February 5, 2008

Golden Age Gold

Movie Memories And More At The Warner Bros. Archives

By James Tella

Hand-painted animation backgrounds like this one from the Chuck Jones Pepe Le Pew cartoon, Scent-imental Romeo (1951) are housed in the School of Cinematic Arts’ archive of Warner Bros. studio papers.
How do you build a small family business into a multi-billion dollar industry giant? Bit, by bit, as researchers have discovered over the past 30 years of combing through the School of Cinematic Arts Warner Bros. Archives, whose contents offer a unique glimpse into the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system.

Located within four massive rooms just east of the University Park Campus, the Warner Bros. Archives (WBA) began in 1977 when the studio donated an astronomical collection of documents and other ephemera to USC. Thanks to the gift, the university became the steward of the largest and possibly richest single studio collection of such assets in the world, which serves a growing global audience of researchers, scholars, students and film historians each year.

“Not only are the archives a complete history of a working movie studio, they are also a history of America,” said Leith Adams,
Curator Emily Carman and researcher Ron Barbagallo unroll a production pan background painting from Duck Dodgers and the 24th1/2 Century (1953.)  Barbagallo is writing a book about animation art.
who serves as the executive director of Warner Bros. Corporate Archives. (The Warner Bros Corporate Archives is the company’s counterpart to the USC’s trove. The contents of the latter run from 1918 to 1968, and the former continuing from there.)

Adams, who received his master of fine arts from the cinema program in 1978, knows of what he speaks: he helped inventory the entire collection when it was transferred to the university back in the ’70s. “Thanks to these records anyone can pretty much follow all aspects of the making of some of the industry’s most classic films.”

With The Jazz Singer, Casablanca and Rebel Without a Cause among the documented movies, the collection is the only grouping of its kind to bring production, distribution and exhibition records together to detail the activities of a vertically integrated studio. Researchers visiting the repository will find priceless materials from Hollywood’s Golden Age such as the original set designs of films such as Mildred Pierce to records of classic sitcoms like F-Troop to unproduced screenplays, movie scores, animation backgrounds, contracts, telegrams wishing stars happy holidays and more.

“It’s really amazing to see how it’s all organized,” said Lead Curator Sandra Joy Lee, pointing to the over 1,000 physically printed volumes that direct her and curator Emily Carman to the countless boxes and containers stored in the WBA’s immense space. (Copies of the volumes that catalogue the collection are also stored in the Cinematic Arts Library in Doheny and at Warner Bros.)

Visiting French scholar, Diane Russell looks at set drawings from the Warner Bros. feature film, Deception (1946.)   She is studying the profession of storyboard artists and Anton Grot. 
Recalling how individual departments at the legendary studio were “so proud of what they were doing that they felt empowered to save the history of their work,” Adams noted that the concerted effort eventually resulted in storage space constraints, which led to the collection’s donation to USC so the documents could live in a setting focused on education and still be easily accessible by researchers.

Able to host up to three individuals at a time on site, the WBA receives over 130 requests per month for access to its holdings, and also offers those unable to visit the Los Angeles location fee-based research services.

Coming from all points of the globe, the requests are as varied as the collection and have stretched from historical legal case research by a Los Angeles-based law firm to Cinémathèque Française in Paris seeking materials for a Dennis Hopper exhibit. In some of her current initiatives, Lee is assisting one author who is recounting the history of chemistry in films as well as other writers interested in the lives of influential television producer Roy Huggins, actress Ida Lupino and the legendary Errol Flynn.

In addition to helping those who approach the archives, Lee also spreads word of the collection abroad at events such as a film studies conference in Gent, Belgium where she presented a paper entitled “Pictures of Exhibition: A Look at Historical Records in the Warner Bros. Archives.”

In the early 1990s, expanding its wealth of information with the records of theatre owners from the Stanley Warner Theatre Chain, Adams and Lee both agree that the newest addition to the collection offers more than just box office receipts. The statistical information is a glimpse into the social history of the U.S. from the 1930s through the ’50s.

“You get to see everything from how theater owners worked with neighborhood car dealers to get a commercial on the screen to how they dealt with
A rarely seen still of Dennis Hopper in costume for the 1957 Warner Bros. feature film Story of Mankind, where he played the part of Napoleon. Hopper appeared in many Warner Bros. films and television programs of the 1950s.
ticket takers to difficult projectionists,” said Adams. “Even how they got their windows washed.”

And with her vast knowledge of the archives, Lee says that she still finds it fascinating to discover treasures like an unproduced screenplay on Beethoven’s life. Turning to the original location shots from Chico, California that served as Sherwood Forest in the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lee recalls the film’s star is also the topic of one of her favorite requests from a professor in Australia.

“He asked if we could find any evidence that Errol Flynn introduced the idea of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character, and it was an interesting question because Flynn was originally from Tasmania,” she recalled.  “However, the character’s first appearance at Warner Bros. was after Flynn left the studio so we don’t believe he had any connection with it.”

Above all, Lee is quick to point out that the archives is far from the solitary image people may have of a librarian’s life.

“We’re in constant contact with so many people from all over the world,” she commented. “It’s deceiving to think any of this is a quiet existence.”