Learning To Go To The Movies

The great democratic art form got off to a very rocky start. People simply didn’t want to crowd into a dark room to look at a flickering light, and it took nearly twenty years for Americans and motion pictures to embrace each other.

On July 5, 1896, the Los Angeles Times greeted the imminent arrival of Thomas Alva Edison’s moving-picture projector with enormous enthusiasm: “The vitascope is coming to town. It is safe to predict that when it is set up at the Orpheum and set a-going, it will cause a sensation as the city has not known for many a long day.” Read more »

Mammy Her Life And Times

BORN IN SLAVERY AND RAISED IN ITS PAINFUL AFTERMATH TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL AMERICAN ICONS, SHE HAS BEEN MADE TO ENCOMPASS LOVE AND GUILT AND RIDICULE AND WORSHIP —AND STILL SHE LIVES ON

On Highway 61, just outside of Natchez, Mississippi, stands Mammy’s Cupboard, a thirty-foot-high concrete figure of a black woman. For years she was a famous landmark, staring with electric eyes from beneath a pillbox cap, wearing earrings made of horseshoes, and holding a tray. Under Mammy’s red brick skirts, punched with arched windows, Mrs. Henry Gaude operated a small restaurant, its dining room supported inside with cypress beams recovered from a cotton-gin house.Read more »

Casablanca

Desperate improvisations in the face of imminent disaster saw us through the early years of the fight. They also gave us the war’s greatest movie.

America’s favorite World War II movie has led a charmed life. While it was being filmed, each looming disaster turned out to be a cleverly disguised blessing, and after its completion everything that could go right did go right. But of all the lucky accidents it enjoyed on its way to screen immortality, the fact that shooting began before there was a finished script may have been the most providential. Read more »

Black And White And Red

In 1932 the Communist International paid to send a cast of American blacks to Moscow to make a movie about American racial injustice. The scheme backfired.

In 1932, while Scarface, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Shanghai Express filled the screens of movie theaters across America, another film, for which entertainment was only a secondary goal, was germinating far away from Hollywood. “The American Negro has never been portrayed on screen or stage in his true character,” wrote the black activist W. A. Domingo, “and this film … will be the first departure from the traditional pattern.Read more »

“the Great Arrogance Of The Present Is To Forget The Intelligence Of The Past”

The maker of a fine new documentary on the Civil War tells how the medium of film can evoke the emotional reality of history

Ken Burns is no stranger to me. We first met in 1983 at a party that the historian David McCullough gave at the Yale Club to wish a happy hundredth birthday to the Brooklyn Bridge. If David had not introduced Ken to me as the maker of an acclaimed film about the bridge, I would have mistaken him for a high school student—perhaps the older brother of the infant he was holding in his arms. It was actually his daughter Sarah, and Burns was then thirty.Read more »

When Hollywood Makes History

No less a fan than President Wilson said “The Birth of a Nation” was “like writing history with Lightning.” Movies have taught everybody else history too.

When the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty failed to enchant local audiences, a distributor begged MGM to make “no more pictures where they write with feathers.”

Nevertheless, people have been writing with feathers since the dawn of the industry: as soon as movies began to tell coherent stories, they found subjects in the past. Read more »

Hard Looks at Hidden History

Hard Looks at Hidden History

One of the more unlikely results of the American Revolution was Australia. Most American colonists came here voluntarily, of course, but until 1776 we meekly accepted boatloads of His Majesty’s convicts as indentured servants.Read more »

History For Rent

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column lamenting the very small number of video cassettes available to those of us who like historical documentaries. That situation hasn’t improved much since, but 1 have found some consolation in the fact that video stores do carry a good many fiction films with historical settings, many of which never got the theatrical attention they deserved. Here are several rentable, small-scale films you may have missed and which especially interested me because of the way they portrayed the past: Read more »

“im Fine, Just Hurting Inside”

Robert Benchley, a woebegone chronicler of his own inadequacies, was the humorist’s humorist, a man beloved by practically everyone but himself

Early in 1939 Robert Charles Benchley—Phillips Exeter Academy, 1908; Harvard, 1912—put on a paper hat and hoisted himself up onto a set of phony telephone wires strung between mock utility poles on a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sound stage in Hollywood. He was filming one of the ten-minute comedies that were eroding his self-respect while increasing his fame and income. Read more »

The Sound Of Silents

The men and women who labored in the ghostly light of the great screen to make the music that accompanied silent movies were as much a part of the show as Lillian Gish or Douglas Fairbanks

If I ever kill anyone,” D. W. Griffith once exclaimed, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” He had been arguing with Joseph Carl Breil, his collaborator on the score for The Birth of a Nation. Griffith wanted to change some of the notes in the music they were planning to borrow, and Breil was outraged. “You can’t tamper with Wagner!” he cried.Read more »