Sunday, August 18, 2013

Film History on an Index Card

During World War II, the Academy created the War Film Library, an extensive collection of documentaries, propaganda shorts and newsreels, for use by the studios. The Film Archive has preserved many films from this collection - for more info, see: The Academy staff at the time thankfully kept very detailed records of this collection, as well as how they worked with it. In my research in Special Collections at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library, I came across files containing step by step instructions on how to loan a film, including samples of every single form to be filled out and sticker to be affixed. If you studied all this, and were then transported back to 1942, you'd be able to do the job just fine.

In addition, several different card catalogs, documenting both the contents of the Library as well as the movements of the prints survived, and these are held at the Film Archive. I came across the following card while preparing the "Oscar's Docs" retrospective back in 2004.

This card is for a (nitrate!) print of CHURCHILL'S ISLAND, the first film to win an Academy Award in the newly created documentary category, for films made in 1941 (a caveat - two other Oscars were presented to films that year, for KUKAN and TARGET FOR TO-NIGHT, but they were officially "Special Awards."). This print had been submitted for consideration for those first documentary Oscars.

The first "out" is to the Filmarte Theatre, for the "nomination screening" evening. In the infancy of this category, the procedures for how to judge these films was still being worked out, so the sole showing of the submitted films took place in a commercial theater. In attendance were the five members of the Documentary Awards Committee, as well as many Academy members, including several Hollywood stars. Incidentally, the Filmarte Theatre, which was demolished in 1990, was located at 1226 N. Vine Street, just across from where the Film Archive is today.

The film is signed back in by "Sam" - Sam Brown, then assistant to Margaret Gledhill Herrick. Brown later became Herrick's successor, alas only for a short time, as poor health forced his retirement.

The next "out" is to Joris Ivens, the legendary Dutch documentary filmmaker, at USC. Ivens' connection to the new documentary awards is an unfortunate one. He'd submitted his film POWER AND THE LAND for awards consideration in 1940, the year before the doc category was created, for Live Action Short. Quite a few documentary films were nominated or won awards in this category before docs were officially recognized by the Academy. But at 38 minutes, it was 8 minutes too long to be considered a short. Undaunted, Ivens submitted the film in 1941, but was again rebuffed, since the film was ineligible because it had been released the year before!  The "D.G." who personally took the print to Ivens, is Donald Gledhill, Executive Secretary of the Academy, and husband of Margaret Herrick. He left the Academy for military service soon after, in 1943. The film is then sent by messenger to the Taft Building in Hollywood, the home of Academy offices.

Next, the film went to Murray Seldeen, a supervising film editor at Republic, and was signed back in by Grace - Grace Gaunt (my favorite Academy staff name from the period, who sounds like a Gothic novel heroine).

This popular title then went out again a few days later, to Hal Wallis, producer at Warner Bros. (who no doubt was working on CASABLANCA at the time). His papers are at the Herrick Library.

Finally, CHURCHILL'S ISLAND went out to Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, his winter home, studio and architectural campus (One shudders at the thought of a nitrate print out there in the desert, in the days before air conditioning). The first phase of construction of this landmark had been completed just two years before. One wonders about Wright's interest in the film. And though Hal Wallis and Joris Ivens had kept the film only a couple of days each, Wright was allowed to have the print "for an indefinite period." Thankfully, CHURCHILL'S ISLAND was returned to the Library. And good thing, too, because it became the basis of the Film Archive's preservation of the film in 2004, as it was the best known surviving source.

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