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One Year of Home Movie Day Extravaganzas in Words and Pictures

October 23, 2014

“The films you’ll see at Home Movie Day enable those of us who weren’t around at the time to visit moments like the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940, and I for one can’t get enough of those. Documentary filmmakers build whole features around such footage, and I’m sure historians will continue to rely on amateur movies to tell them what life was like in 20th century America.” – Leonard Maltin


Well put, Mr. Maltin.


Since October 2013, I've attended 4 Home Movie Day related screenings in the LA area: Hollywood Home Movies, Home Movie Day Ojai, Home Movie Day LA, and "From the East: Home Movies from Cold War-era Eastern Europe." Though all the programs had to do with home movies, each event was unique and fascinating in its own way.


I've volunteered for Home Movie Day LA for the past three years, after first hearing about it in 2012 when the venue was the Cinefamily, which is within walking distance of my apartment. The event combined two of my passions: film and history, so it was a natural fit for me; plus, I am a volunteer addict. Furthermore, because of the film/archival component, many of the volunteers are from the archival community, so naturally, I had to make myself known to them! In fact, I'm usually the only volunteer at these events who is neither working in the field nor enrolled in a Moving Image Archive Studies program (though I always inevitably have conversations about both while there, and the answer is always yes when asked if I want to break into the field).

Another perk of volunteering for Home Movie Day is the super cute postcards you get to scatter around town (or keep for yourself).

What is fascinating to me about Home Movie Day, which occurs worldwide at various times during the year, is the human factor. Some people bring footage of their parents/grandparents/family that they haven't seen in decades. Others perhaps never had the chance to view their movies, because most people don't have working projectors. Sometimes, a reel is dropped off and the owner isn't sure if the film itself is viewable. The combination of these stories - contained on the film and off of it - can make these screenings quite emotional, not only for the person who brought the footage in (I've seen tears shed before) but also for the others in the audience who are sharing a poignant experience with someone who is most likely a complete stranger.


Each year, reels are dropped off that have either been recently re-discovered in an attic or basement or purchased at flea markets, garage sales, or online. Usually, those in possession of these movies have no idea what they'll behold once the film rolls. If the footage features a family (which it commonly does), then the entire room is viewing what is generally a personal glimpse into a complete stranger's life. These selections are more like guessing games; audience members are encouraged to shout out and identify familiar looking landmarks and trends that could provide insight into the film's location and time period. While I love trying to decipher the when and where of these particular movies, I always find myself wondering how and why these reels, particularly if they were purchased, split with their original owners and ended up screening in a small dark room in Los Angeles! 

Joan Crawford and film. Can't tell from here if it's a home movie or not!

Hollywood Home Movies - October 12, 2013

Last October, the Academy Film Archive presented a selection of Hollywood Home Movies at the Linwood Dunn Theater following Home Movie Day LA hours before in the same venue.  The films that screened featured appearances by Humphrey Bogart, Billie Burke, Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable, Cary Grant, and Jean Harlow, just to name a few.


Since the event took place before the existence of this blog, I didn’t think to take notes, but a few selections stand out in my memory: Walt Disney conducting a mini steam ship ride with children…somewhere; the wrap party for It’s A Wonderful Life featuring the cast, crew, and their families (Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra appeared a few times); Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on a boat; and Satchel Paige pitching at Wrigley Field in LA.


While these films are part of the Academy's collection, there were some present in the audience with ties to specific shorts shown; though I don’t remember names, someone who knew Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz introduced their film, and I believe a friend of Mitzi Gaynor’s discussed the footage she appeared in. One woman in attendance who was in her 80s or 90s was an actress, and when asked what year she made her first movie, she responded that it was in the early-mid 1920s. There aren't many men or women left who can claim they worked during the silent days!


Naturally, the event was sold out. While some people may not find watching stranger's home movies interesting, the crowd at the Linwood Dunn certainly did, though most of these 'strangers' had very public faces, of course! Many of the shorts screened that evening were filmed during a period - the 30s-50s - that has been glamorized for years, and it was fascinating to steal a glimpse of these movie stars (many of them legends with well-documented personalities) outside a movie set, studio, or red carpet event. Though movie magazines and tabloids such as Screenland and Confidential had been in circulation for a while, the saturation and reach of the intrusive media was not as intense and all encompassing as it is today; as evidenced in these films, those in the public eye still retained a considerable amount of privacy, particularly with their families.

The Ojai Art Center. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Home Movie Day Ojai - August 16, 2014

Ojai is a village with a population of about 8000 that lies east of Ventura and northwest of Los Angeles. Before visiting for the first time in August, I had associated the town with stories of posh company retreats and desert relaxation and luxury. Though I didn't get to see much of the community, my blind impression wasn’t too far off from the atmosphere I eventually encountered.


At an early Home Movie Day LA volunteer meeting, it was mentioned that Ojai wanted to host their first Home Movie Day event and asked for assistance from the LA volunteer crew. Since I’d never been to Ojai before, and I have already established that I am volunteer-crazy, I offered to help. Though I possess no useful skills in film preparation or handling, I journeyed to Ojai to man the info/check-in table, take notes, tweet, and provide general moral support.

One woman brought enough reels to screen the entire three hours - and then some! (Picture by Kim Luperi)

The event took place at the adorable Ojai Art Center off one of the main streets in the village. Since it was the first event of its kind in town, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of attendance. However, we were pleasantly surprised when about 20 people dropped off movies! I was perched in between the check-in/info table (also to give directions to the restrooms and the children’s opera, which was sharing the space with us) and the room the screenings took place in. During some down time, I was able to talk to one of the event organizers, Ann Horton, a film archivist who lived on the east coast for years and recently moved/semi retired to Ojai. Though Ojai is an insanely tiny town compared to LA, the community members, Ann included, are very vested in the arts – music, theater, film, etc. This passion was very evident in the conversations I had with Ann, the people who stopped by, those who dropped off films, and also the local volunteers (some of whom were still in high school). 

Brian, one of the Home Movie Day volunteers, inspecting some film, on the right. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

The films screened ranged in time period and location, as they tend to do. We watched home movies shot in Korea during the Korean War, narrated by the man who was there and filmed them; beautiful Kodachrome images of Disneyland in 1956; and footage recorded in Greece, brought in by a woman who lived there as a child. When asked, most people who shared their movies admitted that they hadn’t viewed the film's contents in 40 or 50 years! 

A Home Movie Day attendee providing some background info on his film. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Anyone remember seeing this at Disneyland? (Picture by Kim Luperi)

All in all, Ojai's 1st Home Movie Day was a success. For each person who enthusiastically brought in a film or two to share, there was one more person who walked in and curiously asked about the event, disappointed that they didn't know about it earlier so they could participate too. Marketing for an inaugural event is always a bit difficult, but now at least there's word of mouth to help promote next year's program!

We had a nice crowd for Ojai's first Home Movie Day! (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Coverage and images from Home Movie Day LA and "From the East: Home Movies from Cold War-era Eastern Europe" continue on the next page...

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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