A Century of Cinema: An Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

By Haller, Robert A. | Journal of Film Preservation, April 1994 | Go to article overview

A Century of Cinema: An Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York


Haller, Robert A., Journal of Film Preservation


On May 9, 1893 visitors to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences saw the first public demonstration of Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, the first motion picture viewing machine. In the hundred years that have followed, thousands of artists and technicians and businessmen from all parts of the world have created the new art form we call cinema, the movies, motion pictures.

In 1935 the Museum of Modern Art began to collect films and related artefacts in what was then called the Film Library. Iris Barry started this collection; last year (in 1993) Mary Corliss assembled hundreds of posters and still photographs, lobby cards, programs, scripts, letters, swizzle sticks(!), art director's sketches and production drawings for a fascinating exhibition called «A Century of Cinema» which was on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 1994.

This was a very rich exhibition for anyone who cares about movies. There were haunting production sketches by Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe from the otherwise forgettable 1933 Son of Kong. Striking posters from classics like F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) and Federico Fellini's first contract (August 1908) with the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (arguably the birth certificate of American cinema art) and the original agreement for the 1919 incorporation of United Artists.

There were hundred of posters and pictures - which were what most visitors looked at, but perhaps most rewarding of all were the letters and production memos that define working conditions and attitudes and hopes that we can not see within the film frame - or which were never filmed.

These ranged from minor items like a letter from Colette about the first film made from her Gigi, to somewhat more substantial writings like this from Carl Dreyer to Mr. Charles L. Turner of Connecticut:

«... You are right. I am very cautious in what I see of films. In my opinion it is not wise for a film director to attend too many films - in particular while directing a film himself- in order not to be influenced».

Among the best was the D.W. Griffith correspondence. Reviled as a bigot after he made The Birth of a Nation in 1914, Griffith spent much of his life avoiding or seeking to deal with his reputation.

On May 16, 1921 he received a letter form the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan proposing that he make a photoplay

«which will portray the activities of the present day Klan and the things from which the organization stands ... we feel that you are the only logical director for such a large task. »

This was a film Griffith did not make (nor did he later accept Benito Mussolini's invitation to make films in fascist Italy).

Twenty two years later, near the end of his life, Griffith wrote to a friend on July 12, 1943 that he would like to make a film on George Washington Carver, the Black botanist who had died that year:

«I have read most carefully the book on Dr.Carver. What a man! What a wonderful character! There is no doubt at all in my mind that a most telling and beautiful picture could be made on his life history. Of course, as to the financial returns on such a picture that is a question. There is no doubt it would be a fine thing for the Negro race. ... I have spoken to a couple of the movie folk who happen to be here as to their opinion of such a production, and they both remarked, in different words, that the Negros [sic] didn't add much money to the box office. They seemed to have the idea so prevalent that the white people would cotton to a story of Negros full of jazz, song and dance, but that their response to a serious picture, as this would have to be, would, as the saying goes, be in the lap of the Gods. …

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