Old home movies are full of surprises

By From page A12 | January 27, 2013

For a man of his generation, my father, born in 1916, was a techie. He made home movies on film that needed to be spliced and cared for and shown on a special projector that broke down a lot.

Today, I am the lucky beneficiary. I inherited some of his techie qualities but more important, I inherited his home movies.

I know the early reels well because we watched them often as a family. What I didn’t realize until December, when I had the movies transferred to DVDs as a gift, was that the film continues well into my teenage years on reels I don’t remember.

Watching them now is akin to putting binoculars in front of my eyes and suddenly learning that a hummingbird has a long tongue. Even though sound is absent and the film quality is poor — every scene looks dusty — I was riveted by the movies.

At first, what struck me were the “signs of the times.” Details you pay no attention to when making a family movie — like the car, the furniture and the clothes — jump out at you when they’re 50 years old. I saw chrome-festooned vehicles, crowds of smoking people, women wearing hats and gloves and the New York skyline, not after the World Trade Center, but before.

Women wore their hair “teased,” children bounced freely around in the car (no car seats, no seatbelts) and Coke came in bottles that weren’t retro.

This is cool stuff, but I can find it elsewhere, like at the movie theater or in nostalgic emails that get passed among friends. However, the material in the foreground of our home movies — what my parents did with us and what they chose to film — is a private gold mine.

Two settings figured so prominently in the home movies that I thought, “that’s why I am what I am today.”

First was water.

If a Martian came to see our family movies, he would conclude that humans spend more time on water than on land. In reel after reel we’re swimming in a lake or a pool or the ocean. We’re paddling floats, canoes or rowboats. We’re riding in river vessels: ferries, tour boats and, in Paris, a bateau mouche.

Little Marion, I notice, jumps into cold water quickly, and teenage Marion swims far out into the waves at Jones Beach, New York, farther than anyone except her dad.

I thought I became a whitewater kayaker because my husband introduced me to the river, and I fell in love with him and paddling simultaneously. Now I see that the chicken may have been my family’s passion for water; Bob was the Johnny-come-lately egg.

After water, animals dominate the movies. My brother hugs a cat. I feed a country neighbor’s goat milk from a bottle. My mother refills the bird feeder while the squirrels look on.

No mallard duck or Canada goose looked so much like the others that he didn’t merit his own time on film.

At the Bronx Zoo, which we visited frequently, my father uses his film, pricey in those days, to record long shots of elephants, seals and lions. In those scenes, my mother is the one who is leaning farthest into the elephant’s pen, almost to the tipping point, to offer a carrot.

Is it any wonder that I hang bird feeders, crane my neck for river otters, and bend low to study tracks and scat?

Watching hours of film, I also noticed what was absent. We did not shop, even on vacation. Although we played tennis and croquet, we did not participate in team sports. We were outdoorsy but we didn’t camp.

I’m still not much of a shopper, nor do I play team sports, although I do love sleeping outdoors in a tent.

Since the movie camera was most often in my father’s hands, I can tell what interests him and the answer is, No. 1, his children. He took far more movies of us than of anything else. Interestingly, when the camera was passed to my mother, she took as many pictures of him as she did of us.

My father’s most frequent non-water shot of the family was this: my mother, brother and I coming out of our house in Eastchester, N.Y.

We descend the five steps from our porch in simple finery, on our way to occasions that don’t show up on the film. I’m not sure what that walk down the stairs meant to my father, but it must have been important to him.

Something about being a provider?

When I watch the “family descending a staircase” shots, I focus on my mother, noticing how genteel she was, understated — not much of a shopper either — but lovely in colors she chose well. Although I don’t know what happened in private, I wish that my father had occasionally remarked out loud in front of my brother and me how beautiful, how graceful, she was. I might have known it, then.

Instead, I learned it last month, 50 years late, at the home movies.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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