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Biographer Stephen Michael Shearer uses Gloria Swanson collection to paint a more in-depth portrait of the star in new biography

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Cover of Stephen Michael Shearer’s “Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star.”
Cover of Stephen Michael Shearer’s “Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star.”

Although best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a legendary actress even before then.  She starred in countless silent films, working with celebrities Cecil DeMille and Charlie Chaplin.  Vivacious and enigmatic, Swanson was known for her extravagant clothing, spending, and love life.

 

In his new biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer utilized the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection, which includes personal correspondence, professional contracts, and ephemera.

 

Swanson was not known for being revelatory or reflective, and an interesting quotation from one of Swanson’s 1943 diary entries, held in the Ransom Center’s collection, stands out in Shearer’s book. She writes, “God’s wisdom finds no solace, no satisfaction in sin, since God has sentenced sinners to suffer.”  This introspective quote is at a discord with her usual attitude of rarely expressing remorse, whether for her inveterate spending and debts or the many hearts she broke.

 

Swanson also worked hard to gloss over anything negative and to cultivate an image of perpetual stardom. Her dramatic and charismatic persona was always on display, drawing men and women alike to her. “Swanson was drenched in her concept of her own allure and femininity,” said Shearer.  Swanson’s carefully crafted autobiography Swanson on Swanson reflects this tendency to conceal the negative aspects of her life and showcase her greatness, but holdings such as this diary entry help paint a portrait of Swanson that goes beyond Norma Desmond and Swanson on Swanson.

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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New digital collection highlights work of early special effects creator Norman Dawn

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Norman O. Dawn collection. More than 240 items from that collection, including the cards highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.

 

Leslie Delassus worked as a graduate intern in public services at the Ransom Center in 2005–2006, and she returned to the Center in 2013 as a dissertation fellowship recipient to conduct research in the Dawn collection. Below, she explores Dawn’s working method and approach to special effects.

Norman O. Dawn was a relatively obscure yet historically significant early special effects cinematographer, inventor, artist, and motion picture director, writer, and producer. The image above is an example of the 164 cards in the Dawn collection that illustrate special effects processes.

 

Produced by Dawn himself during the 1970s, these 16×20-inch cards explicate the process of special effects Dawn produced during his career as a filmmaker, dating back to as early as 1907. Between 1907 and 1951, Dawn created more than 800 special effects for more than 80 films, ranging from his early non-narrative “scenic” films to his subsequent narrative films. All of these effects consist of the juxtaposition of two or more images, a process Dawn refers to as “image manipulation.” The cards include artifacts from the production process including oil, watercolor, pencil, and ink sketches; film clips; frame enlargements; camera records; and production stills. The cards also contain ancillary documents such as movie reviews, advertisements, other trade press clippings, and sections from textbooks and pages from an unpublished autobiography.

 

This wealth of materials visually traces the history of cinematic special effects, situating their development within film scholar Tom Gunning’s notion of the “cinema of attractions,” a much earlier period vastly different from popular narrative film. The cinema of attractions was a more sensational cinema that appealed to audiences through overwhelming spectacle and images of the unfamiliar associated with tourism.

 

The card above explains the production process of the footage Dawn shot for Hale’s Tours of the World (1907), a cinema of attraction par excellence. Combining spectacle and tourism, Hale’s Tours was an amusement park ride set in a trolley, which simulated the sensations of a train ride as riders watched films shot from the point of view of a train in motion. In his footage for the ride, Dawn deployed arguably his most famous special effect innovation, the glass-shot, in which he shot a live scene through a large glass painting. In this particular shot, Dawn juxtaposed footage of members of an indigenous community in Mexico with a painting of ancient Mayan ruins situated in the background, thus combining two spatially distinct objects of tourism into one view. With his glass-shot, Dawn raised the stakes of spectacle by transporting his audience to a place otherwise inaccessible, one only possible through special effects cinema.

 

Significantly, images of spectacle and tourism resurface in Dawn’s fiction films, which are largely underrepresented in film history. While Dawn produced effects for—and in many cases directed—over 80 films, most of these films no longer exist. The few that remain reveal the way in which Dawn’s work in early cinema, like Hale’s Tours, influenced his narrative filmmaking. Often shot in remote and unfamiliar locations, such as the Arctic tundra, these films emphasize spectacle and tourism as integral narrative elements. Much like the audience of the attraction film, the protagonist of these films is overwhelmed by spectacular locations and charged with the task of navigating this unfamiliar terrain. This emphasis on spectacle over narrative links Dawn’s fiction films not only to the much earlier period of the attraction but also to the high-budget blockbuster of contemporary cinema. In this sense, Dawn’s protagonists have much in common with archetypal figures of New Hollywood cinema such as Indiana Jones, thus bridging the gap between the distant past of early cinema and the present moment of popular film.

 

Related content:

Special Effects: Norman Dawn creates earliest techniques

 

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75 Days. 75 Years: How one of Hollywood’s most famous lines was retained

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.

 

Film producer David O. Selznick’s 1939 epic film Gone With The Wind was embroiled in controversy before a single frame was shot. There were a range of issues on and off the set, including Selznick’s battle with the Hays Office, which was the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s office charged with production code. Selznick’s 1939 memo reveals his effort to retain the famous line in the film, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

 

Selznick states that the omission of the line “spoils the punch at the end of the picture, and on our very fade-out gives an impression of unfaithfulness after three hours and forty-five minutes of extreme fidelity to Miss Mitchell’s work.”

 

He notes that preview audiences are also stumped at the line’s omission, one that “forever establishes the future relationship between Scarlett and Rhett.”

 

The Making of Gone With The Wind will include over 300 original items from the Selznick 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 Vivien 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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75 Days. 75 Years: Costume designer created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing

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.

 

Gone With The Wind (1939) costume designer Walter Plunkett was one of the first designers to work on the film. He began his work long before the parts were cast or the screenplay written, so he relied on descriptions of the characters from the novel for cues for the costume designs.

 

Plunkett began with detailed sketches. His wardrobe team then created patterns, made the garments, did fittings and alterations, and made changes as necessary after watching filmed tests.

 

During the production, Plunkett had to contend with producer David O. Selznick, changes in directors, and Technicolor advisors. Plunkett created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than 50 major characters and thousands of extras.

 

In 1939, there was no costume design category at the Academy Awards. Selznick himself said that if there were, Plunkett would have won it for Gone With The Wind. Plunkett would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award ten times. In 1951, he was recognized by the Academy for An American in Paris. He shared the award with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff.

 

The Making of Gone With The Wind will include 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 Vivien 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.

 

Image: Walter Plunkett’s costume design for the character India Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939.

75 Days. 75 Years: Chart reveals comparison of possible deals with MGM and Warner Bros.

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.

 

Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With The Wind resonated with the public and became an international bestseller. Film producer David O. Selznick acquired the movie rights, creating early speculation about the film, especially the casting. He knew the public had high expectations, and he did not want to disappoint.

 

Selznick was concerned about casting not only the role of Scarlett, but also Rhett Butler. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s (MGM) Clark Gable was the overwhelmingly popular choice for the role, but Samuel Goldwyn’s Gary Cooper and Warner Brothers’s Errol Flynn were possibilities too. While none of the other studios were eager to loan their top male stars, all were willing to do so for the right price.  When considering casting Gable, the public’s favorite choice for Rhett, Selznick had to consider what he was willing to concede to obtain him. Negotiations with the three companies would drag on for almost a year.

 

This chart explores Selznick’s options between Warner Brothers and his former professional home, MGM. The pencil notations are Selznick’s and “SIP” refers to his company Selznick International Pictures.

 

The Making of Gone With The Wind will include 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 Vivien 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.

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

 

75 Days. 75 Years: List details suggested writers for “Gone With The Wind”

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.

 

Although at least 14 writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, worked on Gone With The Wind, Sidney Howard’s version was the basis for the screenplay, and he received sole credit. Writers were often “typecast” as being particularly good with dialog for example, or story structure. This list of suggested writers for Gone With The Wind also mentions working methods and personal habits.

 

For Sinclair Lewis, notes indicate that he “might be either a little too political-minded or a little too gin-minded for this job,” and William Faulkner is characterized as not very reliable.

 

The Making of Gone With The Wind will include over 300 original items from film producer David O. 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 Vivien 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.

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

 

 

Turner Classic Movies to be premier sponsor for upcoming “Gone With The Wind” exhibition

By Jennifer Tisdale

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the Peabody Award-winning network that is the leading authority on classic films, is a premier sponsor for the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, which opens September 9, 2014.

In its 20th year of presenting uncut and commercial-free films, TCM also hosts events such as the TCM Classic Film Festival. At the 2014 film 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.

Held in Hollywood April 10–13, the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival will celebrate its fifth consecutive year of bringing together legendary stars, award-winning filmmakers, and classic movie fans. TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne serves as official host of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

TCM’s sponsorship will support the Ransom Center, which plans to exhibit more than 300 original items from Gone With The Wind film producer David O. Selznick’s archive housed at the Center, including behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, fan mail, and gowns worn by Vivien Leigh. Donations for the exhibition will contribute to tours, an exhibition catalog, and programming.

Bloody costumes in De Niro collection present unusual challenge for conservation team

By Apryl Voskamp

Blood runs through the archive of renowned actor Robert De Niro. From bloodstained props to grisly costumes, artifacts of some of Hollywood’s most iconic thrillers are preserved at the Harry Ransom Center. Although the fake blood that marks these materials might share a similar chemical makeup, each bloody stain has its own secrets.

 

One such artifact is a shirt De Niro wore in a Cape Fear (1991) fight scene that has several gashes surrounded by fake blood. Twenty years later it is still sticky to the touch, which has posed complicated housing issues. The tackiness of the blood is what made this artifact a preservation challenge because traditional archival materials used to cushion textiles were adhering to—rather than protecting—the shirt. I learned that silicone-coated polyester film proved to be the best storage solution.

 

I learned that fake blood recipes vary depending on the specific effect a director or special effects supervisor aims for in a movie. For instance, in the film 15 Minutes (2001), the blood contained titanium oxide to give it an opacity that would photograph better. In the film Ronin (1998), the fake blood’s consistency enabled it to splatter from an explosive blood bag apparatus in the armpit of De Niro’s jacket.

 

These “bloody” artifacts have proven to be a puzzle to conservators and curators since knowing the makeup of these fake blood recipes poses issues when it comes to storing and exhibiting cinema history.

 

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75 Years, 75 Days: Donate now to support the fall 2014 “Gone With The Wind” exhibition

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center is raising $50,000 in the next 75 days to support the upcoming exhibition “The Making of Gone With The Wind.”
The Ransom Center is raising $50,000 in the next 75 days to support the upcoming exhibition “The Making of Gone With The Wind.”

The Harry Ransom Center is raising $50,000 in 75 days for the Center’s 2014 exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. This Hollywood classic premiered in 1939 and will mark its 75th anniversary in 2014.

Film producer David O. Selznick’s 1939 epic film Gone With The Wind was embroiled in controversy before a single frame was shot. Based on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, the film’s depictions of race, violence, and cultural identity in the South during the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction continue to both compel and trouble audiences around the world.

The exhibition will reveal surprising new 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.

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

Your support will provide funds for outreach, additional docent-led tours, a published exhibition catalog, and complementary programming and presentations. Donors will be acknowledged on the Ransom Center’s website and receive the following:

$10-$499: Commemorative save-the-date postcard with an image from the Ransom Center’s collection.

$500-$999: Complimentary Ransom Center membership for one year, at the dual level, which includes two tickets to the exhibition opening party.

$1,000-$4,999: Complimentary copy of the exhibition catalog.

$5,000+: Special curators’ tour for up to six people.