Up the Riggings, You Monkeys!
For Christmas, 1972, when I was almost two months old, my parents’ friend Mr. White gave them a book called A New Pictorial History of the Talkies. My mom taught grade school with Mr. White in the Virgin Islands, and this formal manner of addressing him in the halls carried over into their social interactions as well. To this day, we address Jim White as Mr. White, as in, “Are you planning to come to Seattle this year to see The Ring, Mr. White?” and “Mr. White, could you hand me the salt please?” Aside from decades of friendship, Mr. White’s most lasting gift to me is this book, a collection of stills of movies from 1929 to 1968, from Bulldog Drummond to Funny Girl. I spent my childhood engrossed in its pages, paying particular attention to the stills of Frankenstein and Dracula, not to mention the topless shot of Hedy Lamarr in a Czech film called Extase.
Of course, when I was perusing these black and white stills in the late seventies, before VHS, I had no hope of ever seeing the movies themselves. Talkies was a repository of lost cinematic memories, of movies one might be able to catch, with luck, on late-night television. I’d stare at these images of cowboys and swashbucklers with longing, the same kind of longing I’d feel later when flipping through old newspapers in the morgue of The Skagit Argus where I worked. It’s not simply that vanished artistic expressions are poignant in themselves. It’s that the jovial, sentimental, elegant spirits these old movies conveyed make their loss so much more painful. The actors and directors who created these works were at the time concentrating on entertaining the audiences of their day, rarely–if ever–thinking beyond the next weekend’s box office numbers. But these films still have much to say to us now, here, eighty plus years later.
When DVD came along, many of these old movies found a new life. Companies like The Criterion Collection, the Milestone Collection, and Kino Video have resurrected a number of the movies chronicled in Talkies. And big studios have gotten on the bandwagon, too. Recently I’ve been watching the Warner Home Video box set of Errol Flynn movies with my son, Miles.
We watched Captain Blood first, then The Sea Hawk. I’m finding Flynn kind of a smug actor. But the swordplay and combination of miniatures and live action sets is endlessly fascinating. Miles has taken to spouting dialogue, charging through the house shouting, “Up the riggings, you monkeys! I’m Captain Blood!” This pleases me to no end, and is my way of infiltrating the milieu of Kung-fu Panda-quoting five-year-olds that surrounds my son. Yesterday, sporting a chocolate milk mustache, Miles said, “I look like Errol Flynn!”
Now every time I watch an old movie I pull out Talkies to see if there’s a still. Sure enough, there’s Captain Blood, buckles a-swash. I close a loop with the five-year-old I used to be, looking at this very picture, and I pass along this longing for old movies to my own kids. I’ve turned Miles on to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, too. Maybe someday he’ll have a kid to share these movies with, just like he shared them with his dad.