Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.
The exhibition Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which was on view at the Ransom Center in fall 2012, opens at the Museum of the City of New York today. To celebrate this traveling exhibition, the Ransom Center is giving away a free “I Have Seen the Future” totebag to all Ransom Center visitors, while supplies last. The galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.
R. Colin Tait, a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Ransom Center’s Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, “Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).” Tait argues that De Niro has been a major intellectual and creative contributor to the world of film and acting and writes about his research in the De Niro archive. Tait shares how the papers reveal the actor’s commitment to his craft with examples of his “meticulous research, collaborations with directors, and extreme bodily transformations.”
In the above video, Tait discusses De Niro’s place in the film canon.
By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.
Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.
Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”
Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.
Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.
Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.
Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Judith Freeman, a fellow from the University of Southern California, discusses her research in the Ross Russell archive. Freeman’s focus lies primarily with noir, Raymond Chandler, and Los Angeles, but her time in the collections expanded her interest in jazz.
Freeman’s project, “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles,” was funded by the Erle Stanley Gardner Endowment for Mystery Studies.
Samantha Pinto came to the Ransom Center as a fellow from Georgetown University to work on her project “Africa, (Re)Circulated: Cosmopolitan Performances of Mid-Century Modernity.”
Pinto’s research, which focuses on the United States’s perception of Africa, involved documents and multimedia components from the Transcription Centre archive. The materials from the archive related to Africa are in their own finding aid, which Pinto says will make the Ransom Center a destination for students and scholars in the field of African and African Diaspora studies.
Pinto’s work was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.
Laurence Raw, a fellow from Başkent University in Ankara, discusses his research on actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit’s World War II–era performances. Raw’s research, “Patriotic Shakespeare—Donald Wolfit’s Productions 1941–1953,” was funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment.
English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, gives a reading tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with Ransom Center staff about his interests and work.
In these two videos, Crace reflects on writing advice he took to heart early in his career and how one of his favorite authors, T. H. White, adopted a life of learning to deal with depression. These videos exemplify Crace’s understanding of the emotional value of the physical and how he uses this connection in his writing.
Jim Crace’s Writing Advice
“I found myself writing more directly and more convincingly about my mum through scissors than I would’ve done if I’d written about her emotionally…”
Jim Crace on T. H. White’s Materials at the Ransom Center
“…Once you’ve learned to parse medieval German verbs, you can learn to plow. And once you’ve mastered plowing, you can set your attentions towards knitting. And once you’ve learned to knit, you can discover how to make dough rise. And that was basically his [T. H. White’s] method of dealing with this deep depression he had all of his life…”
English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, will give a reading this Thursday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with the Ransom Center about his interests and work.
In these two videos, Crace discusses how painting coastal watercolors sparks his imagination, and shares several original drawings of imaginary places. These videos illuminate the inspiration Crace draws from places he created as a child, both real and fictional.
Jim Crace on Painting
“All of my novels, without exception, I think, are landscape novels… and I think that landscape is almost a character in all of my novels. So these things are important to me.”
Jim Crace’s Childhood Maps and the Narrative of Travel
“I used to love looking at atlases. It seemed to me that implicit in every map I looked at on every page was a narrative of travel, an armchair story that you could imagine yourself going around this coastline or traveling up that river or crossing those mountains.”
Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the latest work by British writer-filmmaker Iain Sinclair, explores the changes in East London as the city prepared for the 2012 Olympics and concludes with his visit to the United States, including his April 2010 trip to the Ransom Center.
Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, delivered a public talk, met with students, and worked with archivists cataloging his papers. Long walks in urban areas are a frequent topic of Sinclair’s writing, and Sinclair agreed to tour the campus, including the 307-foot-tall Tower, and offer his insights.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
In 1973, visiting authors and authors began signing one of the Harry Ransom Center’s doors between two manuscript stack rooms on the fifth floor. At the suggestion of a staffer, the authors’ door was inspired by the signed Greenwich Village Bookshop door in the Center’s collection. When one side of the Ransom Center’s door filled up a few years ago, the other side was sanded down so that it could be used as well. To date, more than 150 visitors have signed the door, from American writer Alice Adams to Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
ESPN’s Longhorn Network recently explored the history of the door with the Ransom Center’s Danielle Brune Sigler, assistant director and curator for academic programs.