I receive a lot of auction catalogs; in fact, the amount of movie memorabilia being sold at auction these days is positively overwhelming. But I always look forward to the Autograph Catalog from Profiles in History, because the handsomely printed booklet is a collectible in its own right. You learn which pictures famous stars and filmmakers chose to represent themselves to fans and admirers.
What’s more, you not only see their autographs but the way they chose to sign those photos; some inscriptions are warm, others are clever and expressive. The ones that especially caught my eye in Catalog 47 were Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, in a cute shot with his dog, signed on May 14, 1920, one year before scandal ruined his career and reputation; Mabel Normand, the screen’s first great comedienne, in a beautiful portrait that’s nicely personalized; and my longtime heart-throb Thelma Todd, who writes, “To Lopez, Lots of laughs, raw food, and right thots, are what you gave me – for which I thank you, Sincerely, Thelma Todd.” Thelma had a distinctive signature in which she used a large cursive T to cover both her first and last names.
Enthusiasts with less nutty taste than mine will observe the signatures of Walt Disney, Laurel and Hardy, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Temple, and Tom Mix, among others. There are also pieces of ephemera that cross over cinematic and literary boundaries: a brief legal agreement on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer letterhead from 1938 signed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a short note from William Faulkner to his literary agent written in 1944 on Warner Bros. stationery.
When I was a kid I wrote fan letters asking for autographed pictures and I treasure some of the ones I received, none more than a 4X5 photo-postcard from Stan Laurel with a personal note on the back. Stan was known for his dedication to fans, and maintained correspondence with a number of Laurel and Hardy buffs around the world. Serendipity played a role in my obtaining another prize within the same year: one morning I read in the New York Times that Buster Keaton was shooting a short film “alongside a dilapidated warehouse in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.” It wasn’t a school day, so I persuaded my pal Louis Black that we had to find that spot, and we did. But had I not brought along an 8×10 still I’d recently purchased (for fifty cents) I wouldn’t have had an ice-breaker to start a conversation with Keaton, who was sitting in the back seat of a car reading a newspaper. I asked him if he could identify the picture, and he did; then he graciously agreed to sign it for me.
Since that time I’ve paid equal attention to other people’s signed pictures. When I interviewed Sid Miller, the talented writer, director, songwriter, and ubiquitous juvenile actor—who often played Jewish kids in 1930s films—he proudly showed me a picture James Cagney had signed to him—in Yiddish! Dick Bann, with whom I wrote a book on Our Gang/The Little Rascals, told me that Darla Hood prized a photograph she got when she was a child from one of the stars at the Hal Roach studio, Charley Chase. He wrote, “Darla Hood/acts real good/and rates first place/with Charley Chase.” I think that thoughtful inscription says something about the kind of man he must have been.
When I met Dorothy Granger, who also worked at the Hal Roach studio, and played opposite virtually every comedy star in Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s, I spent a lot of time examining the pictures on her apartment wall, but one stood out: Robert Mitchum. Dorothy had played a small role as a nurse in One Minute to Zero (1952), and after watching the film on television many years later, decided to drop him a note and ask if he’d sign a photo for her. He did. The inscription read, “To Dorothy – I grieve that you denied me your body.”
Mitchum was much brighter than his sleepy-eyed countenance and professed indifference about acting led some people to believe. I later learned first-hand that he enjoyed coming up with something interesting to say whenever he signed a photo. After I had a great (and lengthy) conversation with him for Entertainment Tonight he wrote, “To Leonard – the bones are clean.”
Naturally, having a story to go with a signed photo makes it all the more special, but I still marvel at the material that Profiles in History manages to accumulate every year. It’s fascinating to peruse the historical documents and personal letters of such towering figures as Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Mahatma Gandhi. There’s a knockout of a letter from Harry Houdini (on his “Houdini” letterhead) to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and an official White House Christmas card from 1963 that was never sent, already signed by John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. Baseball stars, musicians, composers, inventors, and poets fill out the collection. This is not an auction, but a sale, and the prices are not cheap, but it doesn’t cost a penny to look. You can even find the contents online at www.profilesinhistory.com.
And yes, years ago when I was feeling flush, I bit the bullet and purchased an autographed picture of Thelma Todd from them. But I don’t think about what I paid when I look at it on my wall; I just love having it there.