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Fellow’s Find: Ties to director Brian De Palma found throughout film collection at the Ransom Center

By Harry Ransom Center

Ethan de Seife is an independent scholar and the author of the book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin. He is currently an arts writer for the Burlington, Vermont, alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days. His research was supported by a Ransom Center travel grant. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The best-known cinematic collaboration between actor Robert De Niro and director Brian De Palma is surely the 1987 film The Untouchables, in which De Niro memorably portrays a bloated, vengeful Al Capone. But the two artists have a shared history that goes back to 1968, when De Niro was a raffish young actor in New York’s off-off-off-Broadway theater scene, and De Palma, fresh from Sarah Lawrence’s ambitious film program, was a director whose head was filled with visions of the French New Wave, Alfred Hitchcock, and avant-garde weirdness.

 

To my mind, De Palma is the most talented of the directors of the so-called “Film School Generation.” He’s also the most misunderstood: critical writing on his work has been stuck in the same ruts (Hitchcock, violence, misogyny) since the 1970s. It’s getting boring. A filmmaker as gifted as he is deserves better.

 

In the first of what I hope are several archival expeditions in preparation for a book-length re-evaluation of De Palma’s work, I visited the Ransom Center on a travel grant in January 2014 to comb through the Robert De Niro papers. The two men made three unusual and fascinating films together before “reuniting” for The Untouchables: Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). These three titles represent the earliest feature films of both of these artists, each of whom would very soon go on to much greater fame.

 

It was a good first choice for this project, as the artists’ shared body of work is pretty small and is mostly confined to early in their careers. I’d hoped to find some information on De Palma’s working methods, though this was not really in evidence. (Memo to the Ransom Center: Please solicit and archive the papers of Brian De Palma.) A few handwritten script notes did offer tantalizing clues, though.

 

The film Hi, Mom! is a vicious satire of Vietnam-era politics and liberal empty-headedness; it remains one of the most subversive of all American films. Much of its deserved reputation for challenging satire rests on the infamous “Be Black, Baby” sequence, in which the members of a black radical group stage a work of participatory theater designed to allow white people to “experience” blackness. Patrons are subjected to all manner of abuse… and then rave about the show. It’s a deeply ambiguous and still pretty shocking scene.

 

De Niro’s own notes for this scene are, in total: “At ‘Be Black, Baby’ play where I play a cop and beat up the white liberals painted black.” The paucity of this description itself speaks to the importance of improvisation to both De Niro’s and De Palma’s art; this, in turn, reveals a great deal about the nature of the film’s production.

 

The most intriguing of my finds in the De Niro papers pertains to a De Palma film in which De Niro does not even appear. De Palma made Home Movies in 1980 in an unprecedented collaboration with film students at Sarah Lawrence. In the collection was a treatment (a kind of synopsis) of the script dated from 1970; apparently De Niro had been considered for a part in it. The treatment differs in significant ways from the film as it was made a decade later, and those differences themselves may also prove revelatory of De Palma’s evolution as an artist.

 

Once I’d exhausted the parts of the De Niro papers that pertain to De Palma, I moved on to two other Ransom Center collections that, coincidentally, also overlap with De Palma’s career: the papers of playwright and screenwriter David Mamet and that of screenwriter Paul Schrader. The former wrote The Untouchables and the latter wrote De Palma’s 1976 film Obsession.

 

The Mamet papers offered mostly old marked-up scripts, which would have been useful had the object of my quest been Mamet’s writing methods. The Schrader papers, though, yielded a few gems, including a usefully comprehensive compendium of reviews of the film, collated by the writer’s clipping service. A few financial documents also provided potentially valuable clues about the film’s budget and production methods.

 

A few snapshots of promotional ephemera from Greetings allowed me to put a fun capstone on my perusal of the De Niro papers, to which I returned when time allowed on the last day of my brief residency. Had I wanted to don the “fat suit” that Robert De Niro wore in The Untouchables, I think I might have been able to arrange it. Maybe on my next visit.

 

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Celebrating the films of the First World War

By Sarah Strohl

The Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 marks the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. “The war to end all wars,” as it was optimistically dubbed, was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and paved the way for cultural and political change worldwide. This war, entrenched with heartbreak, heroes, villains, and camaraderie, inspired many stories both historical and fictional—some of which were captured for the silver screen.

 

Some of these films, including Wings (1927), The Big Parade (1925), and Sergeant York (1941), are highlighted in the current exhibition and the ongoing World War I Film Series, co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society and the Paramount Theatre.

 

Wings, released by Paramount Pictures in 1927, was filmed on location in San Antonio and was an homage to pilots of the First World War. The film tells the tale of two young fighter pilots who fall in love with the same woman. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the United States Air Corps. It was directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, who had been both an ambulance driver and pilot during the war.

 

Starlet Clara Bow played Mary Preston, an irresistible Red Cross ambulance driver. Though Bow, known largely for her flapper dresses and pearls, despised the army uniforms required for her role, the film was one of her most successful. Wings costume designer Edith Head commented: “It’s pretty hard to look sexy in a U.S. Army uniform, but Clara managed.”

 

Wings went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. A film still from Wings is on view in the galleries.

 

King Vidor’s poignant and humanizing silent film The Big Parade follows the spoiled, lazy son of a wealthy family as he joins the army and proceeds to make a few friends and fall in love amid the hardships of war.

 

The Big Parade portrayed the human costs of war and was influential in the creation of later war movies. Widely popular, the film earned MGM studios an almost instant profit of $3.4 million upon reception. Watch a screening of The Big Parade at the Paramount Theatre tomorrow at 7 p.m. as part of the World War I Film Series.

 

Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, Sergeant York is the true story of one of World War I’s most decorated soldiers, Alvin York. York was a hillbilly sharpshooter who, despite his misgivings and claims of being a pacifist, was drafted into the war and became a hero. Sergeant York was the top grossing film in 1941, and Cooper won the Academy Award for best actor.

 

Warner Brothers is releasing these three films, along with Dawn Patrol, in the WWI Centennial Commemoration DVD set on July 22.

 

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Tomorrow in the theater: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

By Jean Cannon

Tomorrow, May 15, the Ransom Center will screen All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the second film of the World War I Film Series, held in conjunction with the current exhibition, The World at War, 1914–1918. The film will be shown in the Ransom Center’s theater at 7 p.m.

 

All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 bestselling novel, tells the story of Paul Baümer, a young German soldier who—under tremendous pressure from his war-enthused village—enlists in the German Army and serves on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he suffers the demoralizing conditions of trench warfare and is wounded in battle. Remarque’s novel is often cited as a landmark in the history of post-WWI disillusionment; its success caused the book market to be flooded with war memoirs and novels written by veterans, many of whom expressed anger and resentment toward former military leaders and insensitive civilians. The 1930 film adaptation of the story was every bit as controversial as the book—which was censored and banned both for its “filth” and its anti-war sentiment. The production and reception history of the film quickly established it as one of the most far-reaching and provocative movies ever made about the experiences of men in battle.

 

Though the public controversy surrounding Remarque’s book certainly made for a precarious film adaptation project, the international success of the novel prompted Universal Pictures to buy the production rights on Armistice Day in 1929. Though many at Universal feared that Remarque’s bleak story of war and its horrors would not appeal to audiences a decade after the war’s end, Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle, himself a committed pacifist, insisted on the creation of the film. After much in-house dithering, Universal selected Lewis Milestone, a Russian-born immigrant who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1919, to direct the film. Milestone had served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the First World War, where he had produced army film footage. The original screenplay was edited by a team that included Maxwell Anderson, the author of the WWI stage play What Price Glory?, which had been released as a silent film in 1924 and would later be remade under the direction of John Huston in 1952. Future famed director George Cukor, in his first Hollywood job, was the uncredited dialog director of All Quiet on the Western Front.

 

Milestone and his team had grave difficulty deciding on the cast; more than 200 screen tests were given to a wide variety of actors and actresses. Milestone had the most trouble choosing an actor to play Paul Baümer: should the lead be a known star or an unknown talent, presenting the “everyman” aspect of an infantry soldier? Milestone considered Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Johnny Harron, and even Erich Maria Remarque himself before settling on the virtually unknown Lew Ayres, whom he came across while looking at screen tests Cukor had discarded.

 

The role of Paul Baümer would become definitive in Ayres’s life and career. While working on the film, Ayres became a dedicated pacifist; years later, when the draft was introduced for World War II, Ayres announced himself a conscientious objector.  His decision provoked the ire of Hollywood, and Ayres was blacklisted by many Hollywood producers during wartime.

 

Milestone was dedicated to creating realistic battle scenes for the film: Universal dramatically exceeded its budget on the movie—in all spending nearly $1.5 million on the film, four times more than its initial projection. Milestone created a large-scale reconstruction of a First World War battlefield in Balboa, California, complete with trenches, barbed wire, and a No Man’s Land. A special crane was imported for the camera, and authentic uniforms were imported from France and Germany. Ex-German Army officers were hired to drill the actors.

 

The elaborate sets and nuanced acting of the film brought wide acclaim in America and Britain when it was released in 1930: Variety called it a “harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness. . . .Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women.” The film won the year’s Academy Awards both for best film and best direction.

 

Such accolades did not extend across Europe, however, where many countries objected to the film for its blatant anti-militarist stance, its graphic nature, and its depiction of the former Central Powers. The film was banned in Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. It incited angry demonstrations in Austria. France did not ban the film but censored a scene in which German soldiers spend the night with French women of questionable morals.

 

As may be expected, the film received the most incendiary reactions in Germany. Though Universal prepared a specially dubbed version of the film, edited by Remarque himself (who cut many of the more overt depictions of German militarism), it caused riots in German theaters.  Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced the film, and the leading Nazi newspaper called it “a Jewish lie.” Five days after premiering in Berlin, All Quiet on the Western Front was suppressed by Germany’s Supreme Film Censorship Board. Reels of the film, as well as copies of the book, were publicly burned.

 

Only after several decades would All Quiet appear in full in Germany. In 1984, a dubbed reconstruction of the original cut of the film was broadcast on television in West Germany for the first time and to great success. Nearly 11 million viewers watched the film. The restoration of the film for public view embraced an irony appropriate for a story that criticizes bureaucracy and high command: one of the prints used for the restoration had come from the private collection of noted cinephile and censor Joseph Goebbels, who in the 1930s had burned as many reels of the film as he could, save for his own.

 

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World War I Film Series highlights films made during and about the First World War

By Gabrielle Inhofe

In conjunction with the current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918, the Ransom Center, Austin Film Society, and Paramount Theatre are presenting a series of 13 films centered around World War I.

 

The films will be screened from May through July at the Ransom Center, Paramount Theatre, and Marchesa Hall & Theatre. Tonight, Grand Illusion (1937) will be screened at 7 p.m. at the Stateside Theater at the Paramount.

 

Other films in the series include All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The African Queen (1951), The Big Parade (1925), Gallipoli (1981),  J’Accuse! (1919), Jules and Jim (1962), Paths of Glory (1957), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Sergeant York (1941), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Shoulder Arms (1918), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). View the full schedule.

 

Screenings at the Ransom Center are free. Tickets are required for screenings at the Paramount and Marchesa Theatre and may be purchased at their box offices or on the Paramount website or the Austin Film Society’s website.

 

The Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance. Patrons are encouraged to visit the exhibition, which is open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Image: Film still from A Farewell to Arms (1932).

From the Outside In: Film still from “West Side Story,” 1961

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image from West Side Story, contrasting dancers caught en point against a realistic New York street, was taken by photographer Jack Harris, who was brought in to capture the dance sequences during the making of the film. This 1961 film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which was itself based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The film is set in New York City in the mid-1950s, where two street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, are fighting because of their different ethnic backgrounds. One night at a neighborhood dance, Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the Shark leader, dance together and promptly fall in love. As a result, a deeper rift develops between the street gangs, and Maria and Tony must ultimately choose between their cultural connections and their love for one another.

 

Robert Wise was named director and producer of the film, but because he had no experience directing a musical, Jerome Robbins, who had directed the original Broadway production, was also brought in to provide assistance for the music and dance numbers. Wise and Robbins quickly became at odds with one another, and after the first day of filming, they were no longer on speaking terms. Robbins was soon fired, and the remaining musical numbers were directed by his assistants, but Robbins was still featured in the credits as a co-director of the film.

 

The film stars Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, who were cast as Tony and Maria. Richard Beymer secured the role of Tony over contenders such as Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, and Burt Reynolds. Natalie Wood was not originally considered for the role of Maria, but she was romantically involved with Beatty when he performed his screen test for the role of Tony. Wood read opposite Beatty during the screen test, and the producers instantly became enamored with her as Maria.

 

West Side Story was released on October 18, 1961 and became the second highest grossing film of the year. Garnering significant praise from critics, the film went on to win awards in 10 of the 11 Academy Award categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Cinematography. To this day, West Side Story has won more Academy Awards than any other musical.

 

The Ransom Center holds the photographs of Jack Harris, who had a thriving career as a photographer of theater, dance, and music. Besides Harris’s stills for this film, the Center also holds photographs, programs, and published materials related to Harris’s work documenting dance performances, predominantly for the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The Center also holds the papers of West Side Story screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Amy Elms wrote this post.

From the Outside In: Elizabeth Taylor’s publicity photo for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

As Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor was hateful, tragic, flirtatious, shrewd, and still beautiful enough to be considered a faded beauty. All of these qualities are apparent in this dramatic publicity photo—it is difficult to imagine many American actresses today who would allow themselves to be filmed in such a harsh and ungenerous light.

 

The first time I saw the film (adapted from the play by Edward Albee), I had never heard of the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and the only thing I knew about Elizabeth Taylor was that she was friends with Michael Jackson. Even on my tiny TV screen, the film shocked me with its brutality and the vitriol of two couples tearing each other apart over the course of a drunken evening. I was particularly struck by Taylor’s unflinching lack of vanity in her portrayal of Martha, a role for which the luminous 34-year-old gained 30 pounds and appeared to age 20 years. Albee’s original choices for the marquee roles were Bette Davis and James Mason, but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman fought to preserve the casting of Taylor and her then-husband Richard Burton. Lehman’s refusal to tone down the profane and explicit dialog only added to the controversy surrounding the film.

 

Ernest Lehman’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and figured prominently in the 2010 Making Movies exhibition. Lehman also had a hand in many other classic films, including the original version of Sabrina, West Side Story, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and the masterful North by Northwest, which he had written as an original story and screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock. The 2,500 items contained in the Lehman archive showcase the meticulousness of his work. We see not just screenplays but outlines and personal letters, scrapbooks, revisions of revisions, forays into journalism, photographs of Mount Rushmore (among other film locations), and a 200,000-word diary created during the making of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In addition, much of his work is handwritten, which provides a level of emotional access and authenticity for the reader that is not always afforded by typed manuscripts. Lehman’s decades-long career culminated in a 2001 honorary Academy Award (the first given to a screenwriter), but the richness of his creative process is what makes his archive a resource worth discovering.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Julie Liu wrote this post.

Ransom Center exhibits “Gone With The Wind” materials at TCM Classic Film Festival

By Jennifer Tisdale

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), premier sponsor for the Harry Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, hosts its fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood April 10–13.

 

Within Club TCM, the gathering point for festival passholders in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Ransom Center will exhibit a selection of Gone With The Wind storyboards and concept art from the Center’s David O. Selznick archive.

 

Also at the festival, TCM will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind (1939) with a screening of a recent restoration of the film in collaboration with Warner Bros. Studios.

 

Beginning September 9 at the Ransom Center, more than 300 original items from Gone With The Wind will be on display in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, including behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, fan mail, and costumes worn by Vivien Leigh. Drawing from its extensive archive of the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, the Ransom Center is in a unique position to tell, and share, the story of the making of this epic film.

 

Image: Dorothea Holt’s concept painting of Scarlett at the Butler House in Gone With The Wind.

Stanley et Anthony: A correspondence between Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Burgess

By Michael Gilmore

On the surface, it is a correspondence between friends:  Did you read the book I sent? Did you like it?

 

Generic questions for most, perhaps, but the inquiry was from Stanley Kubrick, and the questions concerning Arthur Schnitzler’s book Traumnovelle were addressed to Anthony Burgess. A series of letters in 1976 between Kubrick and Burgess in the Ransom Center’s Anthony Burgess collection shed light on the early stages of the work that would later be translated into Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

 

In 1976, Kubrick, sensing his research for his planned biographical film about Napoleon Bonaparte would not pan out due to financing problems, was looking for a post-2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) project. He first read Schnitzler’s dream story in 1968 and was so enamored of it, he sought the film rights, but, fearing his involvement would inflate the price, he convinced Jay Cocks, a journalist at the time, to acquire the rights by proxy.

 

Kubrick even had in mind an actor for the role of Fridolin: Woody Allen.

 

During this time, screenwriter Terry Southern, who helped Kubrick turn the script for Dr. Strangelove (1964) into a hip satire, gave Kubrick a copy of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick put the Schnitzler project on a back burner, which placed Southern in a bit of a bind with Mick Jagger and The Beatles.

 

It was understood that once the rights for A Clockwork Orange had been optioned by producer Si Litvinoff, Southern would write the screenplay, Jagger was to play the part of Alex and the rest of the Rolling Stones would play Alex’s droogs. The Beatles were to compose and record the music. Litvinoff had shopped the idea around to a dozen different directors without success. As the original plan was coming apart at the seams, it was reported that actor David Hemming, star of Blowup (1969), was under consideration for the lead. A petition signed by Marianne Faithful, each of The Beatles, and a few hangers-on in the London Bohemian underground of the time—including The Flasher and Strawberry Bob—was sent to Southern denouncing his perceived treachery.

 

The rights for A Clockwork Orange sold for $500, $2,000, or $5,000, depending which account you read. Burgess was unimpressed with his financial gain on the deal and dismayed that he had suddenly, in the eyes of the press and public alike, become an “expert” on juvenile violence. He was thankful though, that in conversation with Kubrick, he did get the idea for his next novel, Napoleon Symphony.

 

After the release of the film A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick used his Napoleon research in the making of Barry Lyndon (1975). It would be another 20 years before the Schnitzler project would culminate in the film Eyes Wide Shut, which is listed in Guinness World Records as the film with the longest continual shoot: 400 days. In retrospect, 400 days isn’t long at all, considering the making of the film took 30 years from gestation to final cut.

 

But in 1976, Burgess still felt undercompensated after the film version of A Clockwork Orange had become a critical and commercial success, and it must have rankled him that a few critics pointed to satirized authority figures in the film as resembling rumpled versions of Burgess himself. As for the exchange of letters between Kubrick and Burgess, you can sense a certain edginess in Burgess’s response to Kubrick’s complaints that in Traumnovelle “[t]here is, I fear, a narrative anti-climax which I have not been able to improve without doing violence to what I believe were Schnitzler’s ideas …”

 

“The question is,” Burgess writes, “do you want me to do anything about it? If so, how and when and for how much?” 

 

75 Days. 75 Years: Actresses who had screen tests for role of Scarlett O’Hara

By Jennifer Tisdale

For 75 days, the Harry Ransom Center is raising funds for its 2014 exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. Opening on September 9, 2014, The Making of Gone With The Wind will reveal stories about the making of this quintessential film from Hollywood’s Golden Age and illustrate why it remains influential and controversial 75 years after it was released. Items from film producer David O. Selznick’s archive provide a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the film.  Donations will help support outreach, additional exhibition tours, a published exhibition catalog, and complimentary programming and presentations.

 

David O. Selznick, the film producer of Gone With The Wind (1939), mounted a nationwide search for a woman to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Scores of women read for the part, but only the women listed here, some talented amateurs and some experienced actors, actually sat for filmed screen tests.

 

 Selznick found Lana Turner “completely inadequate, too young to have a grasp of the part.” Until Vivien Leigh’s arrival, Paulette Goddard was Selznick’s first choice. Goddard made more screentests for the role than any other established actress and eventually signed an option agreement with Selznick in anticipation of getting the part.

 

The four finalists for the role of Scarlett were Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, and Leigh.

 

The exhibition will highlight over 300 original items from Selznick’s archive housed at the Ransom Center, including photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, and fan mail. The exhibition will also feature gowns worn by Leigh as the beautiful and ambitious Scarlett O’Hara. The newly conserved costumes will be displayed together for the first time in more than 25 years.

 

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Image: Memo to David O. Selznick regarding “Girls tested for the role of Scarlett,” ca. 1938.

Fellows Find: Gloria Swanson biographer discovers rich material in Ransom Center’s archive

By Gabrielle Inhofe

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard.  Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well.  Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up.  Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.

 

When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff.  The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism.  She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris.  She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.

Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life.  I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs.  Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today.  Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall.  There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.

Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format.  Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem!  Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there.  She’s taking care of them.’”  The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.

I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s.  These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns.  In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco.  Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did.  They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.

Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that.  It is the ideal archive.

The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 fellowship program.

 

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