Navigate / search

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.

Fellows Find: Photos, playbills, news clippings document history of blackface in minstrel shows

By Matthew Sutton

Samuel Sanford (1821-1905) was a performer, promoter, and historian of blackface-minstrel entertainment. In an unpublished manuscript held by the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection, Sanford recorded his subjective impressions of the mid-1800s minstrel show.
Samuel Sanford (1821-1905) was a performer, promoter, and historian of blackface-minstrel entertainment. In an unpublished manuscript held by the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection, Sanford recorded his subjective impressions of the mid-1800s minstrel show.

Matthew Sutton completed his Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary in May 2011. This June, he came to the Ransom Center, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship, to begin the process of revising his dissertation, Storyville: Discourses in Southern Musicians’ Autobiographies, into a book. A former archivist, Sutton worked extensively with the holdings of the performing arts collection, examining primary documents related to blackface minstrelsy in the United States. He shares some of his findings from the Center’s minstrel collection here.

Among the Ransom Center’s many treasures in its performing arts collections are the 4,000 items related to the minstrel show. Culled from private collections, these preserved photographs, programs, sheet-music arrangements, and first-person accounts reveal the world of the blackface minstrel from the Jacksonian age to the 1950s. These are not pleasant items to look at, but they represent an origin point for much of our present-day popular culture and our desire to imitate, borrow, or steal across class and racial lines in the name of entertainment.

One encapsulation of the hold the minstrel theater had on the antebellum working classes can be found in an anecdote from the unpublished memoir of impresario Samuel Sanford (1821–1905). To promote the opening of his Philadelphia minstrel theater in late 1855, Sanford announced plans to distribute toys to children (black and white) on Christmas Day and 5,000 loaves of bread to the city’s poor on New Year’s Day. For maximum impact, these “gifts” were thrown from the roof of the theater. After the Christmas spectacle, Philadelphia mayor Robert T. Conrad (a part-time playwright and defender of the “legitimate” theater) accused Sanford of inciting a riot. According to Sanford (a biased source, to be sure) and the newspaper clippings he saved and appended to his manuscript almost 40 years later, Philadelphians defied Conrad (one paper deriding the mayor as “His Majesty”), sided with the minstrel, and duly assembled for his New Year’s dispensation.

The indelible image of Sanford and his confederates heaving bread and toys off a theater roof to publicize their broad imitations of African Americans and ersatz “plantation melodies” connects on several levels. As a publicity stunt, it rivals the “ballyhoos” of Sanford’s contemporary P. T. Barnum, another showman who learned his tricks in the minstrel trade. As symbolism, it perfectly echoes Roman satirist Juvenal, who concluded that the masses could tolerate the injustices of their times so long as they had “bread and circuses,” that is to say, cheap and abundant food and entertainment. As history, it illustrates how blackface minstrelsy was sold to the white working class as a natural, even beneficial facet of urban life, when in fact its crude racial stereotyping was symptomatic of a nation struggling with its multiracial identity and nearing its end as a half-slave/half-free entity.

Archival holdings like the Sanford manuscript typically present scholars with more questions than answers. Yet they also open new avenues of inquiry, challenge past assumptions, and spur further research. Such is the value of primary sources from the “bit players” of history. Such is the value of the Ransom Center.

Photo of Matthew Sutton by Pete Smith.
Photo of Matthew Sutton by Pete Smith.

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

By Courtney Reed

The first major production of a Tennessee Williams play, Battle of Angels (1940), was a complete failure and scandal. The play was poorly received; one critic compared watching the play to being “dunked in mire.” Boston City Council members called for the play to be censored, and it ran for less than two weeks there. As Williams biographer Robert Bray wrote, “the haphazard decision to move the opening from New Haven to Boston in December of 1940 left Williams faced with a priggish audience unprepared to entertain his juxtaposition of sexual and religious themes.”

At the production’s end, Williams left Boston with the intention of finding a quiet place to recuperate. In a letter to his friend, Joe Hazan, Williams writes that he is sickened by the failure of his play, laments that the audience could not recognize the “poetic tragedy” of his work, and calls the critics who reviewed the production second-string “prissy old maids.”

After its failed Boston debut, Williams continuously revised and rewrote Battle of Angels with the hope that the play would be reproduced. He confesses in an “Imaginary Interview” with himself, “there was something about it that was inescapably close to my heart, that never let go, and I kept re-writing the play, I guess I must have re-written it once every two or three years since 1940.” The play embodied a theme central to his writing—“a prayer for the Wild at Heart Kept in Cages.” The play eventually reemerged some 16 years later, transfigured as Orpheus Descending (1957).

In Williams’s tongue and cheek “Imaginary Interview” Williams, the interviewer, struggles to get a straight answer from Williams, the playwright, about the theme of Battle of Angles:

“Question

I still wish you would tel [sic] what it’s a prayer for, this play.”

Williams, playwright, finally answers Williams, interviewer, that the prayer is for “More tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

Williams was the “primitive poet” of Battle; his prayer for the “Wild at Heart” was one against censorship and for artistic appreciation. He asserted that his work dealt with the “wild at heart kept in cages:” those who struggled against conventions, relationships, expectations, or prejudices that at the very least tamed them and at the worst crushed them beyond recognition.

This typed interview can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31.

 

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

 

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams tinkers with his Southern image

By Courtney Reed

Page one of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page one of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page two of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Page two of a letter in which Tennessee Williams asks his grandfather to send his application letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from Memphis, rather than St. Louis. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

In 1938, Tennessee Williams entered Candles to the Sun in a competition sponsored by the Dramatists Guild in New York City. Williams wrote Candles to the Sun, a play about striking coal miners and the powerlessness of the individual against the collective consciousness, at a time when his sister Rose’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. His work was singled out as having a “pronounced” individual style but was not selected for an award.

Williams was keen to present himself to the Guild as more poverty-stricken than he was. Worried that the Guild would investigate his family’s finances if they knew his real address, Williams asked his grandfather to mail the application letter from Memphis rather than St. Louis. The letter can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31 at the Ransom Center.

Williams’s relationship with his maternal grandparents, Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin and Rosina Otte Dakin, in many ways proved more stable and supportive than his relationship with his own parents. During the first years of his life, while his father traveled for business, Williams lived at his grandparents’ home in Mississippi. As a result of his father’s absence, his grandfather came to play the role of surrogate father, one that he would never really give up. Even after the family moved to St. Louis, Williams remained close to his grandparents, writing to and visiting them frequently. He grew to resent St. Louis and wished he could spend all his time in his grandparents’ happier home in Mississippi.

In 1940 the Guild awarded him $1,000, which allowed him to return to New York and attend a playwriting seminar taught by the renowned professor and critic John Gassner (1903–1967), whose archive is also at the Ransom Center.

Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about influence of Tennessee Williams

By Elana Estrin

Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.
Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.

In light of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, Cultural Compass spoke with Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about Tennessee Williams’s legacy. Read a transcript of the interview with Kushner, in which he discusses how Williams has influenced him, his first encounter with Williams’s works, Williams’s courageousness, and more.

How has Tennessee Williams influenced you?

Profoundly. Of the three major, post-war American playwrights—Williams, Miller, and O’Neill—I had the easiest time connecting to Tennessee when I was young and starting to think about being a playwright. When I read A Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, I fell in love with Tennessee because he was a southern writer and I grew up in Louisiana. The voice was very familiar and powerful to me because he was gay. Even though there were no overtly gay characters, you could feel issues of sexuality that seemed of great moment to me right under the surface of the plays.

Williams, much more than any other American playwright, succeeded in finding a poetic diction for the stage. I immediately identified with that ambition, with the desire to write language that simultaneously sounded like spontaneous utterance but also had the voluptuousness in daring, peculiarity, quirkiness, and unapologetic imagistic density of poetry. Also because it is a written language, the tension between artifice, naturalism, and spontaneity in art has always been exciting to me. I felt that I experienced it really viscerally in terms of American playwriting first in Tennessee’s writing.

I just spent several weeks very happily reading and thinking about The Glass Menagerie, the extraordinary things he accomplishes in it, and how rich, subtle, complicated, and beautiful it is. I spent a lot of time in his letters and journals, and I totally loved reading those. They’re amazing. I feel at the moment, very close to Tennessee. My admiration and love of him is strong right now, as strong as it’s ever been.

What can you tell us about your first encounter with Tennessee Williams and his works?

I suspect the first time was when I saw Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston do The Glass Menagerie on television. My memory is that it was when I was in high school.

In my freshman or sophomore year of college, I took an American drama class. There were things that I liked, but everything fell away when I read Streetcar. I just did this evening at the 92nd Street Y for Tennessee’s birthday. At the end of the evening, Alec Baldwin and Angelica Torn did the Mitch/Blanche scene from Streetcar where she talks about Allan Gray’s suicide. There’s nothing better than that. It’s magnificent and jaw dropping. Streetcar has maybe the most beautiful passages of stage English written by an American. It’s just endlessly, endlessly glorious, heartbreaking, rich, and complex.

Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.
Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.

What do you remember about watching The Glass Menagerie on TV?

I remember finding it moving and thinking that Sam Waterston was really hot [laughs]. I remember being struck by how funny it was, which was a big lesson for me. I don’t actually think you can be a very good playwright unless you have a sense of humor because laughter in the theater is immensely important. The first laugh of the evening is the audience announcing to the actors that it’s sitting there. It’s also a way to communicate with itself. When it’s a big audience-wide laugh, the audience takes its own temperature and begins to assemble itself as a single thing. And a really big laugh is an aggressive thing. It says to the actors: “We’re here and we’re hungry. Keep feeding us. We like this food.” Tennessee was a very, very funny man. “I’ll rise but I won’t shine.” I thought, that’s really funny, that’s a great line. I find the play witty as well as profoundly moving.

How has Williams influenced your plays’ exploration of sexuality?

Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.

I think it’s important to always lead with what scares you. You should always aim to go places where you don’t know the answers, you’re frightened about what the answers might be, and you have warning signs that something problematic or troubling might be in this arena you’re investigating. I think it’s impossible to be interesting if you’re being safe. You’ll bore everybody, including yourself. Williams absolutely emboldened me and most other American playwrights. Miller makes it very clear that there would be no Death of a Salesman had there been no Glass Menagerie and Streetcar.

As moved as I am by Tennessee’s clarity about sexuality and his refusal of the closet, I also think it’s very evident that he couldn’t write gay characters. As a result, we have Blanche DuBois, who’s a spectacular female character. But I’m sure it would’ve been salutary for him to write about gay men and gay women as well. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have been Tennessee Williams if he had had the freedom to do it. Trauma does produce extraordinary things.

I feel like I haven’t just taken from Tennessee. I’m also inspired by O’Neill’s experimental side and his unsparing investigations into his bone marrow. And I’m inspired by Arthur Miller’s incredible integrity, his unstinting attempts to put our political economy on stage in the form of stage naturalism, and his courage politically.

Tennessee Williams drew on his own experiences to create his work. What has he taught you about how playwrights might use their lives in their work?

I’ve always thought there was a danger in writing an autobiographical play. It’s interesting that O’Neill waited until practically the end of his life, after his brother and parents were dead, until he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie when his father and mother and sister were very much alive. It’s a risky thing to do. I think there’s guilt involved in putting your family nakedly up on the stage.

Also, you’re beginning by going to the heart of things. You may be giving yourself a hard act to follow. What’s amazing is that he outdid himself. Menagerie was almost immediately recognized as a major event in American drama. Rather than being intimidated by that, he then produced an even better play. I decided to avoid undisguised autobiography as much as I possibly can because of a sense I had that this could be very sticky business. I think there are consequences to making art too directly out of your own life.

You’ve said in the past that Tennessee Williams is “all-in-all my favorite playwright and all-in-all our greatest playwright.” Can you elaborate on this?

I don’t know that that’s true anymore in terms of him being my favorite. I don’t have a favorite playwright. I wish I had never said the greatest this or greatest that.

One thing I’m interested in that I’ve been thinking about is the shape of a playwright’s body of work. O’Neill has a perfectly shaped body of work because the plays get better and better.

Williams’s career is another story. He wrote a string of masterpieces that changed American theater and shaped American consciousness. Then around the time of Night of the Iguana, it seems to me they sort of stopped working. His later plays feel frantic. They feel like there’s an attempt to dig into experimental traditions that are not comfortable. That’s a very harsh assessment. He was a great writer, and it’s possible that people will figure out ways to make those plays work. Recently there’s been a spate of revivals of those later plays. I’m thrilled people are trying to wrestle with them, but are they salvageable? I don’t really know. That will make a lot of people very angry with me. I’d love to be proven wrong.

John Lahr has said that you deal with fame in a way that Williams didn’t. Lahr said: “Williams just ran from it, whereas Tony really tries to sort of put his head down and crash through it to some other place.”

Tennessee wrote an essay called “On a Streetcar Named Success” about his life right after The Glass Menagerie became a huge hit. He describes this disintegration that he resolved by having an eye operation. I’m sure when people read it then, they worried what would happen to this guy.

I don’t criticize anybody for the way they handle success. Needing and wanting success is part of the deal of being a playwright, and also not losing your sense of what you’re writing for, what you hope your writing will accomplish, and what you hope you’ll discover through your writing. If what you’re hoping to discover is that you’re the best writer around, if your main ambition is to win 16 Pulitzers and an Oscar, then I think it’ll start to sound that way in your work and you’ll be worthless to everybody, including yourself.

What do you think is Williams’s legacy for today’s playwrights?

I think that the way you learn how to be a playwright is by studying plays. I think that’s more valuable ultimately than being in a graduate program and sitting around and having other playwrights tell you what you’re doing wrong. If anybody asks me what to do to become a playwright, I say read every play ever written, or as many of them as you can get through.

I think the lessons of those plays are very potent for writers. They’re social plays. They’re not plays that are completely interior. There are ways in which A Streetcar Named Desire is timeless, and there are also ways in which it’s very much a play of the post-war era, about women’s economic insecurity. That sounds reductive and silly, but it’s not. Blanche’s desperation is the terror of somebody who has absolutely no possibility because of what she’s suffered and flaws in her character, if you can call them flaws. There are also beautiful things in her character: her emotional warmth, her carnality, her sensuality. These have all been turned into negatives by a society that’s this creepy mix of post-war boosterism and old-south aristocratic decrepitude and decline. She’s been ground to a pulp. Same with Amanda Wingfield or Laura or Alma Winemiller or Maggie the Cat. He’s especially brilliant at showing what women do when faced with intractably unfair, unjust, and unendurable circumstance. The plotting, contriving, scheming, fighting, and even the self-destruction. I think that they’re plays about oppression and the struggle against it. Even if he’s not an overtly political playwright, he’s profitable to look at in terms of how to handle questions we’d ordinarily call political questions within the tradition of stage realism.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

In the galleries: The "Ruins of a Play" evolve into "The Glass Menagerie"

By Courtney Reed

'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Most people know Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie as the least disguised and most deeply autobiographical of Williams’s plays, the positive reception of which elevated him to immediate celebrity. He was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his previous play Battle of Angels. Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater. Theater audiences of the 1940s, fed on a steady diet of “realism and prosaic dialogue,” eagerly embraced Williams’s presentation of a “plastic theatre” that employed multi-media elements suggesting an allusion of reality. Combined with Williams’s poetic prose, it offered up a novel voice that continues to transport audiences into a private world of the human condition.

After his disastrous experience with the 1940 Boston production of Battle of Angels, Williams traveled around the country in near penury for two years before signing a promising but briefly held contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. As Williams recalled: “From a $17.00 a week job as a movie usher I was suddenly shipped off to Hollywood where MGM paid me $250.00 a week. I saved enough money out of my six months there to keep me while I wrote The Glass Menagerie.”

Just prior to his arrival on the West Coast, his sister Rose was lobotomized. His anxiety and guilt over her fate may have impelled him to concentrate on completing The Glass Menagerie over other plays he was working on at the time.

On an early draft of The Glass Menagerie, then titled by a hesitant Williams, due to the negative reception of Battle of Angels, as The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play, are various doodles of flowers and faces. The central point of the title page is a poem of Williams’s:

“A witch and her daughter
received a caller
A gentleman caller was he!
He sprinkled the daughter
with holy water
and dandled the witch on his knee!”

Williams was perhaps daydreaming about the uncertainty of this “play in ruins.” In a letter to the Texas-born director and producer, Margo Jones, Williams, still gun shy from his traumatic experience with Battle of Angels, writes about Eddie Dowling’s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie. Williams says he will keep his distance during rehearsals so “they won’t plague me so much about little changes that occur to them. . . You know how frightened I am of everybody! Especially people in the theatre.”

As we all know, the final product of The Glass Menagerie blasted Williams into stardom. He would later write masterpieces such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Lyle Leverich writes in Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995) that “for the first thirty years of [Williams’s] life, he was living The Glass Menagerie, and it was from that traumatic experience that his masterpiece—this ‘little play,’ as Williams disdainfully called it—evolved.”

This manuscript can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

In the galleries: "Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First 'Gentlemen Caller'?"

By Courtney Reed

Promotional poster for marketing contest related to the film 'The Glass Menagerie.'
Promotional poster for marketing contest related to the film 'The Glass Menagerie.'
The 1950 screen version of The Glass Menagerie has been judged the “first and worst” adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Williams himself abhorred it as “the most awful travesty… horribly mangled,” lacking any vestige of the poetic techniques of the play. Although Williams helped to adapt the script, he was particularly upset by its characterization of Tom as a ridiculous philosophizer.

Williams’s copy of the screenplay includes his own note: “A horrible thing! Certified as such by Tennessee Williams.” The film’s manufactured happy ending is reinforced in the flyer for a promotional contest in which “Girls! Girls! Girls!” are invited to send in a letter describing how “I Married My First Gentleman Caller” with the chance to win a second honeymoon at the Sheraton Hotel (breakfast in bed Sunday morning!) and a 1951 Wilcox-Gay Portable 3-Speed phonograph recorder and 3-speed record player.

In a 1950 letter to Jack Warner after seeing the film, Williams outlines his major grievances with the adaptation, centered around his own understanding of Menagerie as a play full of dignity and poetry. Williams calls the inclusion of a flashback scene in which a young Amanda receives numerous gentleman callers and marriage proposals, “a bit of an MGM musical suddenly thrown into the middle of the picture.” He also takes issue with the script changes to Tom’s “drunk scenes,” which are treated in a comic manner that does “untold damage to the dignity of the picture as a whole.”

Williams’s greatest complaint, however, is that the producers have cut lines from Tom’s farewell to his sister Laura, allegedly in response to worries that the lines imply an incestuous relationship between the two. The outraged Williams writes: “I cannot understand acquiescence to this sort of foul-minded and utterly stupid tyranny, especially in the case of a film as totally clean and pure, as remarkably devoid of anything sexual or even sensual, as the ‘Menagerie,’ both as a play and a picture. The charge is insulting to me, to my family, and an effrontery to the entire motion-picture industry!”

The disastrous film adaption of The Glass Menagerie clashes with the play’s positive reception. The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago for its pre-Broadway run on December 26, 1944. Claudia Cassidy’s positive review in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, dated January 7, 1945, is widely credited with helping make The Glass Menagerie a box-office success in Chicago and ensuring its transfer to Broadway. The least disguised and most autobiographical of Tennessee Williams’s plays, The Glass Menagerie elevated Williams to immediate celebrity where he was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his first play, Battle of Angels (1940). Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater.

Williams was not new to frustrating Hollywood experiences. While visiting Frieda Lawrence, the widow of the British novelist D. H. Lawrence, in Taos, New Mexico, a year before the great success of The Glass Menagerie, Williams writes to his agent, Audrey Wood, on a post card embossed with the image of an ear-clipped burro, “Picture = me after several adventures with cinema and stage!”

The marketing poster and burro postcard can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Front of postcard featuring an image of a burro from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Front of postcard featuring an image of a burro from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Back of postcard from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Back of postcard from Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, postmarked December 20, 1943. Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.

Harry Houdini slideshow celebrates 137th birthday

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center owns a collection of materials related to magician Harry Houdini, whose 137th birthday is today. The above slideshow highlights some examples of materials in the collection.

Parts of the Houdini (1874-1926) collection pertain to the numerous magicians with whom Houdini cultivated personal relationships, but the focus of this collection is the life and career of Houdini himself. Manuscript material in the collection includes Houdini’s correspondence with magicians and writers; letters to his wife Bess, 1890s–1926; manuscript notes and revisions for A Magician among the Spirits (1924), along with Houdini’s annotated printed copy; and the correspondence of A. M. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx, 1905–1923. Houdini’s films are represented by the script for The Master Mystery (1918), news clippings and a press kit for The Man from Beyond (1922), and publicity photographs. His interest in spiritualism is documented by a newspaper clipping file on spiritualism, manuscript notebooks on spiritualism and theater, and history of magic scrapbooks, 1837–1910.

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

 

 

 

 

In the galleries: Stella Adler's notes on Tennessee Williams's 'The Glass Menagerie'

By Courtney Reed

Stella Adler's notes on the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams's play 'The Glass Menagerie'.
Stella Adler's notes on the character of Amanda in Tennessee Williams's play 'The Glass Menagerie'.
Stella Adler was considered one of this country’s most important teachers of the principles of acting, character analysis, and script analysis. Adler began acting when she was just four years old, alongside her parents, Jacob and Sara Adler, in a production of the Yiddish play Broken Hearts by Z. Libin. Adler performed throughout her youth and young adult years in the New York Yiddish Theater, in which her parents were active. She later became associated with the Group Theatre through Harold Clurman, whom she married in 1943.

In 1934 Adler studied with Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, who would remain an important influence on her throughout her life. Three years later, she moved to Hollywood and acted in films for six years before returning to New York. Her career as a teacher began in the 1940s at the Erwin Piscator Workshop at the New School for Social Research. She left the faculty in 1949 to establish the Stella Adler Theatre Studio, which was later renamed the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Adler continued to teach acting for more than 40 years and counted Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint, and many other prominent actors among her students. Adler’s archive, filled with materials related to her teaching career, was acquired with the papers of Harold Clurman in 2004.

The Stella Adler Studio of Acting continues to flourish today as one of the most prominent centers in this country for the study of acting. Adler’s archive is filled with notes from her 40-year career as a teacher, including her analysis of the character of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie.

In her character dissection, Adler notes the pressure of being a lady that Amanda Wingfield feels in The Glass Menagerie. Adler explains Amanda’s bad behavior as her desperate attempt to clutch onto a sentimental world of charm and poetry, instead of living within the realistic world. Adler’s teaching notes can be viewed in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

In the galleries: Marlon Brando’s little black book

By Courtney Reed

Inside cover of Marlon Brando's address book, which he lost during a 1949 production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
Inside cover of Marlon Brando's address book, which he lost during a 1949 production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
“On bended knee I beg you to return this. I lost eight others already and if I lose this I’ll just drop dead!”

These are Marlon Brando’s words inscribed on the flyleaf of his address book, which was later dropped on the stage of the Barrymore Theatre in New York City during the 1949 run of A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando’s portrayal of the rugged and aggressive Stanley Kowalski in the play stands as the defining performance against which all subsequent actors of the part are judged.

In 1947, Brando auditioned for role. His audition was persuasive, and Tennessee Williams agreed to his casting on the spot. Williams wrote effusively to Audrey Wood about Brando’s performance: “I can’t tell you what a relief it is that we have found such a God-sent Stanley in the person of Brando. . . A new value came out of Brando’s reading. . . He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans. This is a value beyond any that [John] Garfield could have contributed, and in addition to his gifts as an actor he has great physical appeal and sensuality, at least as much as Burt Lancaster.”

Unfortunately for Brando, the misplaced address book was never returned. Instead, it was found (and kept) by the play’s production manager, Robert Downing, and arrived at the Ransom Center as part of Downing’s papers in 1962. Thankfully, Brando survived the loss and continued acting, utilizing his masculine persona and notorious mumbling diction, making a profound impact upon the film industry.

His impact was so significant, in fact, that in responding in 2009 to a reporter’s question “What does ‘Brando’ really mean?” the movie producer of A Streetcar Named Desire and Brando trustee Mike Medavoy answered: “He represents the traditional male, in some ways rebellious, but not all the way.”

Marlon Brando’s little black book is on display through July 31 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams.