Film and Media

Considering Research in Film and Television Archives?

Douglas Gomery, January 2001

Contributing Editor's Note: Douglas Gomery is a film scholar who has done a great deal to advance our knowledge of how the Hollywood studios made films from an institutional rather than a technological perspective. He has also written extensively about the social practices entailed in exhibiting and consuming motion pictures. Like any historian, he began with the archives. In the article that follows, Gomery lays out the most fundamental of archival holdings in the United States for film and television in order for those of us trained in history departments to begin to grasp the parameters of research in what has for too long remained a specialized field.

With the 21st century now upon us, we have accumulated a full 100 years of cinema and 50 years of television. We should begin to seriously consider ways to do research about these two dominant media of the past century. That this process is surely just beginning is best denoted by the fact that Film History: Theory and Practice, coauthored by Robert C. Allen and me, remains the lone introductory guide to research methods about film. And no such book exists for the history of television.1

Within film and television studies, there is a central cleavage between formalists who ponder philosophical questions about what distinguishes cinema and television from other media in terms of generating meaning, and historians who think of film and television as evidence. Film studies has its historians but they long have been in the minority. I argue that it is time to recognize that film and television historians are not only methodologically kin to traditional historians, but media historians can contribute to history, not just television and film history.

We are entering a "Golden Age" of doing research in film and television archives. There are many numbers of different kinds of historical research that can and should be done. Historians should think about film and TV as both sources and as institutions whose histories need to be written in the context of social, cultural, economic, and political history more generally. For example, television news—network and local—has long offered the dominant means of visually portraying war, elections, and scandals. But this communication has not remained static in time, and surely has a history that needs to be written. Films have generated fashion changes since the early part of the 20th century. This history needs to be written as well.

Below I seek to offer a basic primer to motivate professors and students who want to research film and television history in the USA—that is, Hollywood—leaving considerations of the rest of the world to another time.

Finding the Films

We might expect to start in archives of the major studios in Hollywood. Each does maintain an archive for its internal use, but for years has rarely accommodated outside researchers. This seems to be changing, and so one should approach the studio and see what its in-house archival development has been, but do not be frustrated when the lone archivist honestly tells you that the in-house archives form part of the corporate pursuit of profit, one expected to provide "product" for DVD and other new means of distribution as they become available.2

Yet, are not films for sale everywhere on VHS tape? The answer is yes—for a selected sample of current and perpetual sellers. For example, one can find such a sample of major sound films from Hollywood for sale, but rarely silent films. Films that have not sold well are withdrawn so shelves can be opened to better sellers. Here again the criteria for this form of access is profit maximization, not historical significance. Sadly, I think DVD offerings, while surely far easier to use for study, will be marketed for similar reasons. Only independent films, offered by pioneering organizations such as Facets of Chicago, seek to help the historian.

And these tapes are too often what are called TV prints. That is, wide-screen films—nearly all made since the middle 1950s—have been panned and scanned so as to fit on a 4x3 television screen. Usually just the middle of the frame is shown, or if two characters occupy either side of the wide-screen frame, for example having a conversation, the film is re-cut—panned and scanned—from a single shot into multiple shots of one person talking, then cut to a second shot of the other, and so forth. In other words, most video prints seen and available for the 1950s are not the originals.

Finally, video copies and even DVD copies are just that—copies. Hollywood's 35-mm films capture far more information at higher resolutions than any current tape or promised digital format. It is crucial that scholars seek out and study films in the form in which they were intended to be presented, and this requires a journey to a major archive.

By far the largest in the United States is the Library of Congress, holder of more than two-thirds of all preserved films in the United States. The library offers ideal viewing conditions because of its room of machines normally used for film editing, so one can start, stop, and freeze-frame with ease. All this can be done while not damaging the film in a significant way as do projectors and even videotape machines.

The first step to access the Library of Congress begins with its impressive web page—www.loc.gov—but this is not a complete list of what the library has. Follow up with an examination of the series of volumes the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress has published over the years simply called Motion Pictures. But even then, in the division headquarters of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division in the James Madison Building stands a massive card catalog. The Library of Congress holdings, however, are not definitive, and its holdings before 1970 are most extensive for Columbia, Warner Bros., Disney, and Universal.3

The UCLA Film and Television Archive—www.cinema.ucla.edu—ranks with the Library of Congress. UCLA, because of deposits by individuals and studios, holds sizable collections of features from Paramount, Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Republic. UCLA also has 27 million feet of newsreels, ranking with the National Archives (with its massive Universal collection) and the University of South Carolina (with Fox Movietone) as the largest holders of this form.

Smaller but still sizable collections of films can be found at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison (most significant holdings: Warner Bros., United Artists, and RKO); the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (MGM); and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox).4

Locating TV Programs

Television seems more ubiquitous, but its networks are not the place to start. Just as the Hollywood studios do not serve as public film archives, the TV networks preserve for internal use and to sell so as to fully exploit these commercial assets.

Indeed, evidence suggests even their internal holdings are limited. For example, the long time "Big Three" networks have only saved a small portion of their evening news broadcasts. It took librarians at Vanderbilt University, with the aid of their then-powerful Senator Howard Baker, to first systematically begin to tape the broadcast evening news feeds into Nashville and preserve them. In 1974 UCLA began to systematically tape the Los Angeles feeds. Best is cable's C-SPAN, with all its tapes housed at Purdue University.

For entertainment offerings, the Library of Congress is again the place to start because of NBC's massive donations. UCLA is also vital for its ABC prime-time holdings. CBS holds a massive internal library in both Los Angeles and New York, but for the moment access is prohibited. The CBS news archive in New York has been known to permit research copies of limited broadcasts.

For news film created by local stations—shot on 16 mm from the early days through the middle 1970s—we do have some preserved materials. Deposits were prompted by the middle 1970s transformation from 16-mm film to 3/4-inch tape as the means of recording local news, and the station owner seeking to rid the studio of thousands of cans of film. I wish all stations had donated their film, but those that did have created massive archives such as the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center in Miami, Florida. Here one finds about 25 years of film—approximately 1950 through 1975—the equivalent of a newspaper run.

The Paper Trail

The archival reference tool compilation, Footage, listed some 3,000 world moving image archives in 1997, with more than half in the United States. But the history of film and television will be written from more than the films and television shows themselves. There are paper records of technological change, advertising contracts, and business practices. There are needed scripts and program schedules.

Happily, paper collections of the studios do exist. The papers of Warner Bros. at the University of Southern California (USC) present a mountain of invaluable data from the studio's founding in the early 1920s until its first sale in 1968. Of the other major studios, only the United Artists collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin can come close in its richness. Disney maintains a corporate archive, but has often rejected historians who deviate in the slightest from well-developed corporate image making. We can hope that Paramount, Fox, Columbia, Universal, and MGM begin serious archiving for public use. For now, one needs to find someone who saved records from her or his employment and then donated them to an archive. Thus the best entry into the history of MGM, for example, comes from close examination of the papers of corporate president Dore Schary, housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and the musicals unit of producer Arthur Freed at USC. Another center of research is the Margaret Herrick Library of the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles.

One often does better with an indirect approach. While the National Archives is noted for its vast newsreel holdings, it also contains paper riches about how the State Department assisted the trade association of the Hollywood majors to gain advantages exporting films throughout the world. The Thomas A. Edison Papers project, long associated with Rutgers University, offers another example. Edison claimed to have invented the movies, and his vast paper archive (and films) enables the historian to analyze and evaluate Edison's true role.

Luckily for the historian, Hollywood studios have long been held under suspicion. State and local censorship began before 1910; and as early as 1914, Progressive reformers pressured the House Committee on Education to hold extensive hearings on the possibility of creating a Motion Picture Commission. State and local archives across the USA—in Albany, Annapolis, and Columbus, for example—hold the records of censorship boards that thrived from about 1910 to about 1960. City archives also hold building permits and other records about the operation of movie theaters.

Television's paper trail follows similar patterns. While NBC and its executives have deposited papers at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and the Library of Congress, one finds little in the archives for the other networks. For CBS, ABC, and Fox, one again needs to focus on collections of key individuals. Thus for CBS, a key 1950s figure was Arthur Godfrey; his papers, films, and sound recordings are at the Library of American Broadcasting. The papers of the FCC—which has long investigated television—are in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

The Future

This brief survey should not mislead one to believe that no other archives exist. Small, but important collections are located throughout the United States. Consider the case of Northeast Historic Film, founded in 1986 and scheduled to open an expanded study center in 2001 in the Alamo theater building, the archive's headquarters in Bucksport, Maine. Northeast Historic Film's largest single collection is five decades of Maine television produced by stations in Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, and Presque Isle, affiliates of NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS. This constitutes the news record of one state from its first station (1953) to the middle 1990s.5

I end with more good news: within the next few years the two biggest archives in the United States plan to open vast new moving image archival centers. In 2003 the Library of Congress is scheduled to open what will be the largest film and television archive in the world—near Culpepper, Virginia—housed in a former "bomb shelter" of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. No less important—scheduled for opening the same year—will be UCLA's new Preservation Center. We ought to eagerly await both openings, and hope these significant expansions will lead—like Say's law where supply leads to increased demand—to more studies, and thus increased consideration of proper methods and theories for moving image history.

—Douglas Gomery teaches at the University of Maryland, specializing in media history. His numerous publications include Shared Pleasures: The History of Movie Presentation in the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992) and The Hollywood Studio System(New York: St. Martin's, 1986).

Notes

1. Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985).

2. See Jan-Christopher Horak, "The Universal Studio Archives and Collections Department," Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 19:3 (August, 1999), 405–6.

3. I thank Gregory Lukow for his classification of the major holdings of these large archives. But I note that while depositing seems to have slowed as copyright owners seek to squeeze the most from their internal holdings, additions to public archives will continue.So it is best to go to the World Wide Web (or telephone or mail) to inquire what the current holdings are.

4. The National Film Preservation Foundation web site, http://www.filmpreservation.org, seeks to alert researchers to smaller collections. See also the special archival issue of Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 16:1 (March, 1999).

5. For full disclosure, I am on a board of advisers to the Northeast Historic Film archive. Thus I urge all to judge for themselves. I suggest starting with the archive's web site at http://www.oldfilm.org.