Old Movies: Study These Three Clues. Tell the Story.

By Maureen A. Taylor

Romney, WV, March 1938. Library of Congress.

Another Oscar statuette has been bestowed upon a movie of the year (not withstanding some painful-to-watch onstage confusion when the presenters announced the wrong Best Picture winner due to an envelope mixup).

My family has a long history of being film buffs. My mother recalls Saturday double-features with her siblings. Even now, there’s nothing she likes better than a good film (new or old). Do you know about your family connections with movie viewing? Here are some clues to look for:

Trinkets and Treasures
My grandmother collected an entire set of dishes from viewing movies at the local cinema. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned the story behind those dinner plates. You might have a souvenir from an old movie in your family collection. It might be dinnerware, a trinket or a still. My Dad managed to get Boris Karloff‘s autograph. Unfortunately, he never told us the full story of that moment. It would’ve been a good one.

Fashion Facts
Movie stars were fashion trendsetters. The smokey eye make-up of the silent films became common place for our female ancestors, as did short hair thanks to the influence of Gloria Swanson and Theda Bara. That dark shadow and lipstick made their facial features more visible in black-and-white films. In 1915, Maybelline, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden all offered women a way to look star-like.

Look at family pictures from the early movie period to today. See if you can spot the fashion trends that first appeared in the movies.

Movie-Making Relatives
No one in my family ever participated in a professional film, but someone in your family might’ve had the opportunity. I met a man in September who told me of an ancestor who had starring roles in old westerns. He was fascinated by this untold tale and he had the pictures to prove it.

Movies weren’t always made in New York and Hollywood. In the early years, there were studios in small towns and large cities all over the country. For instance, there were several in my little home state of Rhode Island.

Much of movie history is lost. The films, stories and the stills are missing. Use Google to search for lost films. You’ll find links to a list of lost films on Wikipedia (including many from a 1937 Fox vault fire caused by combustible nitrate film) as well as a list of rediscovered gems.

If your ancestor ran a movie theater, it’s possible that tucked away in a box is movie memorabilia or even one of these missing films. You might own movie ephemera that a local museum would love to have in its collection.

Family history and film. It has a nice ring. This is one of the stories that need to be documented before the persons connected to them are gone.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
  • SaveSave