The Life and Writings of James Card

Submitted by Guest Post,

During his tenure as the first curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman Museum from 1948 to 1977, James Card produced a collection of typed notes for film introductions he delivered at the Dryden Theatre, speaking engagements outside of the museum, and drafts of published works. The museum holds around two hundred of these documents that I have been processing for my personal project as a student of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. The overall goal of my project is to provide access to this collection through the museum’s website. 

James Card

Unidentified Photographer. James Card, ca. 1950s. George Eastman Museum.

To achieve this goal, the project required several phases. First, I read through many of the texts to get a feel for the collection as well as Card’s history, interests, and writing style. I then scanned all the texts on a Bookeye scanner, totaling over 1,000 pages. I am now in the process of running the scanned images through an optical character reader (OCR) software called ABBYY to make each document text searchable. This has proven to be the most challenging aspect of the project. Card edited many of the texts by hand after typing them, crossing out passages or adding more text in the margins. It is often difficult to decipher these handwritten notes. Some have even been completely illegible; in these cases, I make note of the illegible word(s) in brackets within the transcription of the text. The final step will be to compile the texts into a digital library that can be added to the George Eastman Museum’s website.

While reading through the texts, I quickly realized that a document’s title was rarely indicative of the breadth of topics Card was to discuss. An introduction for a film screening was never solely about the film. Card had a very meandering writing style; he often would not bring up the topic at hand until half way through the text. Because of this, each text supplies a wealth of information. They illuminate Card’s life and work, they reveal much about the museum’s history and how it has exhibited and contextualized films over the years, they delve into the history of film preservation, and they highlight film and cultural history. 

James Card spent his formative years in Ohio and studied drama and theatre at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. During this time, he helped form a film society which rented and screened film prints. It was through this experience that he began collecting film and developed a passion that would inform his life and career. In a 1977 interview in Image, a publication of the George Eastman Museum, Card described acquiring his first film print: 

“In the course of one of those programs, one of the films that we rented from New York was [James] Sibley Watson’s The Fall of the House of Usher [1929]. It so happened that the print they sent us was incomplete – there was only about three-quarters of it there – and at this point I had never seen any kind of expressionist film. I still hadn’t even seen Caligari at this point, and I was absolutely bowled over by the opening vistas of a film like that the first thing I had to try to do was to see a complete print of it. And then when I finally did locate a 16mm print of Usher I got it, and I just so fell in love with it I bought it, and that was the first film in what was going to be a collection.”  

Card spent an academic year studying abroad at University of Heidelberg in Germany where he acquired his second film print, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, Germany 1920). In a text entitled “Fortnightly Club,” Card says of his fledgling film collection: 

“Perhaps two swallows never made a spring time nor two horses a Derby, but those two subjects did constitute the beginning of a film collection. Both Fall of the House of Usher and Caligari readily lent themselves to a preliminary lecture in their presentation. Thus on the basis of two most unusual films, their owner began to consider himself an expert in the highly restricted film of the history of cinematic art.”

Later, Card moved to Rochester, NY to work for Eastman Kodak’s Informational Films Division as a director and cameraman. His time in Rochester led to the opportunity to work for the George Eastman Museum as the assistant curator in charge of motion pictures after the museum’s inception in 1948. The collection he had amassed in the years after acquiring The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari formed the basis for the museum’s film archive.

Shortly after the opening of the George Eastman Museum, a film exhibition space was built – the Dryden Theatre. This became a significant event in Card’s life which he describes in “Fortnightly Club”: “it began to seem as though the art of motion pictures might finally gain a temple of worship and I was happy to take my vows as a devoted monk in service of the cinema.” The Dryden opened in March of 1951. The first Dryden series was entitled the Transition from Silence to Sound, which Card writes was programmed to “illustrate the historic development of this rather wayward form of art.” The premiere film screening was Jean Renoir’s first feature film Nana (Jean Renoir, France 1926). Card was actually not in attendance for this event, he was bedridden with a virus. So Beaumont Newhall, curator of the museum, delivered the evening’s opening remarks which were written by Card. Though Card was unable to attend this premiere film, he had extensive hands-on involvement in preparation for the screening. In his introduction to a later screening of the 1955 version of Nana (Christian-Jaque, France 1955), Card reflects back on the experience: 

“Propped up on pillows in bed I was hectically splicing English titles into our precious print of Nana and General Solbert himself [the first director of the museum] was there with car motor roaring, waiting to run the print here to the Dryden Theatre for the American premiere of Jean Renoir’s first major film.” 

In a text titled “George Eastman House General Information” Card highlights the projectors used in the Dryden theatre as “the latest water-cooled 35mm theatre projectors by the Century Projector Corporation.” This brief statement in particular resonated with me. As a part-time projectionist at the Dryden Theater, sixty-seven years later, we use these “latest” Century projectors to this day.

Many of Card’s texts also recount the history of film preservation. He often names his contemporaries who helped pioneer the field, but what is even more interesting is his speculation on the history that could have been. Several of Card’s texts relay the story of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his cameraman Boleslav Matuzewski. The Czar’s coronation in 1896, when cinema was but a year old, was the first to be captured on motion picture film by Francis Doublier, a cameraman of the Lumière brothers. The Czar was so enthralled by the technology that he created the position of Royal Court Cinematographer and assigned the role to Matuzewski. As he created more and more motion pictures, Matuzewski began to realize the significance of the medium and, in 1898, published a book on the subject. He then travelled to Paris and announced that the Czar had authorized him to found the first in a series of motion picture archives. Unfortunately, Matuzewski’s mission was unsuccessful. Card bemoans this lost opportunity:

“Historians of the future would have the rare privilege of consulting filmed documents of all the world events from the year 1898 on into infinity and the television era – thanks to the depots of international archives…how this extraordinary chance was lost to have an unbroken motion picture record of the formative years of the cinema and a complete film archive of the fascinating period when the 19th century gave way to the 20th has never been discovered…Matuzewski’s own Russian archive was scattered like the white Russians themselves during the chaotic days of revolution.”

Card goes on to enumerate the difficulties this created for the future of film preservation: “A mere handful of fascinating moving picture documents of the 19th century remain to us now – provocative and tantalizing bits of living past that dramatize the unutterable tragedy of the failure of Matuzewski’s mission. Thirty-seven years went by…during which motion pictures were callously destroyed in wholesale lots – burned, disintegrated for silver reclamation, or simply allowed to decompose and rot, before the first archives were established to preserve these priceless relics of an art absolutely unique to our own age.” 

In another text entitled “The Liveliest Art,” Card writes: “Had [Matuzewski] succeeded, the work of the Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House would be much less exasperating and frustrating.” As example of the frustration inherent to film preservation, in several of the texts, Card recounts his hunt for a print of Down to the Sea in Ships [Elmer Clifton, US 1922]. He cites a number of reasons for the film’s historical significance: it was financed by the people of New Bedford, Massachusetts to document their traditional form of whaling and it was the first screen appearance of Clara Bow. It was thought that 20th Century-Fox purchased the original camera negative and the rights to the film before producing their remake in 1949. Card asked 20th Century-Fox to loan the George Eastman House the negative so preservation elements could be made, and was careful to emphasize that he was only interested in the original silent film not the remake. Eventually a print of the film was received, accompanied by a letter from the vice president of 20th Century-Fox that read: “The prints of Down to the Sea in Ships were shipped to you today. They are the sound versions; we no longer have the silent but these may be run without the sound.” 

Card also demonstrates a distinct interest in the historical and cultural value of film, sometimes even above aesthetic value and his own personal taste. For example, in his introduction to 42nd Street, he spends the first half of the text talking about how much he disliked the film and musicals in general. He even goes so far as to say, “it has not seemed altogether demonstrable that the so-called musical has made any startling or even significant contributions to the art of motion pictures.” His justification for screening the film as part of a series on the Art of Entertainment: “Musicals, if they had little to do with are art of cinema, surely they have a great deal to do with the art of entertainment.” He then relays an anecdote about the first time he saw 42nd Street on its initial release. He went with a friend who was seeing it for the fifth time, but Card hated it so much he walked out half way through the film. Yet he goes on to say: “42nd Street is after all and quite apart from its more obvious attributes, a most remarkable and interesting film. It is, to begin with, a rather shocking breath of the spirit and essence of quite a memorable year.” He ends the introduction by saying, “And so we have it tonight, ladies and gentlemen, 42nd Street, now becomes a history lesson – a history of the life and times and spirit but most of all, the mood of 1933.”

The opening of the Image interview provides an apt summary of Card’s work that I have come to appreciate so much throughout this project: “His selection of film series for exhibition at the museum attests to a high degree of eclecticism; his spoken introductions to the programs were discursive and alternately reverential or iconoclastic, qualities that also characterized his writings.” Anyone who has enjoyed the selection I’ve included here, can look forward to reveling in James Card’s unique perspective and style when the entire collection is made available on the museum’s website.

Sam Lane moved to Rochester from New Mexico in the summer of 2014 to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester and intern at the George Eastman Museum. He is currently a master’s student in the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and the University of Rochester. He also works as a part-time projectionist at the Dryden Theatre. Before coming to Rochester, he worked as a projectionist and manager at a commercial movie theatre for eight years.

(Photos to left and right taken by Sam Lane and Matt Wittmayer)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017