Here’s a bonus post in my regular “Picture Postals” slot, and also a movie suggestion for your weekend enjoyment and edification. This vintage NBC publicity press-picture was for the major TV movie Winds of Kitty Hawk (1978, colour). To my mind it very nicely evokes the entrepreneurial ‘back-shed science’ of the era in which Lovecraft grew up. After three years, and with no backers, the brothers succeeded. They had their first manned flight at Kitty Hawk just before Christmas 1903, at which point Lovecraft was then aged 13¼.
Surprisingly I find that that the movie is the only serious feature-length drama of the Wright Brothers and their marvellous flying machine. In 2014 Tom Hanks was reported to be tinkering with the idea of a heading up a TV mini-series on the brothers, but evidently it never flew. You might have thought there would a half-dozen big-budget cinema movies by now, and several lesser bio-pics from the 1940s and 50s… but no. It’s another one of those great moments in innovation history that big-budget cinema movie producers have been curiously uninterested in. There was another TV movie Orville and Wilbur (1972), part funded by the BBC, but it appears to have been lost.
But we do have the one decent surviving movie for the Wright Brothers. Made for TV, but said to be a pretty good movie from a somewhat mundane script. According to reviews it’s pre-PC, free of the usual time-waster love-story sub-plot, doesn’t distort the facts too much, and was nominated for several Emmy awards (Outstanding Film Editing, Outstanding Sound, Outstanding Cinematography). It’s now streaming in the USA on Amazon, though here in the UK you have to hang around on eBay or Amazon waiting for low-priced DVD to be offered. You have to beware of the cheap DVD-R and “Region 0” sellers on this, as for some reason there are a lot of dodgy people selling DVDs of it — that turn out to be some obscure bargain-bin crap that’s not the movie you paid for.
The other big movie which evokes the period, and indeed one that Lovecraft saw and adored for its vivid recreation of the era and settings of his boyhood, was the curiously titled Ah, Wilderness! (1935). Despite the misleading title this is not a ‘city dog lost in wild Alaska’ Jack London tale, but rather a Eugene O’Neill comedy…
Pitting Lionel Barrymore against a young up-and-comer named Mickey Rooney gives Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy the loving luster it deserves. Horseless carriages, straw boaters, nickle beer: Ah, Wilderness! is a portrait of an America long gone — but forever remembered.
Lovecraft told Bloch that he had seen Ah, Wilderness sometime in early January 1936, and had…
revelled in it. Yuggoth, but it made me homesick for 1906! [it] gives all sorts of typical 1906 glimpses, including an old street-car, a primitive steam automobile, &c. It was photographed in Grafton, Mass. … where the passing years have left little visible toll.
He wrote to Moe that the movie recalled certain sensibilities and values that had since been lost to the world. While watching it…
At times I could well believe that the past had come back, & that the last 3 decades were a bad dream. [the world it depicted] having many a value which might well have been preserved had social evolution been less violently accelerated by the war.
Ah, Wilderness! is set on the 4th of July 1906, in setting is meant to be a shore-town about 40 miles SW of Providence. This warm and human comedy is very well regarded, and is also now streaming in the USA. Together the two movies would probably make a pretty good double-bill, for those interested in the sensibilities of the ‘Young America’ of 1903-06 that helped form the young Lovecraft.