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1930s Home Movies


Have you ever watched the PBS show History Detectives? I'm in the middle of our own episode tracking down the history of some 16mm home movies I just came into possession of. The entire month of September has been consumed researching the oldest of them.

The story behind the movie: I moved to Nebraska in 1971 after my discharge from the Air Force. Somewhere in the mid-nineties my friend Walt Carlson called to ask if I'd be interested in joining him at his friend Joe Burke's apartment to watch some 16mm films that Joe had shot over the years in national parks across the U.S. & Canada. I was so captivated with Joe's films that we continued to meet every Sunday evening at his apartment for three months until we had viewed all of the reels.

Joe died in 1999 at the age of 81 and, having no family of his own save for two sisters, left the reels to Walt. Ever since that time I have urged Walt to have the movies digitized to preserve them before they deteriorate much further as I consider them to be national treasures. But Walt looked upon Joe as a father figure because as a teenager, Joe had taken him on several of these trips. So, Walt has kept them in his Omaha basement ever since and never looked at them. I learned not to push the issue too strongly, but I also refused to let go of it altogether.

When I called Walt this past July 22nd to wish him a happy 55th birthday, I brought up the subject of Joe's films again. This time Walt agreed that if something wasn't done the films would end up in a dump after he died. The next day I received an email from him containing just two words: Thank you. The next day I received another email with a UPS tracking number. Walt sent me the first four reels of film in a package that weighed 40 pounds and a week later sent me a check for $800 to defray the cost of having them digitized by a company out here in San Ramon that specializes in such projects.

The 40 pounds of film were digitized and saved out to four DVDs. You gotta love today's technology! I also had the company save them onto DV tape so I could import them into a computer and add subtitles to identify the places shown. The first two reels contained three separate films I had never seen and were labeled Northern Europe 1934, Around the World 1939,  and New York Skyline. The last title turned out to be a TWA promotional film produced circa 1955. The other two were shot by Joe's father. I've already proved that the film marked 1939 (in color!) could not possibly have been filmed that year because the cruise ship shown at the beginning of it was decommissioned in 1937, hence the film is actually two years older.

There are no sound tracks or subtitles on any of the films, hence identifying the locations in each has turned out to be quite a challenge for me. I've started with the 1934 film, the only one shot in black & white, and since I've never been to Europe it's proving to be quite a challenge to figure out the places Joe's father and mother visited that year. I've made educated guesses and Pat & I have done a ton of Googling to compare images found on the internet to what we see in the film. We've probably identified 40% of what's on the film with this method. But how to identify the rest?

I started by taking a copy on DVD to the San Francisco Maritime Library and showing it to staff who were able to identify the countries and some of the scenes. Since San Francisco has a consulate for just about every nation on the planet, I've been visiting the consulates for further help with the film. At this point I'm approaching 80% completion with the identification process and the consulate employees have provided web addresses for museums and historical societies within their respective nations to help with the areas none of us could figure out.

Hopefully I will have finished work on the 1934 Northern Europe film in time to show it at our Rainbow RV rally in Fort Bragg (California, not North Carolina) on the Mendocino coast October 4-7. Films on life in the 1930s are like wet dreams for most gay men. Pat and I can't get enough Agatha Christie films, nor can most of our friends. Ultimately I hope that PBS, the National Archives, or both will be interested in having copies of these films (donated, of course!).

Sneak Preview

One of the more amazing clips that Joe's dad managed to film is of Hitler Youth marching down the Unter Den Linden in 1934 Berlin, five years before the initial invasion of Poland.

Research into the 86 seconds of film shot in the Netherlands unearthed a historical time capsule. From various web resources, I uncovered the following:

Around the Zuiderzee many fishing villages grew up and several developed into walled towns with extensive trade connections, in particular towns in Holland such as Amsterdam, Hoorn, and Enkhuizen. These towns traded at first with ports on the Baltic Sea, in England, and in the Hanseatic League, but later also with the rest of the world, when the Netherlands established its colonial empire. When that lucrative trade diminished, most of the towns fell back on fishing and some industry until the 20th century when tourism became the major source of income. Contained within the Zuiderzee were four small islands, the remains of what were once larger islands or peninsulas connected to the mainland. These were Wieringen, Urk, Schokland, and Marken. The inhabitants of these islands also subsisted mainly on fishing and related industries and still do in the case of Urk and Wieringen. All of these islands are now part of the mainland or connected to it.

The construction in the early 20th century of a large enclosing dam (the Afsluitdijk) tamed the Zuiderzee. The creation of this dam was a response to the flood of January 1916. Plans for closing the Zuiderzee had been made over thirty years earlier but had not yet passed in parliament. With the completion of the Afsluitdijk in 1932, the Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer, and large areas of water could be reclaimed for farming and housing. These areas, known as polders, were respectively the Wieringermeer, the Noordoostpolder, and Flevoland. This enormous project under the direction of Cornelis Lely, called the Zuiderzeeworks, ran from 1919 to 1986, culminating in the creation of the new province of Flevoland. The reclamation project was originally intended to reclaim the former southwestern portion of the Zuiderzee, a body of water now known as the Markermeer, but this final stage of the reclamation project was indefinitely postponed in the 1980s.

Lake Marken (Dutch Markermeer) is a 700 km2 lake in the central Netherlands in between North Holland, Flevoland and its larger sibling, the IJsselmeer. A shallow lake at some 3 to 4 m in depth, it is named after the small former island, now peninsula, of Marken that lies within it.

The Markermeer was not originally intended to remain a lake. It used to be part of the Zuiderzee, a salt water inlet of the North Sea, that was dammed off by the Afsluitdijk (Closure Dike) in 1932, turning the Zuiderzee into the fresh water IJsselmeer. The following years saw the reclamation of extensive tracts of land as large polders in a massive project known as the Zuiderzee Works (this article has a map of the area). One of these, the Markerwaard, was to occupy the area of the current Markermeer. Part of the construction of this last polder was building the Houtribdijk, also called Markerwaarddijk, finished in 1976, which hydrologically splits the IJsselmeer in two, the southern section being the Markermeer.

Because of changing priorities and doubts about the financial feasibility, the Markerwaard was indefinitely postponed in the 1980s and the Markermeer has since begun to become a valuable ecological and recreational asset of its own.

The Markermeer is used as a freshwater reservoir and a buffer against flood waters and droughts. In 2003 Holland was hit by drought, and several peat dikes were endangered or even collapsed. The Dutch reversed water flows in the Amsterdam area, so that water from the Markermeer helped to wet the endangered areas.

The unavoidable accelerated rate at which these once isolated communities joined the rest of the world, had a tremendous impact with inevitable consequences, not least upon the recognised and familiar beautiful traditional costumes. Now, only the older people, and in particular the older women, remain faithful to these characteristic traditional garments. It is feared that these once splendid traditional costumes will slowly disappear. In recognition of this threat, the Organisation for Traditional Clothing Volendam was established in 1954. The organisation’s objective is to maintain as fully and authentically as possible the traditional costumes, and to encourage their wearing. The annual Volendam weekend, fair days during the summer months and the church high feast days are more and more given over as opportunities to don these beautiful costumes.

The film captured by Joe's dad in 1934 shows the residents of these isolated fishing communities just two years after the Zuiderzee had been dyked off and before the new contact with the outside world had a chance to eradicate their traditonal customs and dress.