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Here lies Gloria

By Apryl Voskamp

One of the most unusual items in the Ransom Center’s collections resides within the Gloria Swanson archive, and it’s as challenging as it is amusing. The “sugar coffin,” as it has become known, was given to Swanson by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, in response to a lawsuit filed by Swanson against Anger.

 

A little backstory: When Anger wrote his salacious tell-all-book Hollywood Babylon he included a chapter on the death of Lana Turner’s boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was killed by Turner’s daughter. In the chapter, Anger mistakenly quotes Swanson as saying Turner was “not even an actress… she is only a trollop.” Anger was apparently unaware that when it was first printed by Hollywood gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Swanson had the quote retracted.

 

When Swanson was alerted to Anger’s use of the false quote she filed a libel suit against him and his publishers, but before the verdict was handed down, Swanson began receiving hate mail from Anger, including voodoo dolls and mutilated photographs with pins stuck through them. Anger knew Swanson was a serious health fanatic (William Dufty, her sixth husband, wrote the book Sugar Blues), so he filled a green, foot-and-a-half-long coffin with sugar, writing Hic Jacet (Here Lies) Gloria Swanson on its lid.

 

For the Ransom Center, the challenge was how to preserve a coffin full of sugar? The Center’s Curator of Film wanted to keep the object in its original form, so the coffin was encapsulated in Mylar to prevent the sugar from spilling out. After many discussions we decided to remove the sugar and place it into several polypropylene bags.

 

Unbeknownst to us, Anger had another message for Swanson. As I was removing the sugar, I noticed there was a word in Hebrew printed on a piece of newsprint that translated as “shalom.” No one at the Ransom Center had seen this before or knew that it was there.

 

Consequently, I encapsulated the newsprint in Mylar, placed the polypropylene bags with the sugar inside the coffin, and constructed housing for the object, an amazing item to have in the Ransom Center’s care.

 

Read related Preservation Week 2015 posts.

 

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75 Days. 75 Years: Actresses who had screen tests for role of Scarlett O’Hara

By Jennifer Tisdale

For 75 days, the Harry Ransom Center is raising funds for its 2014 exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. Opening on September 9, 2014, The Making of Gone With The Wind will reveal stories about the making of this quintessential film from Hollywood’s Golden Age and illustrate why it remains influential and controversial 75 years after it was released. Items from film producer David O. Selznick’s archive provide a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the film.  Donations will help support outreach, additional exhibition tours, a published exhibition catalog, and complimentary programming and presentations.

 

David O. Selznick, the film producer of Gone With The Wind (1939), mounted a nationwide search for a woman to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Scores of women read for the part, but only the women listed here, some talented amateurs and some experienced actors, actually sat for filmed screen tests.

 

 Selznick found Lana Turner “completely inadequate, too young to have a grasp of the part.” Until Vivien Leigh’s arrival, Paulette Goddard was Selznick’s first choice. Goddard made more screentests for the role than any other established actress and eventually signed an option agreement with Selznick in anticipation of getting the part.

 

The four finalists for the role of Scarlett were Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, and Leigh.

 

The exhibition will highlight over 300 original items from Selznick’s archive housed at the Ransom Center, including photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, and fan mail. The exhibition will also feature gowns worn by Leigh as the beautiful and ambitious Scarlett O’Hara. The newly conserved costumes will be displayed together for the first time in more than 25 years.

 

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Image: Memo to David O. Selznick regarding “Girls tested for the role of Scarlett,” ca. 1938.