Home Movies of the 1939 New York World's Fair
by Caitlin McGrath — University of Maryland
October 17, 2012 – 21:29
My interest in the home movies of the 1939 New York World’s Fair resulted from of my research into the professionally-shot films of the Fair. Home movies have such a different quality to them; capturing the immediacy, vitality, and confusion of the fairground experience. Set on a radial plan and with color-coded zones, the fair layout was meant to effortlessly guide the visitor. In reality, most visitors ping-ponged around the fairgrounds, following what caught their eye, which is reflected in the vast majority of home movies of the fair – jumpy camera movements, panning to “read” pavilion signage, random tilting to scan up a façade or capture a fountain’s dance. These are invaluable and fascinating records of the typical visit to the Fair.
The clip I’m sharing, however, does not fall prey to these filmmaking foibles. It is neither dry and staid like the professional films shot of the fairgrounds, maintaining a legible albeit boring distance from the pavilions, nor is it the somewhat dizzying, haphazard style of the typical home movie. It is simply the most striking, beautiful home movie I’ve ever seen of the fair. This may seem unfair, to make a judgment call on “best” 1939 fair film, to single out one fairgoer as the Fair film auteur. And yet it is important to share precisely for that reason – that it defies categorization. It is neither a professional film, nor what we have come to expect (or think we should expect) from a home movie; it challenges our expectations. Cyrus Pinkham didn’t belong to cine-clubs or subscribe to amateur filmmaking magazines, but over a three-year span he made 18 reels of film, all of which exhibit this attention to composition, lighting, and editing. Note the careful compositions of multiple planes of people, water, statues, and pavilions; or the moment his parents notice something in the sky, followed by a shot of planes flying in formation. He also captures the extremes of light and dark between the interior of pavilions and the brilliant sun outside. The entire film is available at http://fairfilm.org/index.php/Detail/Occurrence/Show/occurrence_id/509. See also the records of his entire collection at Northeast Historic Film at http://oldfilm.org/.