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Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuel Álvarez Bravo 'Señor de Papantia' ('Man from Papantia'), 1934-35
Manuel Álvarez Bravo 'Señor de Papantia' ('Man from Papantia'), 1934-35
The Blanton Museum of Art’s current exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries features works from the Ransom Center’s photography collections. Blanton Associate Curator of Latin American Art Ursula Davila-Villa discusses the life and work of Álvarez Bravo.

One of the most fascinating aspects of photography is how images change the way we look at the ordinary in the world. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, a master in transforming the everyday into extraordinary images, worked during one of the most important and transformative periods in the history of Mexico. He was a prolific photographer who lived for 100 years. During the 1930s and 1940s, his photographs laid bare a city that saw rapid urban changes that reshaped the face of Mexico. Álvarez Bravo’s unique vision is characterized by intimate scenes that fused local and international artistic developments such as geometric abstraction and surrealism. In 1929, Edward Weston wrote to Álvarez Bravo: “photography’s fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint.”

Their relationship would later develop into a friendship that also included Tina Modotti. The three photographers would work in Mexico and document a country that would capture their minds and hearts. When Modotti was deported from Mexico due to her political activities, she gave Álvarez Bravo her Graflex camera as a gift. It was Modotti who introduced Álvarez Bravo to Eugène Atget’s work, which would become an important influence for Álvarez Bravo.

The exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art, on view at the Blanton Museum through August 1, features iconic images by Álvarez Bravo and his contemporaries (including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston) drawn from the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton’s collections.

View a video about "¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence"

By Jennifer Tisdale

The year 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, pivotal events in Mexico’s struggle for self-governance. In honor of this bicentennial and centennial, the Ransom Center’s exhibition ¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence showcases items from the Center’s holdings that relate to the history of Spain’s original conquest of Mexico, Mexico’s independence from Spain and subsequent revolutionary activities within Mexico.

Rosalba Ojeda, Consul General of México in Austin, discusses the value of seeing original materials that illuminate these historic touchstones. The video is also available in Spanish.

View Frida Kahlo portrait and learn about its world travels

By Jennifer Tisdale

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954). 'Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940). Oil on canvas, 61.25 cm x 47 cm. Harry Ransom Center. © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtemoc 06059, Mexico, DF
Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954). 'Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' (1940). Oil on canvas, 61.25 cm x 47 cm. Harry Ransom Center. © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtemoc 06059, Mexico, DF

The Harry Ransom Center is displaying Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s Self–portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) through March 21.

The painting, one of the Ransom Center’s most famous and frequently borrowed art works, has been on almost continuous loan since 1990. During that time, the painting has been featured in exhibitions in more than 25 museums in the United States and around the world.

You can view an interactive map that illustrates the travels of Kahlo’s Self–portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.

The painting was most recently exhibited in Frida Kahlo, a traveling retrospective exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

Kahlo (1907–1954) taught herself how to paint after she was severely injured in an accident at the age of 18. For Kahlo, painting became an act of cathartic ritual, and her symbolic images portray a cycle of pain, death and rebirth.

In 1939, Kahlo was left heartbroken and lonely after the end of an affair with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray (1892–1965) and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera. But she produced some of her most powerful and compelling paintings and self–portraits during this time.

Muray purchased the self–portrait from Kahlo to help her during a difficult financial period. It is now part of the Ransom Center’s Nickolas Muray collection of more than 100 works of modern Mexican art, which was acquired by the Center in 1966. The collection also includes Kahlo’s Still Life with Parrot and Fruit (1951) and the drawing Diego y Yo (1930).

Later this year, Self–portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird will be on view in Berlin and Vienna.

Art Director: Set design for boathouse in "Rebecca"

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
The art director, in creating the environment that a character inhabits, reveals much about a character’s personality through the type of house, the style of furniture, the pictures on the walls, and even the items on the coffee table or in the kitchen sink. Furthermore, the sets designed by an art director must correspond to the geographic and historical context of the story.

Here, producer David O. Selznick writes in a memo to director Alfred Hitchcock and art director Lyle Wheeler that their movie’s title character, Rebecca, would have decorated her boathouse in a style reflecting her personality, and that the inside would look much different from the outside.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
“I have been thinking about the furnishing of the boathouse,” Selznick writes, “and I feel that we may be missing an opportunity here in not dressing the interior as incongruously with the exterior as possible. I think that it was after all Rebecca’s pet rendezvous and she would certainly have done it up beautifully. I have accordingly asked Wheeler to submit some new sketches on this.”

This is just one item from the “Art Director” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center.

Actor: Gloria Swanson discusses DeMille, acting technique in audio clip

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still from 'Sunset Boulevard'
Film still from 'Sunset Boulevard'
The contributions of the actor can be seen throughout the Making Movies exhibition. The primary and most visible interpreter of character is the actor, who interacts with or is affected by every creative artist on the production team.

Gloria Swanson’s performance as the aging film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) is now widely regarded as one of the most powerful in the history of film. The inner life of the character was first developed in the screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who tailored specific details to Swanson’s own life and career. But Swanson also drew on her own experience as a silent-screen film actor when she relied primarily on facial expressions and pantomime to convey emotion and action to the audience. Her perfect balance of all the aspects of Desmond’s character created a truly memorable performance.

In this audio clip, Swanson talks about working with director Cecil B. DeMille and the violin players kept on the film sets to help actors get “into the mood” for happy or sad scenes. She also discusses acting technique for silent films with subtitle cards.

This audio excerpt is just one item from the “Actor” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few days as part of “Script to Screen.”

Red Carpet Countdown

By Christine Lee

Red Carpet opening for 'Making Movies'
Red Carpet opening for 'Making Movies'

The Harry Ransom Center extends a big thank you to the many generous sponsors who are helping us turn the Making Movies red carpet premiere into an amazing event. Cornucopia is providing a gourmet popcorn bar full of sweet and salty treats. Guests will also receive gift bags compliments of The University of Texas Press, the Blanton Museum of Art, ROSCAR Chocolates, Austin Monthly, Skin by Anne Webb, I LUV VIDEO, and Téo Gelato.*

One lucky guest will also win a “Hollywood Getaway.” Guests at the opening may enter to win two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines to LA and a two-night stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, plus a year of free rentals at I LUV VIDEO, two SXSW Film Festival Passes, a year membership to the Austin Film Society, and a year membership to the Harry Ransom Center, along with a Ransom Center hat and sweatshirt.

*While supplies last.

"North by Northwest": The Chase Across Mount Rushmore

By Alicia Dietrich

Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.
Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s including Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest (1959), a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina (1954) and The King and I (1956), wrote the screenplay, his only original work and which is widely regarded as his best.

View a slideshow of Lehman’s photographs of Mount Rushmore from his research trip. The photographs were developed from previously unstudied negatives found in the Lehman collection.

This is just one film scene highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition tomorrow night. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Exhibition: "Slack Nite" keeps it informal

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Interstate Theaters Year Book: Slack Night, 1941
Click image to enlarge. Interstate Theaters Year Book: Slack Night, 1941

Early motion pictures were presented in arcades and amusement parks. Later, they were shown as short “acts” in vaudeville variety shows. The motion picture theater industry emerged in 1907 with the establishment of the “nickel show” or nickelodeon. By 1910, nickelodeons were everywhere, and after World War I they replaced vaudeville as the country’s favorite entertainment.

Soon, the trend grew toward more opulent movie palaces. Ornate auditoriums, legions of ushers, childcare, and air conditioning attracted large audiences. During the Great Depression, economic hardship necessitated the creation of more austere theaters, often built in the art deco style in urban centers and smaller cities and always “wired for sound.”

During and after World War II, theaters used all manner of promotions to bring in audiences. This Interstate Theaters Year Book featured promotional ideas from theater managers across the region, including a free horse and buggy giveaway, flower seed and watermelon giveaways, and the “slack nite” shown here.

As the brochure suggests, “Today more than ever the trend is toward informality. And many theatres throughout the circuit have found a tried and proven formula to boost Summer grosses by suggesting to patrons that they needn’t bother to scrub Junior’s face and dress in their Sunday best every time they attend the theatre.”

It then suggests that the theater get the campaign for informal dress rolling with “Slack Nite.”

This is just one item from the “Exhibition” section of the Making Movies exhibition at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman plan Hitch's final film

By Alicia Dietrich

Behind the scenes photograph of Alfred Hitchcock drawing a storyboard for 'Spellbound'; ca. 1945
Behind the scenes photograph of Alfred Hitchcock drawing a storyboard for 'Spellbound'; ca. 1945

Except for the actor, no other position in filmmaking is as much discussed or as little understood as that of the director. Directing a film requires sensitivity to the story, understanding of technical filmmaking processes, and coordination of these two skills. It also demands the ability to communicate, persuade, and shape the work of other artists and technicians working on the film.

Visit the Ransom Center’s website to listen to an audio clip of director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman developing the storyline for what would be Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot (1976).

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