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.
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.
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.
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.