Rob Edelman: History Comes Alive

Oct 30, 2017

Documentaries come in a range of forms and shapes, and serve a host of purposes. Some of the more absorbing and overlooked highlight images that are nothing more than records of certain aspects of history. Two representative examples may be seen and appreciated on DVD. The first involves arctic exploration, and its title tells all. It is: VISITING WITH THE ESKIMOS OF THE FAR NORTH: SIX HISTORIC FILMS OF GREENLAND BY DONALD B. MACMILLAN, and it was produced by The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, located at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Donald MacMillan was of course a celebrated arctic explorer and, during the very early 20th century, he lugged 35mm cameras with him on his various expeditions to make filmed records of what he saw and experienced. Today, technology allows everyone to instantly shoot their own imagery. But a hundred or so years ago, it was quite an ordeal for MacMillan to tote his equipment on his trips and lug it through sub-zero temperatures, just to record his images. Each of the six films on the DVD run between ten and fifteen minutes, and their titles are self-explanatory. Among them are “Travelling with the Eskimos of North Greenland,” “Eskimo Walrus Hunt,” and “Birds and Animals of the Far North.” Some are silent while others feature MacMillan himself narrating and, in essence, telling us what we are seeing. I must admit that this is a subject that is of little personal interest, but MacMillan’s images are eye-opening-- and are well-worth experiencing.

Now when baseball aficionados think of the two National League teams that abandoned New York City for California after the 1957 season, which is exactly a half-century ago, they usually focus on the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. But the New York Giants, who by then were poor cousins to Dem Bums, also played their final game at the Polo Grounds, with 11,606 fans in attendance. One was Moe Resner, and he accomplished something that in our era of extra-high security would not be possible. What he did was strut onto the Polo Grounds field unannounced with his 16mm camera and film all that was happening around him. What is extra-special is that he filmed in color, and what he shot may be seen on a DVD titled END OF AN ERA: LAST NEW YORK GIANTS GAME AT THE POLO GROUNDS, SEPTEMBER 29, 1957.

Resner is interviewed in the documentary and he notes that, when he went onto the field, “nobody stopped me...(and) everybody was friendly... This was my amateur production. It was just me, doing my thing.” Resner filmed the pre-game warm-ups and ceremonies along with the actual game shot directly from the field. He records fans, concessionaires, sportswriters, broadcasters, and players, and it is a treat to see the famous names of the era, including Sal Maglie, Monte Ervin, Hank Sauer, and so many others. And there is a young Willie Mays, signing autographs for excited fans. Resner also records celebrities who were on-hand, and I wonder: How many recall Jeff Chandler? He was a major movie star during the 1950’s, and there he is in the stands.

It cannot be overemphasized that END OF AN ERA... and VISITING WITH THE ESKIMOS OF THE FAR NORTH... were not shot by men who primarily are filmmakers. They were fashioned by individuals with special interests in their subjects, and who found themselves with camera in hand at special moments in time. 

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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