Comprised of ten home movies taken around the globe, the McRobbie-Gair Family Home Movies Collection are an expansive, surprisingly beautiful, and intimate account of the travels and domestic life of the family of IU’s 18th President and now University Chancellor, Michael A. McRobbie between the late 1930s and early 1950s. Most of these movies were shot by Chancellor McRobbie’s maternal grandfather, Richard Leslie (Les) Gair (1892-1970), a prominent businessman and philanthropist from Melbourne, Australia, who Chancellor McRobbie greatly admired. They were donated by Chancellor McRobbie to IU’s Moving Image Archive in 2016.
Mr. Gair acquired a 16mm magazine loaded Ciné-Kodak camera just a few years after this technology was introduced in 1936 and very new in Australia. He then proceeded to record the travels and domestic life of his family mainly in color for the next two decades from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s.
These movies record travel in Europe, South Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America, and tender family footage of birthday parties, beach days, and backyard gatherings. Capturing compelling footage from across Australia to the Scottish Highlands, from the pyramids of Egypt to the Austrian Alps, and from the ruins of Pompeii to the wide expanses of the Grand Canyon, and so much more, the movies are a sweeping example of one of the oldest of amateur filmmaking traditions: the travelogue.
They are also important historic and cultural snapshots, revealing, for instance, the rise of Nazism in Europe and WWII propaganda in London, farming techniques in Scotland in the 1950s, and footage of Aboriginal families and the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission in the Northern Territory of Australia. The staggering range of countries presented alongside the collection's focus on capturing everyday settings and people offers an enticing glimpse into the styles, customs, and habits of diverse cultures. The collection offers abundant sequences from all over Australia and England, but also includes footage from Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), the city of Aden in Yemen, Egypt, Sweden, Scotland, and several other yet to be unidentified locations.
One of the highlights of the collection are four movies documenting a round-the-world trip that Mr. Gair and his wife, Grace Victoria Gair (1900-1990), took in 1939, returning home to Australia just as World War II broke out. As well as the picture it presents of the world just before that devastating war, it is a relatively rare example of 16mm color home movies from before World War II. These four movies are part of the Round the World Trip 1939 series and can be viewed here.
Beyond their historic significance and familial importance are the creative and often staggeringly beautiful compositions of all the movies in this collection, revealing Mr. Gair’s unassuming penchant for capturing the simple beauty of nature. A considerable amount of footage foregoes the customary amateur focus on historic sites or tourist attractions, although they are included too, for the vibrant beauty of a bed of flowers blowing in the wind, a burnt orange sunset closing out the day, or the surreal magic of watching the sea disappear through the porthole of a gently rocking passenger ship. Maybe even more enticing are the many portrait shots of family, friends, and strangers alike, as they stand awkwardly in front of the camera as their reactions shift from bemusement to embarrassment to discomfort; a style somewhat reminiscent of Warhol’s Screen Tests of the 1960s.
The movies also include a wide variety of creative and colorful title cards, cueing us to changes in location and shuttling us along from one scene to the next. These cards range from simple location markers to artfully composed and designed descriptors. A sampling of title cards can be found in this exhibit, under the segment, "Home Movies and the Art of the Title Card." The tireless and meticulous work involved in the digitization of these movies was carried out by Colorlab, a film laboratory in Rockville, Maryland. The movies were stored for many decades in conditions not conducive to their preservation and were already in an advanced state of deterioration due to vinegar syndrome when they were donated to IU. Highly specialized equipment and conservation techniques were required just to digitize them. To read more about the collection's conservation by Colorlab, check out "Shrunken, Brittle, and Smelly: Extreme Conservation for a Deteriorated Collection."
You are encouraged to take a moment and journey back in time with this collection. To see through someone else’s eyes, to watch them struggle to compose a shot, to get that pan or tilt just right, to pick and choose what to remember, lets you peek inside another mind and uncover what interested them, captivated them, charmed them. The movies are full of popular locations and identifiable sites but also include mysterious places and never-to-be-known people, who are all connected now because of a camera running 16mm motion picture film. The McRobbie-Gair Family Home Movies Collection offers you the opportunity to briefly see the world from a different time, place, and perspective, and that’s a wonderful, powerful thing.
Caleb Allison, Archivist Assistant