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In the Galleries: Producer David O. Selznick defends casting Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

By Gabrielle Inhofe

British actress Vivien Leigh is best remembered for her part as Scarlett O’Hara, the beautiful Southern belle who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Her inspired performance won an Academy Award for Best Actress. However, when word got out that she was being considered for the role, letters against the selection poured into Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick’s office.

 

The president of a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wrote a letter stating that she and the members “vigorously protest against any other than a native born southern woman playing the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Furthermore, we resolve to withhold our patronage if otherwise cast.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Joe Shay wrote to Selznick calling it “an unfortunate selection” should someone other than a Southerner be cast.

 

Selznick wrote a letter to Ed Sullivan, an entertainment columnist at the time, defending Leigh. He notes that Leigh’s parents are French and Irish, just like Scarlett’s, and he draws comparisons between England and the South. Selznick writes, “A large part of the South prides itself on its English ancestry, and an English girl might presumably, therefore, be as acceptable in the role as a Northern girl.” Furthermore, he notes the relationship between the Southern and British accents is much closer than that of the Southern and Northern accents. He also points out that the English have warmly received the portrayals of Englishmen by Americans, so Americans would be ungrateful to do the same. Finally, Selznick points toward successful cross-cultural performances in American theater, like the British actor Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln and the American actress Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria.

 

When Leigh’s selection as Scarlett was made official, the reaction in the South was overwhelmingly negative. Susan Myrick, who advised the filmmakers on historical detail, helped to convince Mrs. W. D. Lamar, President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on the soundness of the choice. According to Myrick, Lamar “greatly preferred an Englishwoman for the part of Scarlett O’Hara, rather than a woman from the East or Middle West, as she had always felt there was a close kinship between the Southerner and the English people.”

 

The memo is on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title will be co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press in September with a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

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Image: Ed Sullivan, then a gossip columnist, had learned that Vivien Leigh was Selznick’s choice for the role of Scarlett.  Selznick denied it but, anticipating resistance to his decision, had already developed a five-point justification, which he began to circulate to entertainment reporters.

Read Turner Classic Movie Host Robert Osborne’s introduction to the book “The Making of Gone With The Wind”

By Alicia Dietrich

A fully illustrated catalog by Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson has been co-published by the Ransom Center and University of Texas Press to complement the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.

 

Featuring more than 600 images from the Ransom Center’s archives of David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, and his business partner John Hay “Jock” Whitney, The Making of Gone With The Wind offers fans and film historians alike a must-have behind-the-camera view of the production of this classic film.

 

Read the foreword of the book by Robert Osborne, film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), where he notes that Gone With The Wind was the first film aired when TCM launched in 1994.

 

Join the conversation about the exhibition online with the hashtag #makinggwtw. Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.

 

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

By Harry Ransom Center

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Celebrating the films of the First World War

By Sarah Strohl

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

By Jean Cannon

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

By Michael Gilmore

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

By Gabrielle Inhofe

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

Digital collection features more than 8,000 items

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has launched a new platform of freely available digitized images of collection materials on its website. The new site contains more than 8,000 items and will continue to grow as newly digitized images are added on a regular basis.

 

Presently the collection includes photographs by Lewis Carroll, manuscripts by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, works by artist Frank Reaugh, and items from the Ransom Center’s extensive circus collection, which includes materials related to showmen such as P. T. Barnum, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

 

The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.

 

Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials.  Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.

 

Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.

 

This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.

 

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Digitized access to Frank Reaugh art collection allows viewers to peer beneath the frames

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

For his most famous child portrait, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) drew inspiration from an eighteenth-century painting

New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

 

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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.

 

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Special Effects: Norman Dawn creates earliest techniques

 

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