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Meet the Staff: Webmaster Daniel Zmud

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Daniel Zmud, who joined the Ransom Center in 2001, manages everything web-related and supervises the digitization of the Center’s archival sound recordings, videotapes, and motion picture films. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Radio-Television-Film from The University of Texas at Austin in 1996 and has led the Ransom Center through two major website redesigns, the latest of which launched in 2008.

 

Can you tell us a little about what you do here at the Ransom Center?

My responsibilities have grown over time. At first I was only producing the public website and online research tools, but since then I’ve also been supervising the audiovisual digitization lab and creating interactive installations for the exhibition galleries.

 

What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?

I like being a part of activities that shine some light on our collections. They could sit on a dark shelf forever, but it’s much more enjoyable to take them out for exhibitions or research. I was lucky enough to be around when we were scanning the Gutenberg Bible. It’s almost never out of its display case, so it was a pretty rare opportunity to have it there on the scanning station, turning every page, and getting to see it up close. We had to have an armed guard on duty…it was an incredible experience.

 

I hear you have spent some time building the web exhibition for The Making of Gone With The Wind. How has that been going?

It has been a whirlwind of activity this spring and summer. The web exhibition will include Gone With The Wind content that we’ve previously published, but we’re also integrating a fan-mail database. People can search by name or topic and read actual correspondence that was sent to David O. Selznick’s film production company before, during, and after the making of the film. You’ll be able to type in your relatives’ names to see if they sent in any comments or applied for a job.

 

Do you have a favorite item or collection here at the Ransom Center?

I haven’t seen every collection, but I always want to tell people about the Norman Dawn collection. He was a special effects inventor for film projects in the early 1900s. We have over 150 display cards from him, and each one describes a different special effect. Special effects at that time were so new—directors didn’t want to spend money on them unless they knew that they were actually going to work. He used a variety of artistic techniques like sketching, watercolor, and painting to sell the special effects to whoever was making a movie, and then he went back after the fact and inserted film stills of the finished special effect. The skill and artistry involved is incredible.

 

Can you tell us about your car restoration hobby and the cars you’ve been working on lately?

Well, I go to antique malls pretty often, and one time around three years ago I came across this stack of car-customizing magazine from the ’50s and ’60s. They really showed me the creative element in repairing and customizing old cars. I never thought it was something I would be able to do, but flipping through those magazines, I realized that older cars are actually simple machines. So, I was going through Craigslist around that time, and I came across a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair that just intrigued me. It was in rough shape, and I thought to myself, “Here’s a blank slate!” With the help of many people giving me advice and directing me to spare parts, I was able to get that car looking really nice within a year, and I ended up reluctantly selling it. What I learned was that once you finish a project, you are eager to start another one. Right now, I’m working on two Mazda Miatas.

Below, watch Zmud drive the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair that he restored.

 

Where is your favorite place to travel?

Every year since 1988 I’ve gone to Taos, New Mexico for a week or two in the summer. I like to hit the reset button there. I’m with my family, and it’s not a typical trip where every minute is scheduled. I just get to relax, take in the scenery, and escape the heat.

 

Do you happen to collect anything?

I collect snapshots. You’ll find these buckets full of snapshots in antique stores, and I like flipping through every last one of them. When one sticks with me as interesting or artistic, I decide to take it home. People can be accidentally artistic, even when they are just taking a picture of their aunt and uncle, or the picture isn’t in focus.

 

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

 

 

Behind the scenes: Conserving the “Gone With The Wind” dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

Tomorrow, the Harry Ransom Center presents a panel discussion to answer the question “How do you care for some of the most iconic costumes in film history?” at 7 p.m. in the Center’s Prothro Theater.

 

Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson leads a discussion on the preservation of Gone With The Wind costumes, including the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown, with independent textile conservator Cara Varnell, Ransom Center Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena, and independent scholar Nicole Villarreal.

 

This program is in conjunction with the current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, which features five costumes from the film and is on view through January 4.

 

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which enabled the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely on custom-fitted mannequins in the current exhibition.

 

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012. A description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available. View videos of conservation work in progress and interviews with curators and the conservator.

 

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Image: The conserved green curtain dress and hat worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Photo by Pete Smith.

Mildred Blount: “Milliner to the Stars!” and designer of hats for “Gone With The Wind”

By Jill Morena

Much behind-the-scenes work on Gone With The Wind and the people who performed that work continues to remain largely unknown outside the production sites of the 1939 film. The story of an African American milliner was recently brought to my attention through an email query—had I heard about the woman who designed Scarlett O’Hara’s hats? A link to a video on YouTube, telling the story of Mildred Blount—“Milliner to the Stars!”—was included in the message. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

 

John Frederics, a New York–based milliner (who later changed his professional name to John P. John, and is perhaps better known through the company, Mr. John, Inc.), was the creative side of the partnership of the company John-Fredericks. Frederics had always been credited with making Scarlett O’Hara’s hats, although he received no onscreen credit. Mildred Blount, who had been making headgear since childhood and continued honing her skills as a young woman working in various shops in New York City, applied for a job with John–Fredericks and got the position.

 

An article on Blount in Ebony magazine in 1946 described the scenario: “It took courage for her to ring the bell at John Frederics in answer to their ad for a learner, for this was the royalty of America’s hatters. They were taken aback. No Negro had ever applied before. Yes, she assured them she had talent. All she asked was a chance. P.S.—She got the job.” The article continues: “Her exhibit of hat miniatures at the N.Y. World’s Fair attracted the attention of Mrs. David Selznick, and ultimately landed John Frederics the pot-of-gold assignment of the day—milliners to the tremendous cast of Gone With The Wind. Mildred did most of the work, although the credit line went to her employers.” This begged the question, who really made the hats for Scarlett O’Hara? John Frederics or Mildred Blount?

 

Negotiations between Selznick and John Frederics began hurriedly in January 1939 and were fraught and arduous. Found in the Selznick collection are many memos and telegrams discussing the terms desired by Frederics and Selznick’s commitment to keep the arrangement to SIP’s (Selznick International Pictures) economic advantage. Selznick was adamant about refusing screen credit for John Frederics, Inc., and Frederics was concerned with being compensated fairly for his time and reaping publicity benefits. After much back-and-forth between SIP and Frederics—and a lucrative commercial tie-in deal for SIP with a manufacturer, recommended by Frederics, to make commercial copies of the hats—a contract was agreed upon and signed on January 13, 1939.

 

John Frederics had pointed out the impossibility of executing hats “satisfactorily, especially when the picture is in color, 3,000 miles away.” A train compartment was swiftly booked for John Frederics to travel to Los Angeles, and he arrived at SIP set on January 20. Frederics optimistically estimated that he could finish 15 hats in two or three days; he stayed in Los Angeles for nearly a month. By the end of his 26-day stay, he had completed 12 hats, including the curtain dress hat (“Scarlett #13″). He was brought back (following another contentious negotiation) in April to make 10 more hats for Scarlett and other characters, including Melanie Wilkes and Belle Watling.

 

While it cannot be accurate that Irene Selznick saw Blount’s miniature hats at the World’s Fair that spring or summer and recommended John Frederics to Selznick (as he was already considered for the job in December 1938), it is very likely that Mildred Blount created Scarlett’s hats for the “Honeymoon” sequences in New York. Frederics was unable to complete his work on Scarlett’s hats during his second trip to Los Angeles in April–May 1939 and agreed to make the remainder of the hats at his New York studio.

 

In addition, Blount very likely had a hand in choosing materials and working with Frederics on the designs for the first round of Scarlett’s hats in New York. In one memo, Frederics asks that sketches and fabric swatches be sent to New York in advance of his January trip to Los Angeles so that he could purchase or choose the bulk of the materials in New York, which he preferred to the Los Angeles market. Between January 13 when the contract was signed and January 19 when he arrived in Los Angeles, Frederics had to work at lightning speed to get his materials and design ideas in order, and it’s very unlikely he did this alone.

 

As the production history of Gone With The Wind makes clear, the concept of the lone genius working in isolation, be it producer, designer, or director, is a myth. The talents of many people working on the production often did not receive recognition in print. However, Blount’s design legacy shows that she remains anything but anonymous. Her talents and reputation continued to soar while creating for John Frederics, Inc.. She left John Frederics, Inc. and founded her own eponymous label in Los Angeles by the mid-1940s, designing for Hollywood actresses as well as private clients, including Gloria Vanderbilt and Marian Anderson. She continued to work until her death in 1974. Her hats can be found in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum.

 

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Q&A: Film critic Molly Haskell discusses “Gone With The Wind”

By Sarah Strohl

Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, explores the popularity and influence of both the book and film, from their first appearance to the present on Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. The program, which is held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, will be webcast live.

 

In her book Frankly, My Dear, Haskell explores how and why the saga of Scarlett O’Hara has kept such a tenacious hold on the national imagination for almost 75 years. In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film version of Gone with the Wind, Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked, but Haskell argues that what makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities involved of Mitchell, Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.

 

Below, Haskell answers questions about her own experiences with Gone With The Wind, her take on Scarlett O’Hara’s legacy, and more.

 

You talk about how the popularity of Gone With The Wind might have diminished its reputation in the eyes of critics: “According to the stern moral axiom that a film can’t be both great and popular, our affection for it is almost a mark in its disfavor.” (pg. 34) Why do you think this is, and do you think this rings true for films today?

​I think it’s still true. Gone With The Wind was, in a way, the first blockbuster, though Jaws is the one with which we associate the current use of the term, and it was followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars—the latter almost in a class by itself. Then there are more Spielberg and Lucas mega-hits—the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park cum sequels. None of these is taken seriously, though I think standards have shifted somewhat, and the distinction between high culture and popular culture is far less rigid than it once was.

 

You describe reading or seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time as a “formative experience.” Do you remember where you first experienced Gone With The Wind?

​If you mean the movie, I can’t pinpoint the date. I read the book when I was about 12 or 13, swallowing it whole overnight. By the time I saw the film, I was a little more ambivalent about Scarlett: she was gutsy, courageous, ambitious, indecorous (all pluses to my way of thinking), but she was also a Southern belle, something I very much didn’t want to be. Except just a little!​

 

You noted certain parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara. To what extent do you think Mitchell wrote herself into the role of the protagonist?

​I think she thought she was creating Scarlett in the image of her grandmother, a powerhouse of a lady (as were the war widows and survivors of her generation, in Mitchell’s eyes). But so much of the flapper-micshief-maker-tomboy Peggy Mitchell went into the role, and with such ​galvanic force, that she became the heroine almost in spite of her author.​

 

 

When Gone With The Wind emerged, girls and young women everywhere fell in love with Scarlett as a role model for passion and independence. Do you think Scarlett is relevant to young women today?

​Definitely if viewers are able to see beyond the Southern manners, the period trappings, and the always troubling treatment of slavery and the blacks. Scarlett has so many modern offspring, women who have been liberated by feminism (and women’s suffrage, for which Mitchell’s mother fought), without necessarily acknowledging it: Madonna, Lady Gaga, even the Sex and the City babes and Girls!.​

 

 

When casting Scarlett, Selznick reviewed more than 1,400 candidates over two years and spent $92,000 before settling on Vivien Leigh for the role. Can you describe the level of desire and competition for girls who were dying to be Scarlett?

​It was not just the great role of 1939, it was the role of a lifetime. Actresses who were completely wrong for it, like Katharine Hepburn, campaigned. Stars who hadn’t auditioned in years auditioned for it, while others covertly let it be known that they ​were available. Selznick scoured the South. Women wrote to Mitchell begging her to intercede for them. The “quest” stoked stories and filled fan magazines, until it seemed as if everyone in the country had weighed in one way or another. And not just as to the role of Scarlett, but Rhett Butler, too. Though that was practically unanimous: Clark Gable.

 

Do you think there are any actresses today who could come close to Leigh’s performance?

​It’s hard to say, since we no longer have the studio system grooming stars, and no longer want or expect the particular kind of glamor that those stars radiated. It’s such a different game, and each era’s definition of what’s convincing and “real” in acting changes radically. This is a good thing, I think. Who would want to recreate that unique experience? When people try, as in remakes, it usually fails.

 

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Image: Cover of Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited.