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Hollywood Home Movies: The Final Frontier

Hollywood Home Movies: The Final Frontier

Film archivists and documentary filmmakers have come to value home movies as a valuable document of 20th century American life. But when those 8mm or 16mm films were taken by (and of) famous figures in Hollywood history it piques the curiosity of movie nuts like me. At last year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, Joan Crawford’s grandson introduced some of his famous grandmother’s personal footage. A documentary on Humphrey Bogart drew on the movies he actually shot of his children growing up. And Basil Rathbone’s footage on the set of The Adventures of Robin Hood has been a fan favorite on several home-video releases of the classic swashbuckler.

Not long ago, on National Home Movie Day, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held an open house for the screening of “regular” folks’ home movies during the day and a sold-out showing of vintage Hollywood films at night.

This was not the first time the Academy has assembled some of these resources, but most of the material on the program was new to me. It’s the kind of show I wish I could wrap up in a box and open at will to share with my friends. Short of that, I hope you won’t think I’m teasing if I describe some of the goodies we saw at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater.

Future director Jean Negulesco shot black & white footage of the 1931 WAMPAS Baby Stars, who included Frances Dee, Joan Blondell, and Anita Louise. Fred MacMurray’s backyard pool parties and picnics, with his first wife Lillian, offered Kodachrome glimpses of Ann Sothern, Ray Milland, Jean Parker, and other friends. It also confirmed that Hedy Lamarr—away from the MGM cameras and lights—was possibly the most stunning woman on the planet. Seeing these famous figures fooling around with each other gives new meaning to the concept that “the stars are just like us.” There was also some interesting footage of MacMurray and Carole Lombard filming scenes for True Confession for director Wesley Ruggles on location at Big Bear Lake.

I was in the audience years ago when Shirley Temple presented her home movies to the Academy, and enjoyed revisiting behind-the-scenes moments from the production of Heidi, shot mostly by her mother, including a sequence of Shirley removing Jean Hersholt’s false beard and mustache. (She had an indelible memory of the smell of the makeup man’s glue.)

Director Henry Koster’s home movies have been used in such documentaries as the superb Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood…but I’d never seen the backstage footage taken on several movie sets of the 1940s including Music for Millions and The Unfinished Dance, featuring Cyd Charisse and a number of ballerinas in rehearsal. The filmmaker’s son, Bob Koster, introduced these films and provided running commentary, after which the costar of The Unfinished Dance, the always charming Margaret O’Brien, came to the podium to explain that it was her all-time favorite role.

Film scholar Rudy Behlmer was called upon to talk over all-too-brief silent color footage taken during production of Gone With the Wind, revealing director Victor Fleming at work, and the enormous Technicolor camera swooping over a set before settling on Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Rudy was able to put these fleeting shots into context for all of us, and shared our disappointment that there wasn’t more!

When Marion Davies hosted a circus-themed birthday party for William Randolph Hearst in 1937 she didn’t fool around with a camera: she hired a professional crew to shoot it in 35mm (although without sound). This black & white film afforded us a look at Hearst, Marion Davies, and famous friends participating in an elaborate costume ball…and making way for the largest birthday cake I’ve ever seen.

Some of the films we saw were far less formal. A visitor to Movieland in 1938 shot one of the city’s distinctive drive-in restaurants, a series of elaborate floats representing the major (and minor) movie studios in a nighttime parade, and a visit to RKO where he got a friendly greeting from western star George O’Brien on the lot—and a quick look at O’Brien riding onto a set with a patently painted backdrop.

Fabled cinematographer James Wong Howe also shot home movies when he, his wife, and friends including author James Hilton took a motor trip around San Francisco Bay. Writer-director Richard Brooks left us the lasting gift of a candid look at the denizens of Del Mar Race Track in 1948, offering wonderful vignettes and faces you wouldn’t find in a casting directory.

The Milton Greene collection was the source of some rare footage of Marilyn Monroe on location for her movie Bus Stop (which Greene co-produced); it’s always interesting to see Monroe before and after the director cried “action.”

Filmmaker Frank Tashlin’s papers and home movies are how housed at the Academy, and we saw the comedy director interacting with his hyperactive star Jerry Lewis between takes of The Geisha Boy.

Fred Zinnemann’s home movies, on the other hand, are strictly a family affair, showing the director being affectionate with his wife and posing his children on the rooftops of Rome and Cannes, with a bird’s-eye view of that famous festival.

Curators Lynne Kirste and Randy Haberkamp were also justly proud of some casual footage showing a typical day at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, circa 1959, with bodybuilders galore and local landmarks that are long since gone. The program ended with a “tip of the hat” featuring quick, candid shots of stars from other home movies in the collection.

This isn’t the first time the Academy has drawn on its home-movie resources. A Gunga Din screening several years ago featured location footage taken by three of its participants: director George Stevens and actors Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

There are always more nuggets to be found, which is why Kirste welcomes all comers who want to donate home movies to the Academy Archive. (I can’t imagine how much material she has to sift through to get to the “good stuff.”) Whether or not these wonderful films will ever reach a wider audience I can’t say; I imagine it will take a staff of lawyers to figure out the permissions that would be necessary to show them outside of a non-profit arena. The first priority is finding and saving them—and bravo to the Academy for taking that step.


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