By John D. Beatty,CG

How have artists and film-makers depicted genealogists in their respective work? It’s a fair question, given the booming interest today in family history and the extent to which genealogy has been integrated in modern American culture. By a recent estimate some 11.2 million people in the English-speaking world have undertaken genealogical research (http://www.genealogyintime.com/articles/how-popular-is-genealogy-page03.html). Tracing ancestors has given rise to a $1.6 billion industry and has become the second-most popular reason to search the Internet. Many families across America and the British Isles have at least one family member who is interested in genealogy. So the question posed seeks to determine the degree to which art has imitated life, both on canvas and on the screen.

To be sure, the question remains problematic to answer and has been seldom addressed in any formal way. François Weil and Michael Sharpe, historians of genealogy, fail to mention the visual arts in their respective cultural histories of the pastime, and there are few studies of the images of genealogists. They are rarely a subject for artists, and when they have appeared as fictional characters in films, especially before the 1970s, they played only incidental roles in eccentric, snobby, or dysfunctional veins. In the last forty years a dramatic transformation in genealogy has occurred, however, and in at least a few instances on the silver screen, these roles have been more positive, reflecting the evolution of public attitudes about family history and those who undertake it.

Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, 1932 (Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati)
Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, 1932 (Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati)

One of the earliest known artistic depictions of genealogists is Grant Wood’s 1932 painting, Daughters of Revolution. Intended as satire, the work was created in response to the opposition Wood had faced five years earlier when working on a commission to construct a stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Finding domestically-produced stained glass was inadequate for his work, he decided instead to use German-made glass, which earned him the ire of the local DAR chapter, who objected to German glass in a work meant to honor American war veterans. Wood completed the window, but it was not dedicated until 1955. He complained at the time that the DAR was “trying to set up an aristocracy of birth in a Republic,” and he sought revenge through his art. In his painting he juxtaposes the faces of aged women, whom he deemed self-important, against the backdrop of a famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware created by the German artist Emanuel Leutze. Wood intended to depict the genealogical-minded women as hypocrites for their opposition to his window.

Cinematic portrayals of genealogists are equally rare. In the few times they have appeared on screen, their roles (in most cases) have been peripheral. One of the earliest depictions occurred in the 1942 B-movie, Castle in the Desert, which starred Sidney Toler as the detective Charlie Chan. In the opening sequence Professor Gleason, an elegantly-attired genealogist with a moustache and walking stick, arrives at the forbidding desert mansion of Paul Manderley, a peculiar, affluent man with a patch covering half his face. Manderley’s wife Lucy introduces Gleason as a genealogist who will “tell us about the monkeys in our family trees.” He makes the mistake of inquiring about Mrs. Manderley’s descent from the notorious Borgia family, but she admonishes him that the two things “we never talk about” are her family and Paul’s accident (a strange warning, given that he had been hired to trace their genealogy). Her branch of the Borgias, she said, “didn’t go in for poison.” Moments later, the genealogist dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail, and the plot of the film is thus established. Gleason’s character here is so superficial that there is little opportunity for meaningful development other than to show him as well-mannered but elitist. The underlying message here is that genealogy was something that only interested the upper classes and involved the lineages of famous families. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBtPu2qF2so&t=302s

Castle in the Desert movie poster, 1942

















Castle in the Desert movie poster, 1942
(https://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/34621/charlie-chan-volume-5/)

This elitist view of genealogy came up again in 1961 in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show titled “A Plaque for Mayberry.” The mayor of the little town summons Sheriff Andy and his hapless deputy, Barney Fife, to his office, where he introduces them to two ladies of the so-called Women’s Historical Society. The ladies, elegantly dressed in mink stoles and pearls, inform the men that they are attempting to trace the descendant of a Revolutionary War hero, Nathan Tibbs, who had played a pivotal role at the Incident of Mayberry Bridge, an event that supposedly had turned the tide of the war in Washington’s favor. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACxYT0pMj9c&t=566s) They seek access to the town records so that they can identify his only descendant, who likely lives in the town. How they know that the soldier has only one living descendant prior to doing research is not explained. The bumbling Barney believes he is that descendant, but the ladies, who are the sole keepers of genealogical knowledge, discover that the true descendant is Otis Campbell, the town drunk. While the genealogists serve again only as incidental characters, they support the view that genealogical research is a blue-blooded occupation and those who pursue it do so only to find links to prominent forebears.

Still photograph from “A Plaque for Mayberry,” The Andy Griffith Show 1961.

















Still photograph from “A Plaque for Mayberry,” The Andy Griffith Show 1961.
(http://mayberry.wikia.com/wiki/A_Plaque_for_Mayberry)

The 1960s brought other depictions of genealogists in more prominent roles. Not all were elitist, but they were invariably quirky. In the 1969 comedy-drama, The Sterile Cuckoo, Liza Minnelli plays Pookie Adams, an eccentric, unstable teenager who stalks a fellow student played by Wendell Burton, with whom she eventually has a relationship. While not a genealogist per se, Pookie has a love for cemeteries and takes her boyfriend to a graveyard, where she extols the ability to find stories of the departed by reading their epitaphs. “Sometimes you have to get away from the noise, you know?” she says as she invites him in, adding later, “Great spot, huh?” Later in the film it becomes evident that Pookie has deep emotional problems, and the two break up. Minnelli won an Academy Award nomination for her performance, but her flawed character suggests that cemeteries were not places that psychologically-healthy people ever visited. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL5lb7V6PNY).

The cemetery scene from The Sterile Cuckoo, 1969, with Liza Minnelli and Wendell Burton.



 













The cemetery scene from The Sterile Cuckoo, 1969, with Liza Minnelli and Wendell Burton. (http://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-sterile-cuckoo-1969.html)

Another film from 1969, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, featured George Lazenby as the iconic James Bond and Telly Savalas as his arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The plot features Bond going undercover as a genealogist in order to investigate Blofeld’s claims of nobility. Oddly, it also involves studying his earlobes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q8ch2ARXIg). Bond goes first to the College of Arms to investigate his own genealogy and is presented with a coat of arms. To the film’s credit, the College served as an advisor, and its staff presented the Bond character with an authentic coat of arms belonging to an actual Bond family. Later, dressed in a kilt and posing as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Bond visits Blofeld’s headquarters, where, at dinner, he is surrounded by beautiful women intent on seducing him. He announces, “I’ve never had much to do with the young ladies,” a cover that attempted to cast doubt on his sexuality. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m4hj5fIvIg). True to form, Bond later romances various women, but his version of Sir Hilary, even if only feigned, promoted a view of genealogists as effete elitists, a campy profession that attracted only eccentrics. 

A still from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969, featuring George Lazenby as James Bond.
A still from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969, featuring George Lazenby as James Bond.
(http://lifebetweenframes.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-her-majestys-secret-service.html)

By the late 1970s, the explosion of interest brought about by Alex Haley’s novel, Roots, changed the public perception of genealogy as a pastime and transformed the image of genealogists in a way that made them more mainstream. Roots shattered the notion that genealogy was only for the blue-blooded. The image of an African American man discovering his ancestors symbolized for many that anyone could undertake such research – and that there was no social stigma in doing so. In the 1979 television mini-series, Roots: The Next Generations (a sequel to the 1977 original), Haley’s character, played by James Earl Jones, travels to Africa and unearths clues from a griot that his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, belonged to a tribe in Gambia. The discovery brings elation and emotion for the persistent genealogist: “I found you, Kunta Kinte, I found you!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfcpxetTHr0). Unlike Pookie or Sir Hilary, Haley was a real person who appeared frequently on talk shows in the 1970s, and he embodied a sense of normalcy that had eluded earlier caricatures of genealogists. Jones played him with a booming voice and a sensitivity that showed no sign of weakness or eccentricity.

James Earl Jones as Alex Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, 1979



















James Earl Jones as Alex Haley in Roots: The Next Generations, 1979
(https://www.google.com/search?q=james+earl+jones+alex+haley&tbm)

In spite of the success of Roots, genealogists remained scarce on the screen for the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The field of genealogy may have expanded, but screenwriters took little interest in creating such characters. Indeed, a whole industry of genealogical fiction blossomed in the last forty years, with genealogists as protagonists who solve mysteries, but none have made it into film. Genealogy, when it has been depicted, often assumes a magical quality. For example, when developing the complex world of the wizard Harry Potter, author J. K. Rowling created intricate genealogies for her characters extending back two centuries. Viewers are given a glimpse of an elaborate tapestry of the Black family in the 2007 film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The genealogy is not explored at length on screen, and none of the characters are genealogists. Nevertheless, the tapestry serves as a prop that establishes Sirius Black, Harry’s friend, as part of an old, pure-blood wizard family. Harry is amazed by the elaborate pedigree, but it serves only as a minor plot device.

Daniel Radcliffe and the Black family genealogy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007






 





Daniel Radcliffe and the Black family genealogy in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007
(https://anmysite.com/top/harry-potter-black-family.html)

In the 2006 film, The Da Vinci Code, the genealogy theme is more fully developed, even though none of the characters are genealogists. Tom Hanks plays Robert Langdon, a professor of religious iconology at Harvard, who studies clues in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper to reveal the identity of the Holy Grail, which, in the film, is embodied in the character of Sophie Neveu, the last living descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Genealogical research plays an important role in the film, though little of it is actually shown on screen. Hanks’s Langdon is a robust man of action who solves historical problems, even if the ancestors being researched are famous.

Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, 2006












Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, 2006
(https://lifeand100books.com/tag/the-davinci-code/)

Popular television shows, such as Who Do You Think You Are, Genealogy Roadshow, and Finding Your Roots, have brought new media attention to the search for ancestors. The latter program features Harvard history professor Henry Louis Gates as the host, lending an authoritative legitimacy to researching genealogy as both a profession and pastime. To the credit of these programs, they discuss ordinary ancestors, even if they display their links to famous living people. The process of research takes place off-screen and is greatly minimized, but they do provide some insight into research methodology, even if the producers keep it to a minimum.  

The evolution of the image of genealogists reflects the larger transformation of the genealogical field in the popular mind. Its professionalization has played a role in that change, but its democratization as a pastime of the masses has proved even more influential. Don’t expect genealogists ever to become commonplace on the silver screen even if they have shown up increasingly on television. When writers do create fictional genealogical characters, let us hope that they are complex and diverse and devoid of the stereotypes that have afflicted so many other fictional representations of similar professions. Genealogists are problem-solvers, and we can only hope that future screenwriters will see them in that light.