One of the joys of processing paper collections in the Moving Image Department is seeing some of the truly astounding work that was done before a film made it to screen (for example, the conceptual artwork above). But occasionally the story of a movie ends with this pre-production work. Those with an interest in film are well aware of the concept of “lost films,” which are films that have no known existing copies in either archives or private collections. In most cases these films are from the earliest decades of film production and all we have go on are the promotional materials and production correspondence. But what about those proposed film projects that were never completed, for which there was never any filmed evidence? In these cases the paper materials are all we have to document this phase of a filmmaker’s career and interests. Correspondence with collaborators, draft scripts, preliminary budgets—these paper items give us all we know about what might have been. I am currently employed as a Project Archivist in the Moving Image Department, processing the manuscript collections of four independent filmmakers: Leo Hurwitz, Douglass Crockwell, James Reese, and Lothar Wolff. This project has been funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) as part of their Hidden Collections program. “Hidden collections” are collections housed in repositories that have no basic inventory, no online presence, and no way for potential researchers to discover them. CLIR’s program funds projects that help make such collections more easily discoverable in an online environment.
Wolff, the first filmmaker I worked on, started his career as a publicity agent in Germany in the 1920s. He emigrated to America prior to World War II and was the chief editor and assistant producer for the newsreel series The March of Time, before working as an independent producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. Towards the end of his diverse career he focused on a scientific interest that had lasted throughout his work (he referred to himself a “scientific moron”), producing projects for the National Geographic Society and others, many of which were made for public television. As is often the case in dealing with filmmakers, the films that Wolff actually produced are dwarfed by those that never made it out of the planning stages. In these collections, one gets a sense of the whole of a filmmaker’s career—topics that interested them, hurdles they had to cross, and just simply how amazing it is that anything ever gets produced in the first place. Wolff’s collection is full of material like this, allowing us to see the process from start to finish as well as what problems could potentially kill a project (usually financial). For example, in Wolff’s collection there are three proposed series of particular note. One is Then and Now, a suggested retrospective of The March of Time comparing and contrasting then-current events with archival footage. Such a production would have recontextualized the newsreel for a more modern time.
Then there is The TV Bible, a proposed German television dramatization of The Old Testament for which Wolff was hired as a script editor. After completing his work, Wolff was no longer involved in the project, and a note in the collection materials indicates that he was unsure of its status or if it ever was completed. This project – which consists of 94 folders – shows the vast amount of paperwork that can be behind an uncompleted project.
These materials for unproduced works not only encompass scripts and screenplays, but other material as well, such as artwork for a proposed adaption of James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks (photo at top). The story had been adapted for The Motorola Television Hour in 1953, but in the 1960s there was a proposal to do a feature length version. The project went through preliminary stages, and at one point Alec Guinness was approached for a role (when he turned it down he cited, in part, potential commitment to David Lean’s similarly unproduced Gandhi).
Completed films do not represent the full scope of a filmmaker’s career. It is through the paper materials that we discover not only lost films, but ideas that never quite made it. Some of them may have evolved into other, later projects, and some may have been briefly considered and then tossed aside for one reason or another. The information these manuscripts contain is essential to a proper understanding of a filmmaker’s life and work, and with this project we hope to bring these paper collections—covering both produced and unproduced material—back into the light. RELATED EVENT: Stacey Doyle & Ken Fox on Manuscript Collections in Moving Image Archives Saturday January 10, 2015 from 12:15 to 1 p.m., Curtis Theatre Stacey Doyle and Ken Fox, project archivists in the Moving Image Department, will discuss the essential role of manuscript collections in a moving image archive and how these items are handled by archivists. This discussion will be framed by their work on the project “Documenting Their Films: Hidden Collections of Four Independent Filmmakers.” Free to members; incl. w/ museum admission, or $6/$3 students, talk only.