Family Home Movies
Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush
Laurel and Hardy in Lucky Dog
Family Films of Yesteryear
As a young boy I can remember various forms of torture. One well-known practice was to subject neighbours to a narrated account of a family holiday accompanied by slides. Slides, it should be explained to any younger reader who may have stumbled on this piece of writing, were an alternate form of recording still images back before digital. They were projected onto a screen. Guests were likely to receive more commentary on each slide than they’d have preferred but were held hostage by bonds of politeness that, at that time, held people’s behaviour in greater check than many of today’s laws.
My father took cine films rather than slides and their showing was usually strictly a family affair. At one time both the projector and the camera used to belong to my father’s brother; pre-Second World War films of my uncle showed a creative bent greater than that of his brothers or sister. My father took over my uncle’s film equipment and I his name, since my uncle didn’t come back from a mission, whereas I arrived almost on schedule barely a year after my father came home after a five-year absence. He had probably survived the war because he’d been shot down at the beginning, and his attempts to escape various prisoner of war camps ended up in recapture. Few families had film archives in those days, and gazing at family films taken in the 1930s gave me rare insight into what life was like at that time and the three young sons my grandparents saw go off to war.
Family film nights were a bit unusual and rather complicated. They sometimes began with a form of pyrotechnics either real or oddly preserved in some opening, surviving frames of the edited film that had had the more badly burnt frames removed. And then the family on the screen, oddly young, were doing some obviously stagey, staid things except for the children, who recognized the opportunity to become even more introverted or take quite naturally to the silver screen. Before the days of video, people were unpractised in how to behave as moving subjects, and many, feeling that they should acknowledge the art form of moving pictures, have been preserved waving and smiling at the unseen cameramen – my father having taken up the mantle of chief archivist.
Often there was a grainy quality to the film that seemed to age it. Sometimes I felt like an alien who, in some future time, had come across a strange artefact miraculously preserved at the right humidity and temperature. I am amused at my memories because I’ve recently recorded some pieces shot digitally and, later, used a special effect to give it the look of old film. I have used this feature and found that the effect is like magic when used with the right subject. As I watch these pieces, I am reminded of those days long ago; and I can well understand Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography’s title, The Magic Lantern. The cameras of today have made the once expensive and slightly esoteric pastime of making silent black and white movies a part of history, not only of the movie industry itself but also of how families have recorded their activities and other subjects of interest.
Film nights usually had their introduction when a bright yellow Kodak box containing the processed film arrived back from the post office. It meant my father had to set up the projector, a complicated and timely procedure in my early childhood, since the equipment predated the Second World War. The projector was an example of something that had many moving, mysterious parts – a number of belts and other things to recommend it to a young boy. It was always unveiled from a beautiful wooden box that I’d always loved almost as much as the equipment itself. Inevitably there would be unscheduled breaks ushered in by literal breaks of either the film or the projector.
Most problems involved either a burnt-out bulb or a broken belt, or the most complicated part of the whole procedure that involved making sure that the film was properly looped in all the right places and the many sprockets gates were opened and closed correctly to receive the little perforations either side of the film. My father tended carefully to the projector and the camera for years before buying an undoubtedly more trouble-free but characterless machine that made his job easier but film nights duller.
Part of the fascination of watching a film was that I could remember my previous reaction when I last saw it months or, sometimes, years previously. Along with the film in the yellow box, Dad played some films that were perennial favourites, since time precluded playing all of the films in his archive. The films we wanted included a short sequence from Charlie Chaplin's Goldrush, and another film when Hardy tries to persuade Laurel to retrieve his hat from a cemetery that seems uninviting to this day since it seemed to create a chill, fear and loneliness that I don’t usually associate with such places. I can still remember the special excitement engendered in a young boy’s mind when viewing these Hollywood film clips that combined comedy and fear in an exquisite cocktail.
Looking at these family films I broached many philosophical topics and, largely unassisted, pondered many serious questions about both life and death and the strangeness of time. Unlike many children of that age, I watched my grandparents, young, in an obviously very different Britain of the 1930s. My uncle, who some few years later would pilot his bomber one last time, remained cleverly pantomiming many characters including dressing up and brilliantly performing as Groucho Marx. I looked at the screen and never doubted that we would have understood each other well and he’d have been my favourite relative.
“Whom the gods love, die young,” is one of those phrases I instantly loved without fully understanding what it meant. As a young man, it spoke to me of heroics – a young man with long flaxen hair jumping from his longboat with its fearsome dragon head and battles against insurmountable odds to meet his death, bravely, sword in hand. My toy soldiers, some dangerously made of lead, often fought heroic battles and as my favourite soldiers selflessly gave their lives for their fellows, those heroic words were always close at hand. What could be more grand? These were the thoughts of a young boy.
Now as an older man and with the works of Marcus Aurelius never far away, I know that an unsullied reputation was more important to an ancient than life itself. If you die young enough, doubtless you won’t have had time to offend too many and you’ll exit, stage right, with your reputation intact. More and more I wonder if the gods know just how hard the life we contemplate and relish is, and the phrase sometimes sounds more Eastern than Western – perhaps everyone’s got it wrong and the words were uttered by Buddha. These are thoughts that arrive in later years as I watch my parents, a dashingly uniformed pilot officer and his beautiful wife, setting forth from their wedding in their convertible, top-down, my mother waving and both blissfully ignorant of what is to come. Sometimes I can imagine myself a little boy, sitting on a cushion, looking at the flickering screen still surrounded by my family with Dad artfully managing a projector as prized as the film – and I know I was happy.