When I started doing research about film history, I counted myself lucky to live just outside Manhattan so I could visit the incomparable Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library. I practically lived there when I was a teenager. On my first visit to California I discovered the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, another world-class resource. I felt bad for people who wanted to write about film but didn’t have access to these unique institutions.
A production sketch for Gone With The Wind drawn by the legendary Art director William Cameron Menzies. (Courtesy of AMPAS)
Now, like the Library of Congress and David Pierce’s Media History Digital Library (see article HERE), the Academy is beginning to scan some of its materials in order to make them available to scholars and film buffs online. Its first major endeavor is its—
—Production Art Database which incorporates records for more than 5,300 items, including costume and production design drawings, animation art, storyboards and paintings. Nearly half of those entries includes images of the original artwork, dating from the 1920s to the present day.
Among the highlights cited by the Academy as an indication of the breadth of this collection are a Hans Dreier production design drawing for Wings (1927), animation cels for Chuck Jones’ cartoon For Scent-Imental Reasons (1949), Albert Whitlock’s matte painting study for The Birds (1963), Steven Spielberg’s rough storyboard sketches for Poltergeist (1982) and Jeannine Oppewall’s drawing of the Victory Motel for L.A. Confidential (1997).
As I’ve always admired William Cameron Menzies, he was the first name I entered into the search engine. I found a small but beautiful selection of production drawings for Gone With The Wind and others from the Mary Pickford film Rosita. Some were actually illustrated by Menzies, while others are attributed to such esteemed collaborators as Jack Martin Smith, Dan Grossbeck, and (for Rosita) Leo Kuter. A check of Henry Bumstead brought up records for many Hitchcock films, some done in collaboration with Hal Pereira, including blueprints and elevations which aren’t as interesting to a layman like me as a beautiful illustration. If you type in “Hitchcock,” however, you get some of the director’s own rough sketches and storyboards for such movies as Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt.
The sources for this material are many and varied. Those Hitchcock pieces come from the papers of veteran art director Robert Boyle. The papers of another legendary art director, seven-time Oscar winner Richard Day, cover a wide span from Mary Pickford’s Secrets from 1933 up through How Green Was My Valley, Force of Evil, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront, although a vast number of drawings he did for George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told haven’t yet been scanned.
In the field of costume, a search under “Edith Head” brings up 283 records from the legendary designer’s papers. The first two illustrations you see are emblematic of Head’s long career. There is a turn-of-the-20th-century dress and coat designed for Adele Jergens to wear in Aaron Slick from Punkin Creek, a routine assignment that was part of Head’s contract work for Paramount in 1952, and Bette Davis’ iconic off-the-shoulder dress from All About Eve, which she did on loan-out to Fox in 1950.
As enjoyable as it is to browse through this collection, it is even more exciting to realize what other gems await this kind of treatment from the Academy archives.
Quoting directly from the Academy’s press release, “For information on additional materials, or to make an appointment to view an item that does not yet include a reference image, contact Anne Coco, graphic arts librarian, at email@example.com. For more information about the Margaret Herrick Library, visit oscars.org/library.
“The Academy’s website provides access to several other online databases as well, including the Academy Awards Database, the Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database and the Margaret Herrick Library catalog, which includes bibliographic records for the library’s holdings of books, periodicals, scripts, posters and archival collections. Links can be found at Resources & Databases.”
The Internet is changing the way we do research, one step at a time—or in the case of the Academy, one giant leap.