Film History and Film Archives

By Black, Gregory | Literature/Film Quarterly, April 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Film History and Film Archives


Black, Gregory, Literature/Film Quarterly


In the last two decades there has been an explosion of paper archival collections documenting the development of the American film industry. The availability of records of film companies such as Warner Bros., 20th Century-Fox, Paramount, RKO, and others; those of the Motion Picture Producers Association censorship office and the Production Code Administration; of state and local censorship boards; as well as the personal records of individual producers, directors, writers, actors, and actresses is having a profound influence on how scholars interpret the history of the American film industry.

Prior to 1975, few American historians were interested in the film industry as a subject for scholarly research and even fewer film scholars were interested in doing the type of archival research that historians were trained to do. Even if both groups had been determined to use traditional archival research as a tool to interpret film history and to read film texts, they would have been frustrated by the lack of archival materials available to them.

As late as the early 1970s, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C., and the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles were the main repositories for film scholarship. Even at these institutions, the collections were limited, for the most part, to scripts, films, stills, and previously printed materials. All extremely valuable to be sure, but not the type of materials traditional historians were used to working with.

In addition, historians were baffled by the process of reading a film. The result was that traditionally trained historians simply ignored the entire field. Only rarely, and almost always superficially, were Hollywood films or the film industry mentioned in American history monographs and textbooks. Film histories in turn were written by non-historians and the development of the field of film studies drifted naturally to disciplines that did not have to rely on archival documentation for verification.

As late as 1960, film scholars relied on the classical histories of the development of film written by men who participated in the birth and growth of the American film industry. Benjamin Hampton's A History of the Movies (1931); Terry Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925 and Lewis Jacobs's The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, first published in 1939 and reissued in 1967; and Arthur Knight's The Liveliest Art (1957) were the major interpretative histories of the industry. They were often more anecdotal than historical. 1

In the last two decades, however, the situation has changed radically. There has been a literal explosion of rich archival material documenting the historical development of the American film industry. As Thomas Schatz has written, "Hollywood left its legacy not only on celluloid but also on paper" (9). This legacy is beginning to change the way film scholars look at Hollywood and look at history as a lens to interpret the movies. My purpose in writing this article is not to write another historiographical essay but rather to comment on the impact archival research is having on film studies and to discuss the availability of materials at the major archival centers in the United States. Valuable archival collections are scattered all over the country, which makes using paper collections on the history of the American film industry difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Yet these dusty archives are an invaluable window to the past.

Los Angeles is, of course, a treasure trove of archival resources for film scholarship. The Margaret Herrick Library, founded in 1931 as the library for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is devoted to documenting the history of the American film industry. The Special Collections Department of the Library houses the Paramount Pictures Corporation Collection, which contains scripts and press books for more than two thousand Paramount pictures from 1912-65; the records of the Motion Picture Patents Company, 190927; the Academy Production Files, which cover more than eighty thousand separate productions and include stills, lobby cards, credit sheets, press books, and clippings; and the papers of individual producers, directors, actors, and actresses. …

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