Screening History

F inally, in the spring of 1932, I saw at first hand history before it was screened .

In 1935 I had seen Max Reinhardt’s film A Midsummer Night’s Dream . Bewitched, I read the play, guessing at half the words; then, addicted to this strange new language, I managed to read all of Shakespeare before I was sixteen. (Yes, Cymbeline too.) I am sure that my response was not unique. Certainly other children must have gone to Shakespeare’s text if only in search of Mickey and that Athenian forest where, after sunset, Oberon and Titania ride, attended by all sorts of mythical creatures, and those mortals who stray amongst them are subject to change.

Washington’s principal movie palaces were on the east side of Fourteenth Street. The Capitol was the grandest, with a stage show and an orchestra leader called Sam Jack Kaufman, whom I once saw in the drugstore next to the theater. He wore an orange polo coat that matched his orange hair. He bought a cigar.

The Translux, devoted to newsreels and documentaries, was the only movie house to open in my time, and its supermodern Art Deco interior smelled, for some reason, of honey. At the time of the coronation of George VI, there was displayed in the lobby a miniature royal coach and horses. I wanted that coach more than I have ever wanted anything. But my father made an insufficient offer to the manager of the theater. Later I acquired the coach through my stepfather, to add to a collection of three thousand soldiers, kept in the attic at Merrywood. Here I enacted an endless series of dramas, all composed by me. If ever there was a trigger to the imagination, it was those lead soldiers. Today they would be proscribed because war is bad and women are underrepresented in their ranks. But I deployed my troops for other purposes than dull battle. I was my own Walter Scott. I was also Warner Brothers and Paramount—paramount, too, as I played auteur , so like God, we have been told by film critics.

From earliest days the movies have been screening history, and if one saw enough movies, one learned quite a lot of simpleminded history. Thanks to A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel , and Marie Antoinette , my generation of prepubescents understood at the deepest level the roots—the flowers too of the French Revolution. Unlike Dickens’s readers, we knew what the principals looked and sounded like. We had been there with them.

In retrospect it is curious how much history was screened in those days. Today Europe still does stately tributes to the Renaissance, usually for television; otherwise today’s films are stories of him and her and now, not to mention daydreams of unlimited shopping with credit cards. Fortunately, with time, even the most contemporary movie undergoes metamorphosis, becomes history as we get to see real life as it was when the film was made, true history glimpsed through the window of a then-new, now-vintage, car.

My first and most vivid moviegoing phase was from 1932 to 1939—from seven to fourteen. Films watched before puberty are still the most vivid. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Mummy, Roman Scandals, The Last Days of Pompeii . Ancient Egypt, Classical Rome, Shakespeare when he was still in thrall to that most magical of poets, Ovid.

Although Roman Scandals was a comedy, starring the vaudevillian Eddie Cantor, I was told not to see it. I now realize why the movie, which I saw anyway, had been proscribed. The year of release was 1933. The country was in an economic depression. Drought was turning to dust the heart of the country’s farmland, and at the heart of the heart of the dust bowl was my grandfather’s state of Oklahoma. So bad was the drought that many of his constituents were abandoning their farms and moving west to California. The fact that so many Oklahomans, Okies for short, were obliged to leave home was a very sore point with their senator.

At the beginning of Roman Scandals we see the jobless in Oklahoma. One of them is Eddie Cantor, who is knocked on the head and transported to ancient Rome, much as Dorothy was taken by whirlwind from Kansas to Oz; thus a grim Oklahoma is metamorphosed into a comic-strip Rome.

My memory of the Depression is more of talk on the radio and in the house than of actual scenes of apple selling in the street.

At the age of five I sat in the Senate gallery and watched as T. P. Gore was sworn in for a fourth term. Defeated in 1920, he had made a triumphant return in 1930. I recall the skylit pale greens of the chamber so like the aquarium in the basement of the Commerce Building. I was also very much aware of my grandfather’s enemy (and my father’s friend and former employer), the loudly menacing Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a black spot—like a dog’s—over his left eyebrow. He was always in the papers and on radio; worse, there he was in practically every newsreel, smiling balefully at us and tossing his huge head about.