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Lady in the DarkIris Barry and the Art of Film$

Robert Sitton

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780231165785

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231165785.001.0001

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Cracking Hollywood

Cracking Hollywood

(p.195) 18 Cracking Hollywood
Lady in the Dark

Robert Sitton

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the daunting task of building a collection for the film library. In August 1935, at a dinner party hosted by Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Iris Barry addressed a glittering crowd and invited their involvement in establishing the film library. Iris assured the industry's leaders that their films would be respected, projected whole, and in an educational context. Above all she offered them immortality, the promise that their films would outlive them and guarantee them a place in history. The Abbotts' appeal resulted in pledges of films from Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Samuel Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, and Walt Disney. Having primed the pump in Hollywood, and sold many educational institutions on the idea of a film library, it remained for Iris and Abbott to determine the criteria by which films would be included in the library. Their decisions would set a pattern for curatorial practice in nontheatrical film.

Keywords:   Dick Abbott, films, motion pictures, film library, Hollywood

Cracking Hollywood

Exterior of Pickfair Mansion.

(Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

It was one thing to found a film library, quite another to have films to put in it. The expense, copyright protections, and peculiarities of producing and marketing a product whose purpose is to be shown to the public for a profit made collecting and exhibiting films for study purposes initially seem irrelevant to leaders of the film industry. Education and public benevolence were not primary motives in Hollywood, and although there might be those who could sympathize with their objectives, Barry and Abbott faced a formidable task.

In August of 1935 they set up shop at the Garden of Allah Hotel and Villas in Hollywood, to try and convince the luminaries of the film industry they should lend their films to the new effort. Iris had been to Hollywood twice before, but neither visit had left her impressed with California culture. This time around, despite her new status as a representative of the Museum of Modern Art, she again felt out of place.

We were invited one evening by [director] Walter Wanger and [actress] Joan Bennett to go with them to see an open air performance of Jedermann, which was being given in a vast natural amphitheater in the hills behind Hollywood. On arriving at Walter’s somewhat sumptuous office for a brief but quite regal snack of caviar and champagne, we found there also a Professor from Dartmouth and his wife. Night was falling as we left, Walter and Joan in the first chauffeured limousine and the other four of us in the second one—all in our best evening togs. This was a relatively important cultural manifestation, and also of course movie stars like J.B. are necessarily always ‘en grand revue’ on public occasions. As we neared the amphitheater we were accosted with a veritable dazzle of spotlights playing over the hills, sweeping across the entrance where, dimly, a great mob of fans surged in the (p.196) intermittent light. Photographers’ flashbulbs punctuated this dark heaving mass of semi-invisible people as the automobiles delivering celebrities drew into the entrance. We from behind saw the crowd of onlookers bear down on and seethe towards the limousine in front of us in which Wanger, assisted by uniformed ushers, extricated J.B. with difficulty from the autograph-seeking and squealing mob fighting to get at her.

Now in turn our limousine drew to the entrance. There was a quick expectant surge of the mob towards us in turn, until the foremost cried, in sharply falling disappointed accents, ‘It’s Nobody!,’ and turned quick and disgusted from us to rush away and seek better prey elsewhere. We four stepped out of the limousine, made our way like lepers to the entrance, while voices further and further away took up the refrain, ‘It’s Nobody!,’ until, small and distant, it sounded against the topmost hillcrests … ‘It’s Nobody!’ … and vanished into the empyrean.

At least we knew how we rated.1

Having left England disgusted with the class system, and embracing America as a country relatively free of such distinctions, Iris felt ill at ease in Hollywood. In this incongruous setting, her thoughts turned to the children she had left behind in England. From Hollywood she wrote Sidney Bernstein to see if he might help provide some diversion for her son, telling him that

that boy of mine, Robin, seems to be doing all right—he is sixteen now—is still at school but has taken it into his head to work in a garage all summer, which seems sensible. I should like somehow to arrange for him however to take a holiday, a week or so, but do not know how to do it, as I don’t know what one could possibly do with a solitary boy. It seemed to me that if I came over this summer I might arrange something, but now it seems we shan’t be there in time.

If by any possible chance you can think of anybody nice where there are other young people who would have him for a week, but not just anybody where they’d be nosey about who he was and so forth, I wondered if you could think about it and see if it couldn’t be arranged for him to go along.

I daresay it isn’t feasible, but I thought I’d mention it. He seems a sensible but rather difficult person, not, at least I think, a bore. He is used to being more or less alone as I don’t think my mother has any friends in Bognor. But I would like to have him get away once in awhile.

I should add in case there should be any prospect of his doing so that of course he is officially (and from his own point of view) an orphan whom my mother adopted. (p.197)

Next year we are going to try to arrange for him to come over here and go to camp—all that sort of thing is so well arranged here—but this year I can’t quite think what to do.

Elsa [Lanchester] I think would not at all like the idea of asking him to Stapledown, else I would have suggested that. I don’t know what you would feel about asking him to your country mansion if I say Ivor and Hell [Montagu] and ‘nice’ friendly folk were there. I’m not asking you to do that, because I can see it could be quite a problem or a nuisance, but if there is anything that can be done will you consider it? … The boy lives with my mother Mrs. Crump at 4 York Terrace, Bognor Regis and his name is Robin Barry—I personally want very much to have him change it to Robin Lewis because it would be so much less awkward and as that is his sister’s name anyhow—only that he doesn’t know that he has a sister. It is really as involved as an early Elizabethan drama. Ah, well …

Gracious me, how I’ve run on. Now I shall go out in the garden and think what on earth I am to say when I have to make a speech at this Pickford dinner.2

Once more Iris received a faithful response from Bernstein. He promptly invited Robin to visit his country home. It was the first of many such visits and one on which Robin would meet his future wife, Zoe, before she became Mrs. Sidney Bernstein.

The dinner Iris alluded to was a party arranged by Mary Pickford at Pickfair, the estate she shared with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. The party was paid for by Jock Whitney and was intended to give Iris and Abbott an opportunity to explain why leaders of the film industry should cooperate with the new library effort.

Iris had already formed an opinion of Mary Pickford as an actress. She thought of her as the virtuous side of an ambivalent view of women. “Mary is the perpetual Cinderella,” she had written in Let’s Go to the Pictures, “the little girl in rags who in the end resides in a glittering castle with h. and c. in every bedroom, men-servants and real fur rugs. In so far as she is Everywoman: that is her strength, because she is Everywoman much more wholeheartedly than her lesser rivals. In so far she is above criticism. She is not an actress but an incarnate idea, the flame round which every woman’s desire circles moth-like. Indeed her only rivals are the Bad Women—I mean Nita Naldi and Pola Negri. For every single woman on earth is, in her dreams, always and forever, a blonde thing of eighteen, ripe for kisses, pure as the driven snow, and so forth, but maddening to all mankind, and at the same time an experienced woman of thirty-forty with sleek tresses, dinner gowns with fish-tail trains and too much (p.198) knowledge of ‘life,’ given to ruining Man as lightly as one would kill a midge. But the golden-curled eighteen is the dearest of these two dreams, as it is the more respectable.”3

Now Iris stood in need of the golden-curled’s assistance. She found herself impressed by the regal glitter of Mary’s milieu.

The Pickfair party was set for a night of tropical warmth. Everyone knows that Pickfair is a ‘great’ house, but it can seldom have looked lovelier than that night, with dinner for seventy set on small tables on the immense verandah running round the white house, overlooking a wide lawn so floodlit that, as guests strolled across it, their feet were bathed in moonlight and diamonds until the womenfolk looked like goddesses floating over the meadows of heaven. Like immortals too, they seem all of them to retain their youth eternally….

It seemed strange to us that, as the party assembled, famous person after famous person met with cries of ‘My dear, I haven’t seen you in five years.’ Indeed, some of those present had never met before, and others had never previously visited Pickfair. That, of course, is typical of Hollywood. They work long hours during films, go out little and once the film is finished they rush away for a holiday. That evening, at any rate, quickly proved to be one charged with emotion for everyone present, partly because so many old friends and new acquaintances were meeting each other in a mood quite novel to film people – meeting to look back over the intense and romantic forty years since their incredible art-industry had its birth.

There was Walt Disney, a veritable babe in the business, talking to old Colonel Selig who made Hollywood’s first film a quarter of a century ago. There was Mrs. Thomas Ince talking to her hostess, both of them every whit as lovely as when the late Thomas Ince, at the very beginning of his career, directed little Mary Pickford in pictures made in Cuba before the war. Harold Lloyd, unrecognizable as ever without his glasses, Mack Sennett and Walter Wanger, keen-faced Otterson of Paramount, Sam Goldwyn with his wife, the former Frances Howard, Jesse Lasky who first entered the business with Sam in 1913, and other executives whose names, though little known to the public, dominate absolutely the careers of present-day favorites of the screen—all of whom for that one night called a halt and looked back at what they achieved.4

After dinner Abbott and Iris screened the famous May Irwin–John C. Rice Kiss of 1896, and D. W. Griffith’s The New York Hat, written by Anita Loos, also (p.199)

Cracking Hollywood

Pickfair guests (left to right): Frances Goldwyn, John Abbott, Samuel Goldwyn, Mary Pickford, Jesse Lasky, Harold Lloyd, Iris Barry.

(IBP, MoMA Dept. of Film Archives, NY)

present, starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore in a supporting role in his first film. Chaplin lent the sequence from The Gold Rush in which he does a dance with dinner rolls on forks. All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s powerful 1930 lament about World War I, was shown in part along with a Silly Symphony by Walt Disney called Pluto’s Nightmare.

“I cannot describe how tensely fraught with feeling the atmosphere became,” Iris recalled, “There were tears on many faces in the darkness of the drawing room. Many present saw friends long dead reappear before their eyes. Many saw themselves of long ago.”5

That evening Abbott made a brief speech addressing the industry’s misgivings about an archive of film. “You will be thinking here,” he said, “‘but films have been preserved, we have them in our vaults.’ True, but are they remembered as they deserve [to be], and what do they mean to the rising generation who have never seen them?” Drawing on Iris’s populist views, Abbott argued that people who felt that films had no place in a museum “seem to believe that (p.200) art is something apart from life, already consecrated in museums and—above all—something which the common man cannot enjoy.” But the polling he and Iris had done of schools and institutions proved that hundreds of potential venues existed for the “masters of film.” And although Hollywood may view itself as merely an industry, there was a new generation of students ready to proclaim it a source of new art. “Let us save the outstanding films of past and present,” he implored, “from turning, in the end, as they must unless something is done, into a handful of dust—and memories.”6

Abbott’s speech warmed the audience for Iris.

“A rather awkward and even dangerous task has been given me,” she began somewhat tentatively,

for I have been asked to say something of what we mean by ‘the art of the motion picture.’ How exactly can we arrange for people to study the films seriously? What are these mysterious programs we speak of arranging? What are we, in heaven’s name, going to do with the films you give us?

I know that many of you have felt a reluctance about presenting your older films to be seen again, because they represented only stages toward your present achievement. Miss Pickford herself had planned to have all her old films destroyed: but such a cry of protest arose from people all over the world that she was convinced, to use her own words, that she did not really have the right to destroy them. And that is true for all of you. There is a sort of obligation to see that at least the outstanding films are preserved for posterity, permanently and in good shape. But again, many of you feel that if those older films are shown again, people will laugh at them. Now I myself am among you here not only in connection with the Museum of Modern Art, but also as one of the oldest fans in existence. I can therefore speak perhaps of the love and affection which the fans bear you and your films. It is an affection which is sometimes critical and often expressed in surprising ways, but it is an affection which stretches back along the years and includes the old as well as the new films. If there is laughter when the old films are shown as we plan to show them, it is and will be affectionate and understanding laughter, not derision—and indeed we here tonight have laughed and chuckled in affection.

One point: there will be no clipping and butchering of films at our hands. Nobody would cut a painting in half and hang only a piece of it in an art gallery because it was painted in a now outmoded convention. That would very rightly be regarded as vandalism. And so it would be with the motion picture, I feel. We shall preserve the films whole, as originally issued; we shall show (p.201) new perfect prints with original subtitles, and therefore they will be run at the right tempo, not hurried and jerked across the screen. If a film is worth considering seriously at all, it is worthy of the respect we would accord to a painting or a book: if it is not worthy of respect, then it has no place in the library’s collection. Of course we did show portions of three films tonight, but as Mr. Abbott said earlier, this is an audience of the converted and anyway you have none of you been registered—or at least not yet—for a three semester course of study on the art and appreciation of the motion picture!

I do want to repeat, however, that the films we acquire will be respected, presented and preserved intelligently. I should really like to give you, because it may convey some concrete idea of just what we plan to do, a few of the main headings under which we are trying to assemble our library, and under which the films will be distributed for study:

  • Primitives: Early Edison films

    • The works of Georges Melies

    • The Great Train Robbery

  • The Development of Narrative and Epic

    • D. W. Griffith 1909 to Broken Blossoms

    • Ince and the Western

    • Serials

    • Early imports and superfilms: Quo Vadis,

    • Queen Elizabeth, The Coming of Columbus

  • The Rise of Comedy

    • Mack Sennett and the development of slapstick

    • Lonesome Luke and Harold Lloyd

    • Chaplin: Early, middle and late

  • Newsreel and Documentary

  • Outstanding Directors and Actors of the Silent Era

    • The Squaw Man

    • A Fool There Was

    • Carmen

    • A Romance of the Redwoods

    • Salome

    • Mickey

    • The Marriage Circle

    • The Unholy Three

    • The Black Pirate

and so on down to the time of Stella Dallas, Sunrise, and The Political Flapper. (p.202)

Remember, the films are not to be shown as entertainment, but strictly as classroom or extracurricular courses under the auspices of universities, colleges and museums. They will be presented seriously, as part of the regular education in the history and appreciation of art. That surely no one could doubt as fitting and proper.

Let this be done: for none of you in the industry will ever esteem your own best films, old or new, more highly than the eager and loyal students of the motion picture. Those of us at the Museum of Modern Art who have been working on this scheme have learnt far more than any books or lectures, however brilliant, could have taught us, while we looked again at some of the older films, whether they were of 1903 or 1930. We have seen the earlier work in its proper perspective, watched the many and varied experiments in their proper sequence, and our enthusiasm for the film as a great, a living art yesterday, today and tomorrow has now in consequence of this progressed beyond its original bounds, far beyond. We envy the experience that lies before the students of films to whom, with your cooperation, we hope to send our programs.

And now, at last, consider when we are all of us gone, both those of you who launched this museum enterprise, and those of you who have created the motion picture—when all of us are gone, the Museum’s Film Library will still be there, the films that you give us will still be there to constitute, in so far as anything in this world can be lasting, a lasting memorial to the art of the motion picture, to the men and women who laid its foundations and carried it to its present power.7

Iris thus assured the industry’s leaders that their films would be respected, projected whole and in an educational context. Above all she offered them immortality, the promise that their films would outlive them and guarantee them a place in history. Iris later recalled that “this glimpse of the birth and growth of an art which was peculiarly their own both surprised and moved this unique audience.”8 Some seemed particularly touched by images of Lewis Wohlheim, star of All Quiet on the Western Front, who had recently died, putting those in attendance, perhaps, in mind of their own vulnerability. The Abbotts promised a new kind of immortality. Their appeal resulted in pledges of films from Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Samuel Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, and Walt Disney.

The American film industry had been brought onboard.

It had been a long and difficult visit. Iris wrote Chick Austin, (p.203)

we are shattered from Hollywood, six weeks of the most incredible coping with the industry which I am happy to relate has had good effect and films will be had by all though not I fear ready for circulation till next January—we don’t want to rush out a poor program.

Of course just as one would expect the Disneys were the easiest to deal with and the nicest. Walt said ‘Who is this guy Picasso you just mentioned? Is he a real artist?’ We were motored across Hollywood from their place by a young man in a sweat-shirt who said he was ‘the quack of Donald Duck’ and also made the bird sounds in the Silly Symphonies.

But aside from all that we really had a romp with the movie folk, culminating in a small dinner for about 70 given for us by Miss Pickford. Did you know by the way that two of her long curls repose on a red velvet cushion in the Los Angeles museum? I’d love to have them here and also a genuine Keystone Kop’s helmet in a glass case. Ah, box office! I think we shall have to borrow both of these and see if they really stand up to Whistler’s mother.9

The Pickfair visit also resulted in the basic legal agreements upon which the Film Library would operate. As Iris later recalled, “terms were finally approved by the legal departments of Paramount, Lowe’s, Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner’s and Universal so that early in 1936 the Film Library actually began to rent out its first series of programs to colleges, museums and other non-profit organizations, which were thus able for the first time to institute a study of the growth, technique, aesthetics and sociological content of the most popular of the arts.”10

After Hollywood, Iris thought again of her son. She wrote to Sidney Bernstein at Christmastime thanking him for hosting Robin during the summer.

I just had a long letter from him with copious detail about his stay at Long Barn, which must have been a great event in his life: he said to tell you that they were the happiest days he ever spent. The horse seems to have made a great impression, also the two ‘friendly’ dogs. How good of you it was to have him. I can’t say how thankful I am.

I do hope next summer that we can get him fixed up for the future somehow. He wants to go into radio if possible. He is a funny boy and perhaps not wholly a nice character, but he is trying hard to be sensible and good—I admired him for taking a job in a garage for the summer, which is largely why I ventured to ask you to invite him, as a reward. Or have I gone American?…

We are having a great time with the film business (as usual). It is like the Film Society all over again but on a larger scale and rocks loom ahead every day. We go to (p.204) the tape on Jan. 7th with our first film show here, and fourteen more that same month elsewhere. Dick has just been offered a magnificent job elsewhere but I don’t think he will take it or give this up, it is too amusing and too new; also I think he eventually wants to ease himself out into the film business proper.11

Having primed the pump in Hollywood, and sold many educational institutions on the idea of a film library, it remained for Iris and Abbott to determine the criteria by which films would be included in the library. Their decisions would set a pattern for curatorial practice in nontheatrical film.


(2.) TLS from Iris Barry to Sidney Bernstein, Aug. 1, 1935 (Robin Barry Collection).

(3.) Barry, Let’s Go to the Movies, 58–59. (See ch. 11, note 1, of the present volume.) In 1973 Jean Eustache explored this concept in The Mother and the Whore.

(4.) Draft of an article written for the Delineator, intended for publication in October 1936 (IBP, MoMA Dept. of Film Archives, NY).

(6.) John E. Abbott, “Pickfair Dinner Speech,” Aug. 25, 1935 (John Abbott Speeches, Library of Congress material, box 02-D, DOFA, MoMA Dept. of Film Archives, NY).

(7.) Iris Barry activity file for 1935–39 (IBP, MoMA Dept. of Film Archives, NY). (p.437)

(9.) TLS from Iris Barry to Chick Austin, Sept. 6, 1935, Austin materials, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford (hereafter cited as Hartford).

(11.) TLS from Iris Barry to Sidney Bernstein dated Dec. 12, 1935 (Robin Barry Collection).