When I was a teenager, we had a neighbor next door who lived in the same house since the mid-1930s. She had a sister who was a pack rat, and subscribed to magazines and news papers, and never threw them away. Rather, she put them in the garage. After fifty years of this, the garage was full. Since my neighbor’s sister passed away, my neighbor asked me if I would clean out the garage for her for a sum, and said I could keep whatever I found in the garage.
The house was a nice thirties-style California house, two stories, with stucco and a Spanish tile roof, and three huge avocado trees in the backyard. The garage was detached, and was just big enough for a decent sized DeSoto if it weren’t for the fact that it was fully stuffed with newspapers and magazines. Over the next week, I attacked the garage.
The garage was a time machine. When I opened the garage door, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of relatively recent newspapers. Most of what I found was, at least to me, just a bunch of papers, and so I recycled virtually all them. However, I hit pay dirt when I got to the 1930s and ’40s, which was about 80% into the garage. I found dozens of copies of magazines like GQ, Look, Liberty, Life, and others. I kept a lot of them, and sold a number to used book stores in Hollywood.
The magazines I really prized, and the ones I still have today, were from the ’30s: The first few years of “Look” magazine, and a pile of “Motion Picture” and “Photoplay” mags. These magazines were so beautiful! The colors of the covers were so rich, with pictures of the stars, like Deanna Durbin, Olivia De Havilland, Delores Del Rio, Sonia Henny, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. I fell in love with the glamor that was 1930s Hollywood. All the stars were dressed to the nines. They all drove huge Duesenbergs, Cords, and Lincolns, and smoked Lucky Strikes (with the green pack), or Camels, or Chesterfields. They all smiled, and when they were not smiling, they were fighting over some man. It was a walk into a world that was vivid and alive before me, but which no longer existed.
I have a box set of movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first few movies were from the years 1929 through 1937: “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,”and “The Life of Emile Zola.” “Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win Best Picture. It won the Oscar eighty-seven years ago.
These four movies are worth watching. It is interesting to see how movies changed during the “Golden Age,” but more importantly, at a time when Hollywood was cranking out movies by the trainload, these were the best of their time, and are really well made, and entertaining.
As I watched these movies, I realized that everyone in them or involved in making them is dead now. Every actor, every extra, all the sound men, all the camera men, the screen writers, the directors, the producers, the caterers, everyone. And yet, here they are, alive, on the screen. You see and hear the actors. You hear the words of the writers, you see the direction of the directors, and the cinematography of the cameramen. They live on, even though they are no longer here in the flesh.
A few years ago I realized that technology has given us a gift that I don’t think people really understand. And that is: we are the first people who can see and hear what generations past really looked like and sounded like. Photography first started in 1839, and sound recording started in 1877, so we have records of people going back to the nineteenth century – all of whom are now dead. But movies with sound came into being in 1927, less than one hundred years ago. While photographs and sound recordings are great, movies bring people to life. It fascinates me that we can see people on the screen, and they are alive! And yet they are no longer with us.
We as human beings naturally put our generation and our era as the pinnacle of times. We know so much. We are dealing with problems no one ever heard of before. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ’30s – oh, it was so much simpler then! So much more innocent! They never had to deal with the problems we have now. How did they ever live without ATM machines or mobile phones? But I don’t believe there ever were innocent times. Humans are brutal and we tend to focus on the good and gloss over the bad when we cast our memories back to those “simpler times.”
When you you look at motion pictures from decades ago – ideally the best ones, but even the worst ones, you are forced to recon with the fact that these people really were alive. They breathed and they lived and they married, and mourned, and lived in fear, and triumph – and you know that these people, these generations now dead, had the same fears and aspirations, and desires, and faults that we have now. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know what happened after these movies were made, and we know what happened to the actors and the players in them, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia. At the time, we didn’t know how the depression would end. Considering that other countries resorted to fascism and communism to attempt to solve their economic challenges, and given where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head was at, we could have easily become a socialist state. No one knew at the time. We do know that they partied and enjoyed their good times when they had them. It seems every generation thinks the old folks were stodgy and that they are the first generation to have fun and stay out all night. But we know that’s not true. We know because we read, but we really know because of the movies. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936 – and it was about people who stayed up all night partying on Broadway:
When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.
If you clicked on the link above and saw the Busby Berkeley clip of all those dancers tapping in the movie, you have know know that virtually all of them are no longer with us. But they were alive! And every single one of them had their dreams and aspirations of making it in Hollywood, and every single one of them was flesh and blood. Whatever life they ended up having after this clip, it is over now.
Then we look at something like this, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and marvel at how beautiful and poetic it is, and how alive Fred and Ginger are, and how even then people were desperate, had money problems, were discouraged, were suicidal, and:
There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.
We are human beings and yet we are so quick to forget that there have been human beings for thousands of years before our generation, and that every generation in every country, and on every continent, in every era, in every station of life, lived and loved and bled and hurt and died. And we have documented it now. The previous generations are no longer figments of history books or snippets of novels about rich people, or books of quotations. We can see them, alive, on the screen, even though they are long dead.
I find it reassuring. I don’t feel alone in my experiences. While whatever we are dealing with now is real and urgent to us, it is comforting to know that other people faced similar and even worse situations and lived – at least in the aggregate. It is reassuring and sometimes frustrating to know that history has echoes. You can look at the fight Humankind has had with ignorance, want, and evil, and be discouraged that we still have to fight ignorance, want, and evil. And yet, while we have had horrific experiences as a species, we are still here, and we have won the major battles, albeit with casualties. We have dodged nuclear war, so far, when the odds were against us. We have become more tolerant over our existence even though there are still deep pockets of intolerance. We are winning the fight to transcend primitive tribalism, even though there are those that are grasping onto it with both hands. We are incrementally better. But we were also pretty damn good back in the day, as well. And now we have the proof we didn’t have before.