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Fellows Find: How Hollywood producers used Alfred Hitchcock’s weight to their advantage

By Casey McKittrick

Casey McKittrick is an Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University. He spent June and July of 2012 researching the David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick archives at the Harry Ransom Center.  His work, which was funded by the Warren Skaaren Research Fellowship Endowment, produced the first chapter, and informed several others, of his forthcoming book Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread.

 

When I learned of my Warren Skaaren fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, I had just begun work on a book-length project examining how Alfred Hitchcock’s experiences as a fat man influenced his filmmaking and the path of his career. After reading that Hitchcock had undergone a 100-pound weight loss upon moving from London to Hollywood in the 1940s, I became convinced that his relationship with David O. Selznick, the Hollywood “super-producer” who provided him with a seven-year contract, must have been partly responsible for this radical body change.  Thus, I approached the Selznick archive at the Ransom Center with the working hypothesis that Hitchcock lost weight under the auspices of Selznick (renowned for tightly controlling his employees) to conform to the rigid bodily standards that Hollywood visibility necessitated.

 

The archive told a completely different story. For five weeks, I not only revised my thinking, but through the marvelously kept records—memos, legal documents, publicity material, scripts-in-process—I developed a narrative about the Selznick-Hitchcock relationship that had never been addressed at length. To be sure, a lot of research has been done on this historically important and largely successful collaboration, but Hitchcock’s fatness had never been suggested as a meaningful factor in their negotiations or their relationship dynamics.

 

First of all, it became clear that Selznick marketed Hitchcock as Europe’s greatest export by focusing on his fatness.  Selznick capitalized on Hitch’s enormity to build a literally larger-than-life profile of the director. He was proud that he had managed to enlist the “Master of Suspense” in the face of great studio competition, and he wanted to ensure that Americans could look to Hitch as a celebrity figure—one belonging to Selznick International Pictures (SIP). The publicity photos for Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca revealed this reliance on making Hitchcock a spectacle. For example, in one photo, Hitchcock holds a fake barbell while yawning; the photo caption reads: “Heavyweight in light mood.”  In four different pictures Hitch is captioned as either a “239-pound Englishman” or a “239 pound director,” and in yet another, the caption reads, “‘Hitch,’ who likes to talk about movies and himself, doesn’t mind allusions to his 239 pounds.” Thus, far from encouraging the director to lose weight, Selznick commodified his body and did so quite successfully. In fact, when Selznick heard of Hitchcock’s drastic weight loss, he became concerned and in a memo urged him to “Drink a Malted!”

 

Another guiding idea that I uncovered through careful examination of the archive was that Selznick and his cronies at SIP would often use Hitchcock’s size against him in a shaming capacity. For example, Dan O’ Shea, one of Selznick’s vice presidents, sent a scathing memo to Hitchcock that scolded him for his prima donna attitude, and he capped off the missive with the taunt, “How’s the metabolism?” In nearly every altercation between the director and producer, communications emerged that referred to Hitchcock’s greed, his “big appetite,” or the notion that he was getting “too big for his britches.” Even as Hitchcock complied with Selznick’s publicity strategies and realized that his popularity hinged on this kind of “body marketing,” he still retained a great deal of shame surrounding his size, and Selznick exploited this shame many times in an attempt to “manage” him—to control what cinematic projects he took on, how fast he completed them, his other collaborations, and what he said to the press.

 

My research in the Selznick archives generated the first chapter of my recently completed monograph Hitchcock’s Appetites: The Corpulent Plots of Desire and Dread, and the data I collected there is evident throughout the book. The book truly could not have been completed without this research. I look forward to using materials from the Center on future projects.

 

Related content:

The Ransom Center is now accepting fellowship applications for the 2014-2015 academic year

 

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Thanksgiving holiday hours

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. Please be aware that the Ransom Center Galleries are open on this Friday, November 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 30, and Sunday, December 1.

 

Visitors can view the current exhibitions Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age and Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan. The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible remain on permanent display.

 

Docent-led gallery tours occur on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will be no public tour on Thursday, November 28.) The public tours meet in the lobby, and no reservations are required.

 

Admission is free. Your donation supports the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.

 

The Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms and administrative office are closed on Thursday, November 28, and reopen on Monday, December 2.

 

Image: John Audubon’s illustration of a wild turkey from “Birds of America.” 1827.

Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

By Emily Neie

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

The Daily Beast: What can you learn about writers from their personal libraries?

The Daily Beast: Beautiful commonplace books by Lewis Carroll, Nancy Cunard, and more (slideshow)

Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.

Ted Spagna’s photography featured in new book, “SLEEP”

By Jane Robbins Mize

In 1975, photographer Ted Spagna (1943–1989) began his career-defining project that would revolutionize the artistic interpretation and even scientific understanding of sleep. Using a time-lapse camera, Spagna photographed a variety of sleeping subjects for an entire night. The results, now known as “sleep portraiture,” provided a unique bird’s eye perspective of his subjects’ movements, patterns, and interactions. Today, a collection of Spagna’s photographs and papers resides at the Ransom Center.

In 2009, Ron Eldridge and Delia Bonfilio, nephew and goddaughter of Spagna, formed the Ted Spagna Project. Aspiring to “awaken his work and carry it on,” Eldridge and Bonfilio launched a variety of programs highlighting Spagna and his work, including the recently published collection of his photographs titled SLEEP.

Rizzoli Publishing describes SLEEP as “an intimate, voyeuristic exploration into the private landscape of the unconscious from the Muybridge of sleep.” The full-color coffee-table book features Spagna’s photographs of children, adults, couples, and families exposed in the private act of sleeping. With text by psychiatrist Allan Hobson and additional photographs by Mary Ellen Mark, SLEEP has revived Spagna’s project alongside current information and innovation.

 

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