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Passing Time and the Challenge of Catching "Eyewitnesses to History"

Civilian Conservation Corps enrolees watch a film. Gerald W. Williams Coll., Oregon State University Library Commons

 “It’s better to be five years too early than one day too late,” says the media scholar Michael Socolow, quoting the grim motto about conducting interviews with eyewitnesses to history.

Always good advice, the admonition acquires a special urgency when an age group nears its expiration date.  Print documents and archival footage only render what is already preserved.  A face-to-face conversation with an in-the-flesh, there-at-the-creation human adds texture, detail, and insight not extant in the records, filling in the blanks of history.  In “The Witness,” a wonderful short story by Jorge Louis Borges, the narrator ruminates over what is lost when an event fades from the memory of a living person.  “In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ,” he muses. “The Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.”

Of course, historians have picked the brains of real people at least since Herodotus, but in America the systematic interrogation of the ordinary rungs of humankind began in the 1930s, under the aegis of the Federal Writers’ Project during FDR’s New Deal.  Its priceless legacy was a series of interviews conducted with the last generation of formerly enslaved people, of which some 10,000 were still alive in the 1930s.  Appropriately, Studs Terkel, who worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, helped bring the practice mainstream with his Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, published in 1970. Today, no historian whose timeline is within reach of a survivor would think of going to press without a firsthand account. 

In cinema, the touchstone for eyewitness testimony is the BBC’s The Great War (1964), the epochal twenty-six part series that highlighted the featured players: the tommies in the trenches, the nurses behind the lines, and the anxious families on the homefront. Prior to The Great War, it seems not to have occurred to documentary filmmakers that ordinary people could say something interesting on screen and displace that pontificating Voice of God booming on the soundtrack.  

The Great War set the pattern for most future archival documentaries, notably the next momentous excavation of war, the Thames Television series The World at War (1973-1974), perhaps the most influential and widely seen of all documentaries about the event that has inspired more documentaries than anything else in the 20th century.  It is daunting to think that, after more than 75 years, the end of that line has finally been reached, that the participants have aged out. Luke Holland’s Final Account (2021) is billed, probably accurately, as the deathbed confessions of the last of the generation that endured, fought, or fueled the Third Reich.

What happened to the greatest generation is now happening to its children, the baby boomers, who never thought such a thing was possible. The impulse to get-them-on- film-now is readily apparent in the current wave of documentaries chronicling the rock culture of the 1960s, all made with one eye on the actuary charts.  The recent documentary biopics of Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, and Robbie Robertson are all infused with the sense that, if we want to hear from the now septa- and octogenarian voices of their generation, we had best get their recollections on film post-haste.   

My own bailiwick-- classical Hollywood cinema--is fast approaching its Borgesian moment.  The first generation of filmmakers and -goers who could recall the unique allure of silent film spectatorship, of being “spellbound in darkness” as Lillian Gish put it, is either gone or more perishable than nitrate film stock. Fortunately, finding people who remember going to movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood--from say 1930 to 1960-- is easier, though it’s getting ever sparser at the more distant end of the spectrum.

For myself, the reception of the films is as interesting as the production—getting first-hand accounts of crowd reactions to the first screenings of a film on its original release date. The vox populi expressions of approval or disapproval heard in the space of a theater register the mood of people as accurately as a Gallup Poll: crowds hurling plosive “raspberries” at Prohibition advocates, cheering FDR, and hissing the Nazis (or, in some venues, standing up with raised arms yelling “Heil Hitler!”).  Film critics at the time often provided a marketing service to motion picture producers by recording not just their own reactions to a movie but how it played with a paying audience. Attending a screening of Tsar to Lenin (1937), a pioneering American-made documentary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a reviewer for Motion Picture Herald noted the response from a partisan crowd who applauded shots of Lenin and closeups of the hammer and sickle. Trotskyites cheered when their man appeared on screen and Stalinists shouted catcalls.

Eighty to ninety million Americans per week went to the movies during Hollywood’s Golden Age, which leaves behind a good sampling to draw on.  For some veteran moviegoers, it’s all a blur, but most people can dredge up the peak moments of impact.  The two movie memories almost everyone can rewind are the shock of seeing the first screenings of the Nazi concentration camp footage in May 1945 and the jolts delivered by Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho in 1960.  A surprising number can quote the curtain line from the bleakest Hollywood film of the Great Depression, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), when Paul Muni walks backwards into the pitch-black frame and rasps, “I steal.” Almost every African American moviegoer who came of age during the Jim Crow era vividly recalls a different kind of movie moment: the humiliation of separate seating in the “colored balcony” (and that was the polite term) or of being turned away from admission at a whites-only theater.   

A certain percentage of old-timers possess a near photographic memory for the photoplays of their youth. “I first saw Ziegfeld Girl at the Loew’s State in LA, on a double bill with Dead Men, in spring 1941, right before I was drafted. The newsreel before showed Charles Lindbergh speaking at an America First rally at Madison Square Garden and the whole crowd hissed.  It was the first time I heard the Lone Eagle hissed. It was my second date with the girl I later married. I forgot my wallet, she had to buy the tickets, and I was afraid she’d think I was a cheapskate.”

He can go on. You can verify the screening, the time, and the place, but with that kind of mind for detail, you hardly need bother.

Sometimes, the memories can be poignant and revelatory.  Years ago, while speaking to a group at a Jewish Community Center, I played one of my favorite film clips, a sequence from the MGM film Boys Town (1938), a heartwarming melodrama about the civic-minded orphanage outside Omaha, Nebraska, featuring Spencer Tracy as the two-fisted priest Father Edward J. Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as the tough punk who wants no part of Roman Catholic rehabilitation. An early scene shows the boys in a common dining hall.  Before the meal, they pause to recite grace. The camera cuts to a montage of faces; each boy recites the words to his own blessing, a chorus of different voices and faiths. One boy at the table—featured prominently--wears a yarmulke and speaks the blessing in Hebrew.  The word “Jew” is never uttered but the ecumenical meaning of the sequence--Boy’s Town is a Catholic orphanage but no one will be made to deny his faith—is a message that in 1938, with Nazism on the march in Europe, sent out a powerful message.  

After the talk, a white-haired woman approached me.  “I just love Boys Town,” she said.  “You know, the first time I saw that film was as a girl, in Budapest, in 1939.” She paused. “Of course, when I first saw it, the censors had cut out the scene of the Jewish boy praying.”

I couldn’t help but think: how could she have known about the Jewish boy unless she saw the film after 1939?

Maybe she saw the question in my eyes.  

 “The reason I know the scene was censored was because a family friend did the Hungarian subtitling for Hollywood movies allowed into the country—and he told us that a Jewish boy was in the original version, but the Hungarian censors cut him out.”

I know Boys Town was released in Budapest in February 1939 and I’ll take her word for the rest.