- Historic Sites
A child of the Republic looks back on a lifetime spent at—and occasionally in—the movies and discovers how strongly they have shaped the way all of us understand America
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
In those days, at fancy-dress parties, I used to dress up as Chamberlain, with a painted-on mustache and an umbrella in one hand and a paper, the Munich Agreement, in the other. Now there, in front of me, was the man I had so often imitated. He was as small as I, and very thin, with a troublingly stringy neck enclosed by a wing collar that coyly revealed his gibbous Adam’s apple. He gave a twitchy smile to the crowd in Downing Street, and they responded with a long collective sigh of a sort that I had not heard before, or since.
When war was declared on September third, we were at Liverpool, aboard the British ship Antonia . As we entered the Irish Sea, we passed the Antonia ’s half-sunk sister ship, the Athenia , the first ship of the war to be torpedoed by a German submarine.
I remember a gray sky, and a gray, smooth sea, and the longboats, containing passengers and ship’s crew, making their way toward the dull green Irish shore. Adults aboard our ship wondered if we, too, would be sunk. As the “Boy Airman” I was fearless. For one thing, I had seen far more scary movies in my day than this one. I also could not imagine myself as a real-life victim since my true life was that of spectator at the drama of others, my empathy aroused only by their fictional sufferings, particularly that of the young French legionnaire who died so superbly in Under Two Flags as the “Marseillaise” filled the soundtrack. He was real. I was not, except observing him.
In order to evade submarines, we zigzagged across the North Atlantic. I was bored, and the ship’s canteen ran out of chocolate. Upon arrival much was made of how my silver blond hair had turned dark brown: the result of war’s horror, some thought; others blamed puberty. At the barbershop in the basement of the Mayflower Hotel, I confessed to the barber that my hair had not been washed in three months. As I leaned over the washbowl, black water cascaded in front of my eyes; and I was as blond as Nelson Eddy.
The year 1939 is considered the optimum year of Hollywood film making. For an instant we were balanced on the radiant cusp between Depression’s end and war’s beginning. I saw, at fourteen, each of the now-classic films as it was released. It was a golden age, and I was not at all like Randall Jarrell’s critic who lived through a golden age complaining how yellow everything was. It couldn’t be gold enough for me.
Let me anticipate a question. During this time did I ever see a good movie? The answer is yes, I probably did, but how would I have known? For us any movie was better than no movie. For us the concept of a movie’s being aesthetically good or bad was as irrelevant as saying that a bit of history was good or bad. Obviously one enjoys some moments of history, screened or written, or experienced, more than others, but how is relative value to be determined of something that, like history, simply is ? That was then.
As we got older, so did the movies, and in due course it was discovered that the movies were an art form, which I would contest, and that since a work of art must be the conception of a single genius (like the cathedral at Chartres?), the French seized upon the idea of the director as auteur , with uncomfortable results. I would like to have heard my friend David Selznick on the subject. Like God, Selznick, and Selznick alone, had created the film of Gone with the Wind , and only a master of the most trivial pursuits knew, even then, the name—or, indeed, the names—of the disposable directors.
I was never conscious that movies were art in the way that some books or pictures on display at the new Mellon Gallery were art. Movies were real to us, and that was it.