took up some time, but now (since I am more or
less financially secure, if such a state is possible) I have returned to my
first love: the theater.
FILMS & TELEVISION
CHICAGO (1952/4): Wrote, directed, and edited The Living City,
nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary.
ROME, lived and worked various periods 1955/75: adapted, directed and
produced The Odyssey, filmed at Cinecità; also at
Cinecità, The Greek Myths, with location work in
Greece and Mallorca. On location in Italy: Michelangelo, Leonardo da
Vinci, Spirit of the Renaissance, others productions.
LONDON, lived and worked various periods 1954/80: adapted, produced, and
co-directed with Douglas Campbell Macbeth and Great
Expectations, with William Squire, Michael Gwynn, John Stride,
Judi Dench, Mark Dignam, Rosalie Crutchley. Produced, directed and edited -- and
co-wrote with Archibald MacLeish -- John Keats,
starring John Stride with Mark Dignam. Adapted and directed The
Portable Phonograph, Van Tilburg Clark's short story about the
aftermath of a nuclear war, with Michael Gwynn, Philip Locke, and William
Squire; Candide, with David Yelland, Mark Dignam,
Philip Locke, William Squire. The Romantics, with Tim
Piggot-Smith and William Squire. Other productions.
NEW YORK (various periods 1960/present): Produced and directed Marcel
Marceau's Art of Silence, 13 TV films featuring
Marceau. Producer, director, and co-writer with Archibald MacLeish, of Magic
Prison, a film about Emily Dickinson starring Frances Sternhagen
and Michael Higgins. Wrote and directed Shaw versus Shakespeare,
with Richard Kiley as Caesar and Donald Moffat as GBS. Adapted, directed and
produced The Cherry Orchard with Maureen Stapleton,
John Colicos, Donald Moffat and Frances Sternhagen. Many other productions.
Writer of the book for the musical, The Beautiful Dream of Ilya Ilyich
Oblomov, developed in l983 at The National Music Theater, Eugene O'Neill Theater
Center. 'Kidnapped', based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Directed by
Douglas Campbell at the Young Peoples Theatre in Toronto (l988), with Douglas's
Benedict as Alan Breck; Colonial Theatre, Westerly, Rhode Island, with my son
Ezra as Alan Breck (1993).
Writer, Huck Finn, a play in two acts based on Mark Twain's novel; at the
Will Geer Theater, Topanga, California, July, l990.
Currently: Kembles of the Garden, a play in two acts. Staged reading at
Cornelia Street Cafe, New York, 1996.