Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Homage to George W. Lighton of Kentucky, idealistic silent film buff who perished in the Spanish Civil War

I continue to find fascinating bits about Louise Brooks and her times. . . . Earlier today, for example, I came across a letter to the editor published on January 2, 1931 in a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper. The letter, of all things, mentions the 1929 Louise Brooks' film, Pandora's Box. To me that is fascinating--because the film was then little known in the United States. Its only recording showing prior to 1931 was a two week, December 1929 run at an art house in New York City which was reviewed in the local newspapers and nationally in a handful of trade publications. One wonders how a movie goer outside of NYC might have known of the film?

The letter to the editor was penned by George W. Lighton, a 20 year old Louisville resident and obvious film buff with a subtle preference for the silent cinema. Lighton wrote his letter in response to a December 21, 1930 piece by Louisville film critic Boyd Martin naming what he considered some of the best films of the year. Martin's piece is copied below.

Boyd was a thoughtful and prolific newspaper critic for the Louisville Courier Journal. (His reviews of earlier Brooks' films are in the Louise Brooks Society archive.) And Lighton, one would guess, was a regular reader. Within just a few days, the young film buff mailed his response to Boyd's column. It is copied here.

In his letter, Lighton all but admits to having not seen most of the films he sets out to call to the public's attention. Perhaps he was just showing off his knowledge of foreign cinema, or perhaps he was hoping an exhibitor might take notice and screen these films in Louisville. It's hard to say. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable list--full of German and Soviet classics, and one which holds up to the test of time.

About Pandora's Box, Lighton wrote: "German silent film, directed by G.W. Pabst. Cinema at its most naturalistic. From Frank Wedekind's story. The film reaches its most adult stage." Lighton considers it a mature film on a mature subject, and ranks it ahead of the similarly themed Blue Angel.

Lighton's letter begs the question, how could a bright kid in Louisville, Kentucky have heard of these films, enough to make pithy comments on each. Again, its hard to say. But if I were guess, I would suppose Lighton had gotten a hold of the intellectual English film journal, Close-Up. These were just the sort of films it was writing about and praising at the time.

Who was George W. Lighton? I haven't been able to find out much about him except that he was born in 1911 and was a bright kid who seemed to be reader and film buff and someone very curious about the world. In 1933, a couple years after his letter was published, he was lecturing in Louisville on the subject of "The Movies--Our Newest Art." His talk, which followed one by Boyd on the subject of "Current Plays on Broadway," was sponsored by the Division of Adult Education at the University of Louisville.

Lighton, I think, was also an idealist and a wanderer. According to a 1938 article depicted below, when money ran out after his first year in college, Lighton took "hobo trips" around the country, venturing as far as Canada and Mexico. In the midst of the Depression, he spent five years bumming around and recording his observations in a notebook. "He kept an extensive journal of his experiences, his impressions of cities and people and his reactions to works of art in museums all over the country. He wrote about being robbed by a one-legged man in Chicago anfd about the plight of the Harlan County miners and about being stranded when a 'too cheap' bus abandoned its passengers enroute to California." "He looked up people who interested him and recounted conversations he had with Theodore Dreiser, John dos Passos, and Eisenstein and others. He had an article published in Cinema and hoped to take up a literary career."

Lighton rambled around until he was convinced by the head of the University of Louisville English department to return to school and get his degree. He did so, and graduated in June 1937 from the University of Louisville, where he was the only student to ever be awarded honors in both sociology and humanities. Discouraged by not being able to find a job, he took off for Chicago in August of that year.

In September 1937, his Mother received a letter from her son, who was then in Paris, mentioning that he would be going to Spain to fight against Fascism. Another letter followed. "I am now in Spain as a member of the International Brigade of the Loyalist Army. I had not been in Paris more than two days when I enlisted as a volunteer." Many more letters followed, detailing daily life and his movements around Spain. Lighton's last letter was sent on Christmas day, 1937.

Despite no additional letters, and despite reports of the deaths of American volunteers in Spain, Lighton's mother continued to believe he was still alive. She held onto her belief until one of her son's friends in Spain wrote to say he had been killed, but where and when was uncertain. Also lost was the journal Lighton kept in Spain. Lighton's friend wrote"telling of the pact he had had with George to recover his note book in the event of his death." "On my return to the company I tried, but failed to obtain possession of George's journal," the friend wrote.

There is little found online except for the few clippings mentioned above, and this page on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. There are also passing mentions in a couple of contemporary books, Letters from Barcelona: An American Woman in Revolution and Civil War (2009), and A History of Education in Kentucky (2011). In the former, Lighton is described as a "idle dreamer and griper" by the subject of the book, who appears to have been acquainted with many participants in the Spanish Civil War, including George Orwell. In the latter, Lighton is made out to be an internationalist (read leftist) apart from his fellow students, most all of whom were then staunch isolationists.

I would be interested in reading Lighton's contribution to Cinema. There was one journal by that name published in New York, and one in London, during the early 1930's. Anyone have access to any sort of index for either periodical?

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