by CeCe Maddlone
For the last several years, my husband and I have had the pleasure of sharing Thanksgiving with family in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania — very close to where I was born. The saying that all roads lead to home has resonated very heavily with me over the last decade. Both work and family have brought me back in close contact with family members that had become legendary through the elaborate stories my mother told when I was growing up. Since we lived thousands of miles away, I only had a couple of opportunities when I was very young to meet my aunts, uncles and cousins in person. I was awestruck by not only their beauty, but their immense talent.
My mother was the youngest of four sisters, all of whom married unique and talented men in their own right. My Uncle Midi’s, (Emidio “Mike” Angelo), early ambition was to be a painter. He received his early training at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and in Europe, as a result of winning two scholarships. However, he gave up his ambition to paint when, in 1929, he sold his first cartoon to The Saturday Evening Post. He was a staff artist on The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1937 to 1954 where his popular syndicated cartoon, ”Emily and Mabel” ran in more than 130 papers in the early 1950s. Among his many awards, he received three Valley Forge Freedom Foundation medals, several silver and bronze medals from the Da Vinci Alliance of Philadelphia, and a gold medal from the Philadelphia Sketch Club.
However, Uncle Midi had a not-so-secret passion. He was fascinated by film. Whether still photography or motion picture, he was rarely without a camera. “I hate having my picture taken, because my father followed us everywhere with his camera.” said Donna Angelo-Pierro, Emidio’s daughter and star of the film. “Now, I appreciate having those beautiful images.” In the 1940s, he and his brother Rocky got together with Rocky’s best friend, Burt Lancaster,—yes, the Burt Lancaster– and decided to shoot a short film. It’s this missing piece of history that brings us full circle to our yearly visit with the family. This forgotten piece of footage was recently pulled from the dust of a closet to be viewed. Not thinking much of it, it was passed to a DVD from a VHS in such a way that it was no longer accessible. Frustrated, my cousin Joya brought the VHS and DVD to EquiChord in our professional capacity to unravel the mystery. Over Christmas break, my husband brought it in to our professional software with the intention of re-burning it to a new disk. When he saw the footage he was blown away. He set about to bring it back to life, adding a music track to support the silent film.
What my husband saw was a masterful short film shot solely on a 16 millimeter camera. The cuts and the close-ups as well as the intense film noir atmosphere belies the basic set up that was used. Shortly after this in 1946, Burt Lancaster would become a major star with the release of the The Killers costarring Ava Gardner, but his undeniable presence can be seen here. There is a sequence in the middle of the film where he pauses at the top of the stairs. The viewer is uncertain what he has done. On the wall behind him, the stair railing casts the shadow of a cross. The subtle symbolism was masterfully executed, and that is only one moment of many in this tiny gem. Another discovery in the film is Rocky Angelo, Uncle Midi’s brother. He holds his own with Lancaster and his expressive good looks are just as captivating.
Although it is thought that this was done as a lark, I have a little theory of my own. These were a group of fun loving, talented, ambitious men who were utilizing their talents to make their mark. I joked with my cousin by saying that I thought they were the 1940’s version of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. They were taking their fate into their own hands by producing, directing, writing, shooting and editing their own work. Although the beginning and the full ending is missing, we are happy to have revived this missing treasure.