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Conservation efforts begin on five "Gone With The Wind" costumes

By Elana Estrin

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Last summer, more than 600 Gone With The Wind enthusiasts from all over the world donated  $30,000 to the Ransom Center to preserve five dresses from the film.

When we last reported on this project in November 2010, Nicole Villarreal, a Textiles and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, was working on a preliminary study of the green curtain dress. Seven months later, Villarreal has completed an extensive record of the costume’s every seam, stitch, and thread. Villarreal found that the underbodice and jacket are in overall good condition, but the skirt and waistband need the most attention.

Textile conservator Cara Varnell, a specialist in Hollywood film costumes, will use Villarreal’s report when she works on conserving the curtain dress and the four other Gone With The Wind dresses from the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection.

“We never have the luxury of working on an object to this depth,” Varnell said. “We normally get ’em in, get ’em out. This is the juicy fun of it.”

The conservation team has identified several mysteries they are hoping to solve about the curtain dress.

“This is like Bones and CSI. This is our own forensics investigation,” Varnell says. “Two of the mysteries are critical to answer because they’re relevant to the conservation. And there are other mysteries not critical to the conservation which we may not solve, but the speculation is the fun of it.”

One of the two critical mysteries is which threads are original and which are not. Original stitching is considered to be the work done by the studio costume department, realizing costume designer Walter Plunkett’s intent. Stitches made outside of the film’s production are not considered original. In her report, Villarreal noted the different types of stitches and thread used on every inch of the dress. Varnell, who is very familiar with the techniques and aesthetics of Hollywood studio work, will now use this information to determine which stitches are most likely original and which are not so that she knows which stitches she can and cannot remove as she tends to the dress. Varnell says this mystery is critical to solve for the curtain dress’s waistline since excess stitching is putting the waistline under stress.

“With my background in the conservation of Hollywood costumes, I’ve looked at so many costumes from the period. I can tell what’s studio finish and what’s not. There are several rows of machine stitching on the waistline that don’t make sense. There are extensive alterations and it’s not clear when or why they were done,” Varnell says, adding that she will carefully remove the rows which she determines were not original stitching. “We want to maintain the integrity of the dress as it was originally intended and to honor the piece as best as we possibly can.”

The second critical mystery is the discoloration on three of the five dresses: the green curtain dress, the green velvet dressing gown, and the blue peignoir with fox trim. Light can cause discoloration, but since light often leaves fibers brittle and there’s no difference in the fragility of the faded and unfaded fibers, light is not likely to be the sole cause of the discoloration. To solve this mystery, Villarreal plans to analyze the fabric using equipment from the Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab, including a spectrometer and a Fiber Image Analysis System (FIAS) developed by Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin.

“What’s great about the Fiber Image Analysis System is that it’s non-invasive. You can test the fabric without destroying any fibers, which is huge because you usually have to destroy some small amount of fiber with this kind of in-depth analysis,” Varnell said.

A possible explanation for the discoloration, and a mystery in itself, is a label in the curtain dress that reads, “Sprayed with Sudol.” After much investigation, the conservation team determined that Sudol is a phenol disinfectant similar to Lysol, and it may have affected the rate and nature of discoloration on the velvet. But questions still remain: if Sudol caused discoloration, why is only the outside of the dresses discolored and not the inside? Since three of the five dresses are discolored, why is there a Sudol label only in the curtain dress? Why did someone spray the curtain dress with Sudol in the first place and why did he or she feel compelled to label it? One possible explanation is that when the curtain dress went on promotional tours, called “exploitation tours,” to movie theaters, department stores, and special events all over the world, the dress may have been sprayed before entering another country.

Two of the more fun, less conservation-related mysteries are a wire hoop running along the front of the curtain dress’s hem and four rows of twill tape on the dress’s interior connecting the skirt panels together. Neither seems to have been in the dress during filming, so it’s unclear when and where the hoop and twill tape were added.

“If you look at the movie stills, the skirt is bell-shaped. But if you look at the dress now, the twill tape makes it more of an A-line skirt. Also, the front hem of the dress doesn’t have an undulating wave in the movie stills, but it does now with the hoop in it.” Villarreal says.

Since the movie stills indicate that neither the wire hoop nor the twill tape are likely to be original, the conservation team may decide to remove both, though the Ransom Center will keep the wire and twill tape documented and stored at the Ransom Center as part of the dress’s history. Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center, explains that the decision to remove the wire and twill tape relates to the contextualization of the dress and the goals of the conservation effort.

“Since the dresses are part of the Selznick collection, they’re really contextualized at the Ransom Center as part of the film production. Sometimes conversations occur surrounding conservation treatments that deal with retaining elements that may not necessarily be original to the garment, like later repairs and alterations. In this case, our goal is to conserve the dress as it was used during the film’s production and reflect as close as possible Plunkett’s vision of the costume,” Morena says.

In addition to conservation techniques, the team is using the extensive Selznick collection to search for clues about the history of the five dresses and to construct a timeline of what happened to the dresses between the film’s post-production and when they arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

Method actor Karl Malden stars in both stage and film version of "Baby Doll"

By Elana Estrin

Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'
Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series continues tonight at the Ransom Center with Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), featuring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Malden) looks forward to finally consummating his two-year marriage with Baby Doll (Baker) on her upcoming 20th birthday. When rival Silva Vacarro’s (Wallach) cotton gin burns down, Vacarro plots revenge against Archie Lee through Baby Doll.

Karl Malden was an American method actor who created both the Broadway and film roles of Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire as well as the role of Archie in Baby Doll. Malden had a long and full career and was considered, from a casting agent’s point of view, “the ideal Everyman,” as he was remembered in his obituary in The New York Times. Malden’s performances in Williams’s Streetcar and Baby Doll are two of his strongest, and he flourished as an actor under the direction of Elia Kazan. As Malden put it, critics applauded him for being “No. 1 in the No. 2 parts I was destined to get.”

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that 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.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" helps propel Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor to stardom

By Elana Estrin

Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'
Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center continues tonight with Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Despondent ex-athlete Brick Pollitt (Newman) resists the affections of his enticing wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Taylor). Tensions climax during cotton tycoon Big Daddy’s 65th birthday celebration on the Pollitt Plantation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof helped propel Newman and Taylor to stardom. Although Taylor did not fit Williams’s own “idea of Maggie the Cat,” she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal and was praised by Walter F. Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

Williams offered his literary agent Audrey Wood a list of eight “acceptable” directors for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. MGM, however, preferred to work with a director they already had under contract. MGM offered George Cukor the directorial job, but Cukor turned it down when he realized that the Hollywood version of the story cut out most of the play’s implications of Brick’s homosexuality. The changes also infuriated Williams, who is said to have cautioned audiences to stay away from the 1958 film, charging that “this movie will set the industry back 50 years!” Richard Brooks, whom Wood identifies as “maybe!” qualified for the job, was eventually chosen to direct the film.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Please be aware that 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.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Vivien Leigh takes a mad turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
Film still of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'

The Harry Ransom Center kicks off the Tennessee Williams Film Series tonight with Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1951 film adaptation of Williams’s 1947 play, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. No other play of Williams’s rivaled A Streetcar Named Desire for its intensity, insight, or impact, and it was Williams’s favorite because it embodied “everything I had to say.”

In the story, Blanche DuBois (Leigh) moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law (Brando) while her reality crumbles around her.

British actress Vivien Leigh was the only leading member of the screen cast not originally in the 1947 Broadway production of the play. Leigh was given the movie role because the film’s producers felt Leigh had more box office appeal than Jessica Tandy, largely for her Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

Leigh’s performance earned positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “haunting,” adding that “Miss Leigh accomplishes more than a worthy repeat of the performance which Jessica Tandy gave on the stage…Blessed with a beautifully molded and fluently expressive face, a pair of eyes that can flood with emotion, and a body that moves with spirit and style, Miss Leigh has, indeed, created a new Blanche Du Bois on the screen—a woman of even greater fullness, torment, and tragedy.”

Later, Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder for much of her life, would claim that the part was responsible for her illness following the film’s production. She was hospitalized multiple times and treated with electroshock therapy.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that 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.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

In the galleries: David Mamet's "Homicide" outline

By Alicia Dietrich

David Mamet's outline for 'Homicide." Click on image to view full-size version.
David Mamet's outline for 'Homicide." Click on image to view full-size version.

David Mamet is one of America’s best-known and most celebrated playwrights and filmmakers. He has received numerous awards and honors for such plays as American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), Speed-the-Plow (1988), and Oleanna (1991), and films including The Verdict (1982), Homicide (1991), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Wag the Dog (1997), and State and Main (2000). The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. Since then, Mamet has visited the Ransom Center several times to speak at public events, university classes, and student reading groups, and to lead a screenwriting workshop for students.

Materials such as Mamet’s typescripts and journals, as well as materials related to his 1991 film, Homicide, can be found in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Mamet wrote and directed Homicide, which follows homicide detective Bobby Gold, who—while trying to solve a murder—discovers a secret Zionist organization operating in the city. A series of circumstances awaken in Gold a deeper connection with his Jewish upbringing and test his loyalty to the badge. The film stars Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy, actors who frequently collaborate with Mamet.

In this outline for Homicide, Mamet structures the plot of the film following the classic sequence of action that mythologist Joseph Campbell identified in his theory of the “hero’s journey” or “monomyth.” In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell theorized that a fundamental structure could be found in ancient myths from around the world. He identified a number of “steps” or actions that were common to many ancient myths, from the “call to adventure” to the “freedom to live.” Mamet lists these steps in the middle column at the top of the page and correlates them with the film’s action in the middle row of this chart.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Alaskan explorer "Yukon" Yates publishes book about life’s adventures

By Alicia Dietrich

Walter “Yukon” Yates, 86, recently published the autobiography Breakaway, which documents his life as an Alaskan explorer, bush pilot, gold miner, airplane and airport builder, helicopter crash survivor, World War II veteran, documentary filmmaker, grizzly bear hostage, and all-around adventurer.

Yates’s story was detailed by filmmaker Warren Skaaren (1946–1990) in the documentary of the same name. Breakaway (1978) was the first film that Skaaren wrote and directed, and materials related to the film can be found in the Skaaren archive at the Ransom Center. Skaaren later worked on scripts for such films as Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Beetlejuice (1988), Days of Thunder (1990), and Batman (1989).

The archive includes correspondence between Yates and Skaaren as they scripted and planned the documentary and negotiated business terms, Skaaren’s notes on the film, promotional materials, photos, and fan letters.

Born in 1924, Walter Yates spent his early years on Burny Mountain (now called Yates Mountain) in Arkansas, living in a log house built by his father. At age 10 his family moved off the mountain and later moved to Texas. Yates loved to read adventure stories and dreamed of the day he would live some of his own. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17, one week before Pearl Harbor thrust the U.S. into World War II. He served in the South Pacific and was wounded on the island of Guadalcanal.

After Yates learned to fly, his adventures led him all over the world. His love of the wilderness drew him to the North Country where he built a log cabin 100 miles from the nearest neighbor and lived off the land for an entire year in isolation while filming the documentary Breakaway.

Tragedy nearly ended his adventurous life when his helicopter crashed and burned in British Columbia in 1978. Badly injured, he lay there for 14 days before being rescued by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The story made international news.

After his recovery, Yates spent several years gold mining in the Yukon Territory.

Yates has built several boats, two helicopters, and an airplane. As a real estate developer, he established many residential neighborhoods, including the fly-in subdivision called Breakaway Park in Cedar Park, Texas, where residents keep their planes in their backyards. He lives there today with his wife, Tracy.

 

Please click thumbnails below for larger images.

Fellow goes behind the scenes of motion pictures

By Courtney Reed

Andrew Scahill, of George Mason University, discusses his research on still photographer Jack Harris and the role of “still men” in Hollywood. Scahill’s research, “Cogs in the Dream Machine: Jack Harris and the Role of the ‘Still Man,'” was funded by the Robert De Niro Endowed Fund.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.