Bridgeman Images is proud to announce a partnership with the family of Robbins Barstow, one of the most prolific home movie makers of the twentieth century. “We are very pleased to be working with Bridgeman Images,” said his son David. “My father carried his movie camera wherever he want, and we still have many thousands of feet of original film.” In all, Robbins Barstow produced almost a hundred home movies. A YouTube channel, “Barstow Travel Adventure Films” has recently been launched to make his productions available to a wider audience.
Barstow’s career coincided with the pre-digital era of home movies, from the 1930s with the advent of affordable movie cameras to the 1990s when digital technology and the Internet began to dominate amateur movie production. “You can teach the history of home-movie making through his films,” said Devin Orgeron, an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, during a recent session of the Northeast Historic Film Symposium. Barstow applied his craft to a wide range of topics – family fun, social and environmental activism, travel across the United States and around the world, the wonder and plight of whales, and historical documentaries about movies and art.
In his youth, Barstow was fascinated by Hollywood films. He once volunteered as a film critic for a local newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut, so that he could get free admission to movie theaters. When he was sixteen, he purchased his first movie camera, shooting silent black-and-white films in 16mm format. He experimented by making movies about family events, and in 1936 decided to try his hand at a real story. With his two brothers and three female friends, he spent an afternoon recording the exploits of a group of young explorers seeking to find Tarzan in Africa. “Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge” was originally shown just to friends and family, but when he produced a narrated version and made it available online in 2007, it quickly became a blockbuster.
During the 1940s, Robbins and his wife Margaret were community workers in the New York City area. He made movies as part of their work and to advance the social causes they were devoted to. The movies depict ordinary people and ordinary places, with an occasional out-of-the-ordinary twist. “Everyone’s Coming to the Guild” described life in the Hudson’s Guild neighborhood of Manhattan. “The Abbakadabba Coopno” depicted the challenges faced by an inner-city youth when he spent a summer at a Quaker farm.
Barstow soon began to use his camera to record and document the lives of himself, his wife, and their three children, a middle-class family living in Connecticut. Many of these films covered typical family events and milestones, births and baptisms, home and school, moving from one home to another. But in 1956, the Barstow family enjoyed a distinctly non-typical event. They won a free cross-country trip to Disneyland, the recently opened amusement park in southern California. Barstow recorded everything on film, then edited the scenes to show a story, incorporated trick shots, and added narration. The resulting film, “Disneyland Dream”, has been described as one of the greatest home movies ever made. It too became an online blockbuster and, in 2008, was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Archive.
The Barstow family were consummate travelers. Over the course of five years in the 1950s and 1960s, they took family camping trips that covered the entire United States. Eventually, Barstow compiled these stories into a two-part series, “Family Camping through 48 States”, with the first part focused on the eastern states and the country’s early history, and the second part focused on the western states and the national parks. Several clips from these films were included in Ken Burns’ 2009 documentary series for the Public Broadcasting System, “National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea”.
After their children left home, Robbins and Margaret broadened their travel horizons. Robbins documented all of their travels, including “Adventures with African Wildlife” in 1978, “Come with Us to China!” in 1985, and “Around the World in Forty Days” in 1988. Many of their trips included activities related to the Save the Whales movement, such as meetings of the International Whaling Commission, and scientists studying the last living Chinese River Dolphin. “We’ll be making clips from his films available to modern filmmakers through the course of the next several months, starting with his blockbusters and travel films,” said Alex Wilson, of Bridgeman Images. “We will shortly make his early films from the 1930s and 1940s available, followed by his family chronicles and documentaries. It’s an exciting project. We are delighted to be a part of it!”