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The Battle for Hollywood Archives

The Battle for Hollywood Archives

Under Dean Elizabeth Daley (and the too often unheralded work of archivist extraordinaire Ned Comstock), the quality and quantity of USC’s collections have grown. And it’s a joy for academics and book writers to use the Doheny Library in the middle of a beautiful campus.

Landing these archives is getting more competitive. Roddy McDowell talked two-time Oscar winning actress Luise Rainer into putting her material with Boston University. Director John Sayles, who was courted by a variety of institutions, decided to go with The University of Michigan because, as his partner Maggie Renzi says, “We wanted the films to be taught in the classroom in a range of disciplines in a great university.” And Jeanine Basinger has put Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut on the film archives map by methodically seeking out and winning the collections from the likes of Frank Capra, Ingrid Bergman and Elia Kazan. John Waters also has his papers there, in part because Basinger began approaching him years ago, long before anyone was hosting retrospectives of his films.

In most cases, collections are donated after assessing a valuation for tax deductions; few institutions actually buy them. (Assuring that the papers are all kept in proper condition, archived, catalogued and accessible is an expensive proposition.) One of the exceptions is the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin which houses the collections of Gloria Swanson, David O. Selznick and Robert DeNiro and several other film luminaries in addition to their vast collection from literary figures. They also provide research scholarships which, full disclosure, I have been a fortunate recipient.

The granddaddy of all the archives remains The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with over 1,000 special collections including the extensive works of Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Mary Pickford and Katharine Hepburn to name just a few. At their Margret Herrick Library at the Douglas Fairbanks Study Center in Beverly Hills, they also have such luscious research bait as the Turner/MGM scripts, letters of Hedda Hopper and the records of the MPAA Production Code. (You can get lost for hours reading the memos of why the Code would not allow MGM to remake Anna Christie in the early 1940s.) The Academy also offers an experienced professional staff of archivists with pristine, state of the art storage and is open to the public four days a week.

The good news is that these collections are being sought out, preserved and appreciated for their crucial links to cinematic history. For many years, scripts, letters and memos were just tossed. Let’s not even think about all the silent films that were just dumped in the ocean or melted down for the silver in the nitrate. One of the reasons USC has an eclectic collection of MGM memorabilia, including rare notes from Irving Thalberg, is that when that studio was in the process of being sold in the 1960s and boxes and boxes were about to be trashed, someone had the foresight to call USC and a couple of volunteers drove over to Culver City and loaded up several truckloads before the bulldozers arrived. Thankfully, those days are in the past.

Congratulations to USC for landing the Scott material and may the competition for filmmakers’ collections continue to thrive.  

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