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Screening History

June 2024
24min read

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

As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked “Exit,” it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies. Naturally Sex and Art always took precedence over the cinema. Unfortunately neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid that projects past images and voices onto a screen. Thus, in a seemingly simple process, screening history.

It is a universal phenomenon that whether one is at Harvard or at Oxford or at the University of Bologna, after the dutiful striking of attitudes on subject of professional interest, like semiology, the ice does not break until someone mentions the movies. Suddenly everyone is alert and adept. There is real passion as we speak of the falling off of Fellini in recent years or of Madonna’s curious contours and have they yet passed the once-disputed border of mere androgyny to some entirely new sexual continuum? Movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century. The Tenth Muse, as they call the movies in Italy, has driven the other nine right off Olympus—or off the peak anyway.

B riefly I was a newsreel personage. But what I wanted to be was a movie star—specifically, Mickey Rooney.

Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known, read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me but of a category to which I once belonged that now no longer exists. I am still here, but my category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.

Today where literature was, movies are. For the Agora, Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut. In fact, reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.

In 1925, the year that I was born, the Tenth Muse was already installed atop Parnassus, but she was mute. Curiously the movies were not as popular in the twenties as they had been before the First World War. Even so, in the year of my birth, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush was released, and in my second year the Tenth Muse suddenly spoke those minatory words “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Thus the moving and talking picture began.

I saw and heard my first movie in 1929. My father and mother were still unhappily married, and so we went, a nuclear family melting down, to the movies in St. Louis, where my father was general manager of TAT, the first transcontinental airline, later to merge with what is now, as of this week anyway, TWA.

I am told that as I marched down the aisle, an actress on the screen asked another character a question, and I answered her, in a loud voice. So, as the movies began to talk, I began to answer questions posed by two-dimensional fictional characters thirty times my size.

My life has paralleled, when not intersected, the entire history of the talking picture. Although I was a compulsive reader from the age of six, I was so besotted by movies that one Saturday in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, I saw five in a day.

I was born of mortal woman, but there my resemblance to other writers ends. My mother did not shop, and my father was not cold and aloof, nor was he addicted to the sports page of the newspapers. Unlike most American fathers—sons too—he did not live vicariously. He was his own hero, and the Agora had loved him for a time. He had been an All-American football player at West Point, and he had represented the United States in the decathlon at the Olympic Games. Later he started three airlines. He was, I like to believe, the first person to realize that there was absolutely no point to cellophane.

“Du Pont just invented this,” he said. We played with it for a while. “What’s it for?” I asked. “Nothing!” He spoke with a true inventor’s delight. For a season, in the thirties, one could see in the movie musicals cellophane used as curtains, tablecloths, showgirl dresses. But in the end cellophane, unlike celluloid, ended up as irrelevant wrapping. Yet it was nice in itself, like certain minor works of art or, as Cole Porter apostrophized, “You’re cellophane!”

Did my kindly maternal grandfather preside over a hardware business in Oklahoma City? No. From two unrelated accidents he was blind at the age of ten. He put himself through law school, memorizing texts that were read to him by a cousin. At thirty-seven, having helped invent the state of Oklahoma—wit of this sort runs in our family—he became a famous senator.

Did my mother play bridge, bake pies in the kitchen, and perhaps drink too much of the cooking sherry? On the contrary, she was a flapper very like her coeval Tallulah Bankhead. In appearance she was a composite of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. She never baked a pie, but she did manage to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka. She married and divorced not only my famous father but a rich stockbroker, whom she then abandoned for a famous Air Force general, who promptly died. Meanwhile, the stockbroker married a woman whose daughter married a man who was elected President only to have his head shot off as the two of them were driving through Dallas on a hot November day. What is one to do, fictionally, with a family that has itself become a pervasive fiction that continues to divert the Agora?

I tried, once, to deal with my early days in a novel with no particular key but a number of what I still think to be cunning locks. It was called Washington, D.C. I centered my narrative on the two houses where I grew up: that of Senator Gore in Rock Creek Park—now, significantly, the Malaysian Embassy—and that of my stepfather, the illnamed Merrywood, high above the Potomac River on the road to Manassas. Each house represented a different world that I must either master or be mastered by, the common doom of most children of Agora-noted families. All in all, I fancied this book. I was there and not there in the text. I had revealed and not revealed my peculiar family. I had also, without intending to, started on a history of the American Republic as experienced by one family and its emblematic connection to Aaron Burr.

During the next quarter century I re-dreamed the Republic’s history, which I have always regarded as a family affair. But what was I to do with characters that were—are—not only famous but even preposterous? Should I capture my family upon the page, the result is like a bad movie—or, worse, a good one. I never again used my own family as the stuff of fiction.

It is possible that even when working from memory, I saw the world in movie terms, as who did not, or, indeed, who does not? So let us examine the way in which one’s perceptions of history were—and are—dominated by illustrated fictions of great power, particularly those screened in childhood.

Although most of the movie palaces of my Washington youth no longer exist, I can still see and smell them in memory. There was Keith’s, across from the Treasury, a former vaudeville house where Woodrow Wilson used to go. Architecturally Keith’s was a bit too classically spacious for my taste. Also, the movies shown there tended to be more stately than the ones to be seen around the corner on Fourteenth Street. Of course, no movie was ever truly dull, even the foreign ones shown at the Belasco in Lafayette Park.

It was at the Belasco that I first saw myself screened, in a Pathé newsreel when, at the age of ten, I took off and landed a plane. As Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, my father was eager to popularize a cheap, private plane that was, if not foolproof, childproof. Though he had grasped the silliness of cellophane, he seriously believed that since almost everyone could now afford a car, so almost everyone should be able to afford a plane. He dedicated years of his life to putting a cheap plane in every garage. Thanks to his dream, I too was famous for a summer.

Today anyone’s life can be filmed from birth to death, thanks to the video camera. But for my generation there was no such immortality unless one was a movie star or a personage in the newsreels. Briefly I was a newsreel personage. But what I really wanted to be was a movie star. Specifically I wanted to be Mickey Rooney. And to play Puck, as he had done in A Midsummer Night’s Dream .

Last year I watched my famous flight for the first time since 1936. I am now old enough to be my father’s father. He looks like a movie star. I don’t. I am small, blond, with a retroussé nose as yet unfurled in all its Roman glory. I am to fly the plane, and a newsreel crew is on hand to record the event. My father was a master salesman. “This is your big chance to be a movie star,” he said. “All you have to do is remember to take off into the wind.” As I have flown the plane before, I am unafraid. I swagger down the runway, crawl into the plane, and pretend to listen to my father’s instructions. But my eyes are not on him; they are on the cobra-camera’s magic lens. Then I take the plane off; land with a bump; open the door, and face my interviewer.

“What fools these mortals be.” Mickey’s speech, as Puck, is sounding in my ears as I start to speak but cannot speak. I stare dumbly at the camera. My father fills in; then he turns to me. He cues me. What was it like, flying the plane? I remembered the answer that he wanted me to make: It was as easy as riding a bicycle. But, I had argued, it was a lot more complicated than riding a bicycle. Anyway, I was trapped in the wrong script. I said the line. Then I made a face to show my disapproval, and for an instant I resembled not Mickey Rooney but Peter Lorre in M . My screen test had failed.

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.

Finally, in the spring of 1932, I saw at first hand history before it was screened. A thousand veterans of the First War had arrived in the capital to demand a bonus for their services in the late and, to my grandfather, unnecessary war. These veterans were known as the Bonus Army, or Boners for short. By June there were some seventeen thousand of them encamped around Washington and in deserted buildings near the Capitol. The city panicked. There was talk of a revolution, like the recent one in Russia or the one in France that I knew so well from having seen so many movies.

At first I thought that the Boners were just that—white skeletons like those jointed cardboard ones displayed at Halloween. Bony figures filled my nightmares until it was explained to me that these Boners were not from slaughterhouses but from poorhouses. My grandfather was against granting them a bonus. A onetime fiery populist from the Mississippi upcountry and an author of the only socialist constitution of the forty-eight states, he had come to the conclusion that “if there was any race other than the human race, I’d go join it.” He was a true populist, who did not like people very much. He always said no to anyone who wanted government aid. On the other hand, he believed in justice—due process anyway—for all, equally.

As the summer grew hotter and the Depression deepened, and Congress debated whether or not to give the veterans a bonus, rumors spread: they had attacked the White House; they had set fire to the Capitol; and, most horribly, they were looting the Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. I dreamed of skeletons on the march; of Boris Karloff too, as he appeared in The Mummy —all bones and linen wrapping.

On June 17,1932, the Senate met to vote on the bonus bill. I drove with my grandfather to the Capitol, sitting beside him. Davis, his black driver and general factotum, was at the wheel. I stared out the open window, looking for Boners. Instead I saw only shabby-looking men holding up signs and shouting at occasional cars. At the Senate side of the Capitol there was a line of policemen. Before we could pass through the line, Senator Gore was recognized. There were shouts; then a stone came through the window of the car and landed with a crash on the floor between us. My grandfather’s memorable words were “Shut the window,” which I did.

D uring my first twelve years, Depression and the threat of revolution dominated our screens and our history.

Shortly after, the Boners were dispersed by the Army, headed by General MacArthur and his aide Major Eisenhower. Guns were fired; there were deaths. The following Sunday my father and I flew low over what had been the Boners’ encampment at the Anacostia Flats. There were still smoking fires where the shanties had been. The place looked like a garbage dump, which in a sense it had been, a human one.

From that moment on I was alert to all films about the French and Russian revolutions, and from that day I have always known that not only could it happen here, but it probably would.

During my first twelve years, Depression and the threat of revolution dominated our screens, as they did our ongoing history. The next seven years were dominated, first, by the seduction of the United States by England, a replay of 1914–17, and then by the war itself.

The English kept up a propaganda barrage that was to permeate our entire culture, with all sorts of unexpected resuits. Since the movies were by now the principal means of getting swiftly to the masses, Hollywood was subtly, and not so subtly, infiltrated by British propagandists in a way that our poor homegrown Communists must have found heartbreaking.

In The Loved One Evelyn Waugh has described Hollywood’s British colony as it appeared to him immediately after the war. By then the great work was done, and the English actors and writers and directors, who had helped create a pro-British atmosphere in the country, were now able to relax and enjoy their slow games of cricket beneath the orange trees, not to mention beneath the maleficent gaze of Mr. Waugh. But a dozen years before Waugh’s arrival, the British colony had been hard at work, giving the Americans a glorious view of the “mother country,” as they liked to call it, a phrase calculated to put on edge my grandfather’s Anglo-Irish false teeth or even those of my Romanischer father.

In the thirties—as in the teens—the country was divided over whether or not the United States should join England and France against Germany. The so-called liberals—as they are always so called—included Franklin Roosevelt. They were eager to go to war, once war came, on England’s side. The so-called conservatives, like Senator Gore, were against war in general and any war to help the British Empire in particular.

On the other hand, my father was a West Point graduate. As Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, not only had he systematized American civil aviation, but he had been given the secret job of procuring air bases for the coming war, whose locus, for us, would not be Europe but the Pacific.

In those days there was a monthly film documentary called The March of Time ; it was produced by the publishers of the magazines Time, Life , and Fortune . Today’s equivalent would be CBS’s “Sixty Minutes.” The March of Time screened the world through the imperial American eyes of Christ-loving, Red-fearing, people-hating Henry Luce, who had got some of the financing for the original Time magazine from a Yale classmate, my stepfather. I was obliged to call him Uncle Harry. He had thick hair on the backs of his fingers; they looked like caterpillars. He once said, in my hearing, that his famous wife, Clare Boothe Luce, did not understand him. I was thrilled; this was MGM dialogue at its best. Years later he confided to me that the true mission of the United States in the world was the Christianization of China. Uncle Harry was mad as a hatter. But he was a master of the art of screening history.

The March of Time doted on my father. Aviation was glamorous, and he was glamorous. He was only thirty-eight when he took over what was, in effect, the job of Secretary of Aviation. He was also, I now realize, a conscious player in the pre-war war games. One March of Time is devoted to the story of how Gene Vidal took over an uninhabited Pacific island and turned it into a fueling base for an American transpacific commercial air route. Unfortunately the island was a part of the far-flung British Empire, and my father had forgotten to tell the British what he was up to.

Cut to the exterior shot of barren island. Cut to my father, grinning. Cut to comic Englishman, who says, “His Majesty’s government views with alarm.…” Cut to my father at his desk in the Commerce Building. He is deeply sincere. He tells us that no one had ever told him that the island belonged to England, and that he couldn’t be more sorry. He remembered looking at the map just before he took over the island, and he was pretty certain that it was not pink like the rest of the Empire. Maybe the cartographers were at fault…

In any case we kept the island, and it played a part in the long-awaited and planned-for war with Japan. But outside the newsreel theaters Japan was almost entirely ignored. It seemed as if the only country on earth was England and there were no great personages who were not English or impersonated by English actors. I recall no popular films about Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln the President. As as result, England, and to a lesser extent France, dominated all our dreams. It was not until 1939 that we got our story, Gone with the Wind . But by then a whole generation of us film watchers had defended the frontiers of the raj and charged with the Light Brigade at Balaklava. We served neither Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis; we served the Crown.

On-screen the French were not too far behind the British. The Three Musketeers —confusingly four in number—transplanted us to the court of Louis XIII, a rather more satisfying place than that of the feckless Louis XVI or even that of sardonic Louis XV, as played by John Barrymore. We were taken even farther back in time to François Villon, played by the English romantic star Ronald Colman. Unknown to us at the time, Colman was British intelligence’s man in Hollywood, in place to make sure that England would look its best on the screen.

By 1937 royal-mania had gripped the great Republic. Also, a tide of pro-British sentiment came to a well-calculated crescendo in the spring of 1939, when the king and queen came to Washington on a state visit.

I stood in the crowd in front of the Treasury Building and cheered the monarch. George VI was a very small, thin man, with a delicate face painted nut brown in marked contrast with the huge red face of our President, who kept tossing his head around and grinning in imitation of his wife’s uncle, Theodore Roosevelt. But then Presidents almost always imitate successful predecessors. As a speaker Kennedy imitated Franklin Roosevelt, who imitated Woodrow Wilson, who in turn imitated … Jefferson Davis, it was once cruelly said. Now with a century of screened history available at the touch of a button, a wide range of prototypes are available to the ambitious politician.

On both sides of the Atlantic movies were preparing us for a wartime marriage with our English and French cousins, against our Italian and German cousins.

Particularly popular were the productions of an English-based Hungarian, Alexander Korda. He made his first great success with Henry VIII, whose baroque table manners, as demonstrated by Charles Laughton, set an awesome standard for the American child. Korda also befriended an out-of-office politician and journalist named Winston Churchill, who contributed several swatches of purple dialogue to at least one Korda film.

Fire over England was released in 1937, rather early for this sort of gallant little England picture. I was enthralled. But then I had been a Tudor loyalist from my first encounter with that dynasty’s propagandist, Shakespeare, and my role model never ceased to be Mickey Rooney, who, as Puck, proclaimed, “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” Well, I too had famously taken to the air for forty minutes, but I was undone by an inferior script. Had I not been sabotaged by my father’s direction, Mickey and I might have changed places, and he would be a novelist today while I would be touring triumphantly in Sugar Babies . Life is unfair.

F rom 1937 to 1941 we were treated to a hundred Fire over Englands. The United States was largely ignored .

The young leads of Fire over England were Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in their first film together. Flora Robson was Elizabeth I, and Raymond Massey was the Hitler-like King of Spain who is about to launch a fleet against England. He is also Roman Catholic, and he means to overthrow the Protestant ascendancy established by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. Thanks to these films, one knew quite a lot about Tudor times. One also knew exactly what to think about Fire over England , thanks to a series of title cards that start the film.

The first tells us: “In 1587, Spain, powerful in the old world, master in the new, its king, Philip, rules by force and fear.” Hitler and Mussolini immediately spring to mind. The next title card offered hope: “But Spanish tyranny is challenged by the free men of a little island, England.” It was safe now to start on the popcorn. A third card was somewhat confusing: “Everywhere English traders appear, English seamen threaten Spanish supremacy.” We all knew that the famous British fleet was as impregnable as the Maginot Line, and we had seen in the newsreels how the British king liked to dress up as an admiral. But how could a bunch of traders turn into sailors, challenging Spain?

A fourth card appears out of left field: “A woman guides and inspires them, Elizabeth the Queen.” Of course, there were not many of us in that audience who did not know that Elizabeth’s father was Charles Laughton and that her mother, Merle Oberon, lost her head after wistfully stroking what she referred to as “such a tiny neck.” We had also seen Elizabeth mistreat her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, as played by Katharine Hepburn. The definitive Elizabeth, with Bette Davis, would not be screened until 1939, that annum mirabilis of the movies.

A few minutes into the movie we are again told what to think by no less a personage than Lord Burleigh, an ancient courtier, who turns to a handy globe (there is always a globe in these scenes, seldom a map). He then proceeds to instruct the Earl of Leicester in geography, something that the earl probably knew but that we out there in the movie houses of the great isolationist Republic did not. “Here lies England,” the old man croaked, “but half an island, not three hundred miles long nor two hundred miles broad. How small we are, how wretched and defenseless.” He then contrasts the demi-island with all-powerful Spain. He is very glum.

Although a good actress, Flora Robson was not at her ease as a Renaissance sovereign. “I am England,” she thunders; then, rather like Richard Nixon at his zenith, she glances about furtively to make sure that no one has come to take her away.

Upon re-viewing and reflection, Fire over England is unexpectedly bold in its condemnation of Catholicism, at least King Philip’s brand. As someone remarks of the Spanish priests, “They herd souls as we do cattle.” Worse, the script assures us that the struggle between little England and great Spain is actually a “war of ideas,” something that might have given the original Elizabeth a good laugh but caused our heads to nod solemnly as we realized that our common Anglo past was again in peril and, as Lord Burleigh puts it, “We are servants in an old house who train the new servants.” That was us all right, new servants of the old British Empire.

Four years later the Korda team made pretty much the same film called, this time, That Hamilton Woman . Vivien Leigh played Lady Hamilton, and Laurence Olivier played Lord Nelson. Our gallant little island is still not three hundred by two hundred miles in size, but it is menaced now not by a Spanish but by a French dictator while, in real life, the immediate menace in the newsreels was a German dictator. Again the producer was Alexander Korda, and again Winston Churchill helped out with the script, which was the work of one of the few true film auteurs , R. C. Sherriff, famous for the play Journey’s End and the script of that near-perfect film Odd Man Out (1947).

From 1937 to 1941 we were treated to a hundred Fire over Englands .

The United States and its heroes, aside from Westerns, were largely ignored. There were two films about Lincoln before he was President, none about Washington or Jefferson. Of the pre-war American films the most notable was The Grapes of Wrath , a reasonably nonsentimental look at the Okies and their flight from the dust bowl. There was also Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane . If Welles had been less prodigal with his great gifts, he might have screened a good deal more of our history for us. Welles was steeped in politics; he had worked with Roosevelt; he was a miracle of empathy, and he knew all the gradations of despair that the oyster experienced as it slid down his gullet. But he was a romantic genius, and they aim not for perfection in their art but for poignant glamour in their ruins.

My first response to Citizen Kane was shock. There, on the screen, was William Randolph Hearst, my grandfather’s ally and my father’s enemy (our family tended to divide in such things). But thanks to Welles’s empathy for the subject, I thought I understood Hearst, as I still do.

Finally, David Selznick gave us a significant part of our history in Gone with the Wind , just as we ourselves were about to become history, thanks to Franklin Roosevelt. Our generation, he told us—indeed, ordered us—had a rendezvous with destiny, all of it to be screened as it happened.

In June of 1939 I set sail for Europe, with several boys and two masters from Washington’s St. Albans School. We were to spend a month “perfecting” our French near Versailles. Then on to Italy and England. War was about to break out, but we were intrepid. I could not wait to leap up, as it were, onto the screen where so much history had been revealed.

Dover cliffs. Eiffel Tower. The battlefields of the First War and the cemeteries where we saw poppies growing in glorious Technicolor, thanks to the mysterious, if evercredited, Natalie Kalmus. We saw the Maginot Line. These fortifications, the French assured the world, could never be breached by any mortal army. So Hitler sensibly went around them, to the consternation of the French general staff, for whom I had very little respect after their behavior in the Dreyfus case, where innocent Joseph Schildkraut was sent to Devil’s Island. The next year, I was not entirely surprised when France fell despite the French soldier, the poilu, the finest fighting man on earth, according to Henry Luce and all the others who were busy screening the world for us.

On July 14, 1939, I stood on the steps of the Petit Palais and watched France display its military glory in a parade most notable for the North Africans, old comrades of mine from the Foreign Legion movie Under Two Flags . I was awed by the parade until I saw an open car containing a bald man in a business suit. I could spot a politician anywhere in any country. This one was the prime minister of France. He was called Daladier, and he was known to the press as the Bull of Vaucluse. That July 14 he looked very nervous. Later he proved to be more heifer than bull when he fell captive to the Germans.

Despite the heat of Rome in August, I was ecstatic. I was finally where I belonged. I haunted the Forum and the Palatine. In addition to all the Roman movies that I had seen, the first serious book that I ever read was a Victorian edition of Stories from Livy . I was steeped in Rome, and I also lived in Washington, a city whose marble columns were a self-conscious duplicate of the old capital of the world, even though our city lacked six of the seven hills and a contiguous world empire.

D uring this time did I ever see a good movie? The answer is yes, probably, but how would I have known?

On a hot evening we attended the outdoor opera in the Baths of Caracalla. Turandot was being staged. Next to us, under the stars, sat Mussolini. He wore a white uniform, and he looked almost as worried as Daladier. At the first intermission he got up and left. As he passed within a yard of me, I got a powerful whiff of cologne, which struck me as degenerate. A moment later Mussolini was on the stage, taking a bow with the diva. The crowd shouted “Duce”; then he was gone.

At the end of August the border between Italy and France was shut. Luckily we were aboard one of the last trains to get through. We hurried on to London and stayed in Russell Square, Bloomsbury. On September first Germany invaded Poland. We stood outside 10 Downing Street and watched the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, come out and get into his car, en route to Parliament, where he would tell the world that the war had come at last.

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.

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