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Investigating Home Movies from the Prelinger Collection

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This guest post was written by Madeline Mitchell, a 2019 Jr. Fellow in the Moving Image Section.

When you say “home movies,” a specific image pops into my head. I see my brother at 3 years old playing with a kid’s golf set. He is the perfect combination of toddler cuteness and clumsiness and he knocks himself in the head with a plastic golf club and tumbles to the ground.

The association is unique and personal, but the experience is not. My guess is that many others have already started to think about their own favorite moments from their family’s home movies.

My work this summer as a Jr. Fellow in the Library’s Moving Image Section has focused on home movies, specifically films, from the Prelinger Collection. There are approximately 500 home movies in this collection and the films document people, communities, and “everyday life” through moving images, providing significant contributions to cultural heritage and understanding, as one of the most authentic purveyors of information about the past.

Beginning to match films together in the Prelinger Collection. Moving Image Section.

The Library of Congress acquired the Prelinger Collection in 2002. As a prolific collector, Rick Prelinger is still actively collecting materials for his archives, acquiring films from a variety of sources, including donors and individual dealers.  With the exception of donations, information about acquisitions is often lost and removed from their original context. In many cases, films are not labeled with any documentation at all. Part of my job was to match films that belong together by comparing dates, locations, subjects, and handwriting.

Working with home movies that are separated by so much time and space quickly becomes complicated. As amateur films, the identity of the people depicted is often a mystery. Moving images have the power to reanimate people who lived and died decades ago, yet they remain at a frustrating distance. They do not make a sound, as most home movies shot on film are silent.

It is a puzzle that can only be solved with a combination of investigation, deduction, and acceptance of the fact that you will never know all the answers – but you can come pretty close. In any case, a small bit of context can entirely change how a film is read and described.

Case study: Jack Levy Family Collection

Consider the following collection description:

This amateur movie collection was originally shot by and for the Jack Levy family, who derived their fortunes from a family business that produced Levy’s Jewish Rye Bread. The films came from a man on Long Island who had been the elevator operator in the building where the Levys lived. He saw the films discarded in a corridor and asked for them. He sold them to Rick Prelinger in 1985.

As a collector, Prelinger would have no reason to doubt this story. The films primarily show a couple from New York taking transatlantic trips in the 1930’s. Their wealth is evident not only from their frequent travels at the height of the Great Depression, but also from their expensive clothing and furs. Without further research, the description given by the elevator operator holds up.

When I began researching the Levy family (of rye bread fame) to find out exactly how Jack fit into the picture, I came up empty. Nowhere in their family tree could I find a Jack or similar name that was a plausible fit. I began to question who exactly Jack Levy was and whether he was in these films at all.

Lesson one: Peel Your Eyes

As mentioned above, home movies on film are usually silent. This makes visual information key to identification. Flags, landmarks, even clothing and cars can convey important information about the setting.

Benjamin Levy photo: [Rex to Rio#3, Benjamin Levy family home movies], 1938. Prelinger Collection, Moving Image Section.
When it became evident that the couple in this film may not match those in the collection description, I began to rely on visual clues to crack the code. Any piece of text (including the language it is in) can be big clue. In this case, the man in the couple poses with a chalkboard showing the date and location. Next to him is a lifesaver bearing the name of the ship. Another film shows someone named Nell’s birthday party on January 14, 1935. Using these two pieces of information and searching the National Archives online databases, I found  the passenger manifest for this specific voyage and learned that the man is not Jack Levy, but Benjamin Levy. His wife, Helen, is traveling with him and her birth date is January 14, leading me to realize that she is Nell. Armed with these names, I was able to find 24 other passenger lists that coincide with dates and locations of about half of the Levy films. In addition to this, I found a passport application with a photo from 1924, which confirmed that this was the same man I was seeing on film.

Lesson two: Beware of Assumptions

Visualizing connections for the Levy family at my desk, no red string required.

For the Levy family, second-guessing the collection description led me to an identification. However, I cannot conclusively say that there is no connection between this family and the Rye Levys, just that I have yet to find one. This lesson also applies to the content of films. It is easy to feel like you know someone when you are peeking into their life via their home movies, but there is a stark contrast being knowing about someone and actually knowing them. While travelling in Italy, for example, the Levys managed to capture amateur color footage of Hermann Göring at a rally in 1937. I will never know how they came to be at this event,  what they knew about Nazism at the time or how they felt at the rally. These are very natural questions, but it is important to read the film as document and not draw sweeping conclusions about the family that filmed it.


Lesson 3: Let It Be

Red-haired woman photo [New York Snowstorm, Coney Island, R. W. Wathen home movies], ca 1943.  Prelinger Collection, Moving Image Section.
Unfortunately, not every story is a success story. It is similar to doing a word problem where there isn’t enough information provided to solve for the answer. For example, another set of films in the collection follows a lively older woman with vibrant red hair over the course of 2 decades. Though I can track when and where she is easily enough, I don’t yet have the clues to determine who she is. I have many theories, none of which have panned out. As it is, she remains “unidentified red-haired woman”  in over 30 films. A little bit of information often just leads to more questions. Though I would love to devote more time to solving these puzzles, I have learned that some things you just have to accept in order to keep the process moving.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to reference librarians in the Moving Image Research Center or use Ask-A-Librarian if you have questions or are looking for a particular film from the Prelinger Collection or  need information about any other film in our collections.



Comments (2)

  1. This is great! Thank you! Perhaps you can make the unknown footage available to the public, with what you do know (maybe by location), to help gather more information?

  2. Madeline’s work was very impressive. I echo her statement that much film floats into archives without much documentation, which is a significant problem but also an opportunity for archivists and scholars to do the research that might reanchor the film in time and place. One small correction for posterity — while I have done my bit to prevent films from being thrown into the trash, I recall no occasion in which I actually dove into dumpsters or reached into rubbish to save film.

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