A Day at the Archives… the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles

James Chapman, University of Leicester

24 April 2018


The two most reassuring words a researcher can hear are ‘nothing’s changed.’ So you can imagine my relief on my second visit to the marvellous Margaret Herrick Library when the man on the reception desk greeted me with: ‘Hello, James, I remember you’ve been here before … Well, it’s all the same. Nothing’s changed.’

The Margaret Herrick Library is part of the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study and is housed in a palm tree-fringed mock-Spanish colonial building that was formerly the headquarters of the Beverly Hills Waterworks. It’s named after the founding librarian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who also served as the Academy’s executive director from 1945 to 1971. It was Margaret Herrick who negotiated the first televised screening of the Academy Awards and turned the annual ‘Oscar’ ceremony into a major media event. If you’re there early in January before the Oscar nominees are announced, keep your ears open for gossip and speculation about who the front runners might be.

The Herrick is probably the world’s largest reference and research collection ‘devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and an industry’. It includes books, film periodicals and journals, scripts and still photographs. There are over a thousand special collections ranging from the archives of some of the major studios (including MGM and Paramount) and other industry organisations (the records of the Production Code Administration, for example) to personal papers: the H’s alone include William S. Hart, Edith Head, Paul Henreid, Charlton Heston, George Roy Hill, Arthur Hiller, Alfred Hitchcock, Hedda Hopper, Ian McLellan Hunter and John Huston. To get a sense of what’s there before your visit, you can browse the collections on the library’s well-laid out website:

http://www.oscars.org/margaret-herrick-library/collections/special-collections/special-collections

I’ve visited the Herrick four or five times over the last seven years – usually in September when the library is pretty quiet and the oppressive heat of the Los Angeles summer is starting to become a more bearable daily high of around 75 Fahrenheit. It’s a very pleasant environment in which to work. The staff are invariably friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about movies. One day, for example, I was sitting at my usual place in the Special Collections area when Barbara Hall, one of the Academy’s archivists and film researchers, came over to say hello. ‘Have you seen one of these?’ she asked, opening the display cabinet at the back of the room and handing me John Huston’s Best Screenplay Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949). (I did have to put it back …)

My top three archive ‘eureka moments’ at the Herrick so far have been:

  • The ‘damned dirty ape’ line in Planet of the Apes (1968) arose from an insertion by star Charlton Heston. The original line was the rather anodyne ‘No! That’s where I draw the line! I won’t wear a muzzle!’ In Heston’s own annotated copy of the shooting script this has been scored out and replaced with a handwritten ‘Take your dirty hands off me, you damned monkey!’ In the finished film the line is: ‘Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!’
  • Paramount’s War of the Worlds (1953) originated as a proposal to make a film of the panic caused by the notorious Orson Welles radio broadcast of October 1938.
  • An early treatment for Personal History – which became Foreign Correspondent (1940) – in the Alfred Hitchcock Collection reveals that the character played in the film by George Sanders, one Scott ffolliott, was based on a certain English journalist and future thriller writer: ‘The American meets several of the other foreign correspondents, among them one on the English “Times”, Ian Fleming, whom he rather despises, for his apparent effeminacy, suede shoes and affected drawl.’

These examples – and other researchers will have had their own ‘eureka moments’ – highlight the real value of archival research. It’s not just that we can consult scripts, censors’ reports, budgets and production records to do the nitty-gritty work of documenting the production histories of films, or look at the studio’s records of test screenings, weekly box-office returns and files of press clippings to analyse the popular and critical reception. We also get insights into the wider social and political discourses operating within the film industry. Joseph Breen, for example, always seems to have been most concerned about policing overt displays of sexuality, warning producers in just about every letter of ‘the need for the greatest possible care in the selection and photography of the costumes and dresses for your women’ regardless of the subject matter or genre of the films.

And archive research often challenges received wisdoms about film history arising from more anecdotal sources. The late Martin Landau, for example, claimed that it was his decision to play the character of henchman Leonard in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) as gay – and that Hitchcock was happy to go along with it. But the early drafts of the screenplay in both the MGM Scripts Collection and the Alfred Hitchcock Collection reveal that Leonard was written as a homosexual man from the outset long before Landau was cast. Robert Vogel, MGM’s liaison with the Production Code office, cautioned that ‘Leonard is going to be skating on very thin ice. He doesn’t have to be the very essence of manliness, but if his “unmistakably effeminate attitudes” give audiences, the Code people, or the Legion of Decency a feeling that he is a pervert, we’re in trouble.’ The Code people did indeed object and told the studio that they would not approve the film if Leonard was portrayed as homosexual. However, it is an indication of the declining authority of the Code by the end of the 1950s that in the event they allowed the film with Leonard’s reference to ‘my women’s intuition’ intact. The censor did, however, insist on over-dubbing ‘Come on, Mrs Thornhill’ as Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the train bunk to demonstrate the couple are married. Watch the scene carefully, and you’ll see that Grant doesn’t move his lips as he says it.

What researching at the Herrick really brings home is how well resourced the big American archives are. Its holdings for the studio period, especially, are extensive. In contrast British archives – with the exception of the Film Finances Archive – rarely have such rich collections of production materials. It’s free to use and the charges for copying are modest by archive standards.

I hope nothing’s going to change.

Using the library

It’s an easy – if slightly arcane – library to use. You don’t need to pre-book your visit or reserve a place in advance – most days there might not be more than about a dozen people using the library. Enter through the front door and at the desk on the left fill out a registration slip: you’ll need a photographic ID. If you have a bag or coat, you’ll need to leave these in one of the lockers in the lobby: the security guard at the desk will give you a token for the lockers. Then you head up the Kirk Douglas Staircase to the Cecil B. De Mille Reading Room, where you hand over your registration slip at the desk at the top of the stairs and they’ll make out a reader’s card for you. Then – as the staff like to say – you’re ‘all good to go’.

The usual archive rules apply: laptops, pads and pencils. No photography. You can order photocopies of published materials and press clippings but not special collections materials.

You can read more about using the library on its own website at: www.oscar.org/library/about

The Cecil B. De Mille Reading Room is a long open-plan room with books on the open shelves. There’s a help desk at the far end of the room. If you’ve ordered Special Collections materials, you make a U-turn at the top of the stairs and go through to the Katharine Hepburn Reading Room (there’s no door – it’s a continuation of the same room).

There are computer terminals on which you can search the catalogue in the main reading room. Other than the books on the open-access shelves, there are basically two sorts of paper collections you’ll probably want to use:

The Core Collection: This includes unpublished scripts, press books, publicity materials and dockets of press clippings which can be ordered on the day – they’ll call your name at the issue desk located at the point where Cecil B. De Mille meets Katharine Hepburn. Sometimes you might find that press clippings have been microfilmed – generally for the best-known films. The microfilm reading area is in an annexe at the back of the Katharine Hepburn Reading Room. You can print for 25 cents a copy. Like the old BFI Library at Stephen Street, the microfilm and fiche printers can be a bit temperamental.

Scripts might be print copies, though an increasing number have been digitised, which you’ll be able to read on the computer terminals.

Special Collections: There are over a thousand individual collections ranging from studio archives and other industry organisations to personal papers and scrapbooks. These need to be ordered in advance – you can order materials for the next day if you order before 2 pm. Most of the special collections materials are in original copies and you can collect one file at a time from the issue desk – let them know to hold material over if you’re coming back the next day. Some of the more popular records have been microfilmed: e.g. there are several dozen reels of microfilm for the Production Code Administration on the better-known films.

My top archive tip

If you’re researching production histories of individual films from the studio period, and have multiple scripts to go through, I’d suggest looking at the Production Code Administration file first. There’s a PCA file on most films released in the United States (including non-American films) between the early 1930s and the end of the 1960s. This will identify which version of the script (by date) was sent to the censor in advance of production and will list any scenes or lines to which the censor objected (usually including page numbers). This will help you to focus on which parts of the script were changed in response to the censor’s intervention.

Practical stuff

The Margaret Herrick Library is at 333 South La Cienega Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, CA 90211, just north of the intersection (that’s junction for us Brits) with West Olympic Boulevard. There’s a public car park next door on La Cienega on the same side of the road (free for the first two hours – not that that’s very useful for researchers).

The library is open weekdays except Wednesdays from 10.00 am until 6 pm (late opening Tuesdays until 8 pm). It is closed on public holidays – check the website for details: http://www.oscars.org/library

The closest places for refreshment are the Cinema Café on the other side of the car park: it’s a good place for a quick drink and sandwich. I particularly like their range of fruit juices with sparkling spring water, which are just the ticket if you’ve worked up a thirst in the Californian sunshine. If you want a longer lunch, or if you work through the day and want to eat dinner when you leave, then Tutt’ a Post Trattoria at 235 South La Cienega is a friendly neighbourhood Italian restaurant where you might just bump into other film historians. There’s also a variety of cheap eateries heading south into the ‘Little Afghanistan’ district. A little further out the Bombay Palace at 8690 Wilshire is the best Indian restaurant I’ve found in the area: the dishes are spicier than most in North America and the house cocktail is the ‘Bombay Martini’ (with cinnamon and ginger). (I should probably add a disclaimer that I do not own shares in any of these institutions.)

There aren’t many places to stay in the immediate neighbourhood. I usually stay at the Avalon Hotel on West Olympic (http://www.avalon-hotel.com/beverly-hills) from where it’s about a half-hour’s walk to the library. It sometimes offers ‘three nights for the price of two’ deals out of season and is pretty quiet except when they have a fashion shoot with swim-suited models around the pool. I once spotted Benedict Cumberbatch having breakfast when I was there. There’s a range of eating options on Beverly Drive from takeaway pizza joints to the upmarket Beverly Steak House, while next door the Honor Bar (‘established 2010’) is a safe and welcoming environment for lone travellers wanting to unwind after a day in the archive. I once took a seat at the bar, ordered the Kaffir Lime Gimlet and fell into conversation with the guy sitting on the next stool who turned out to have studied with film historian Richard B. Jewell and we spent the next half hour talking about RKO Radio Pictures.


James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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One Comment

  1. Prof Andrew Spicer

    What a rich and informative account James. I’m thinking of making my first trip next year in search of things Connery and this blog is so encouraging and helpful.

    Thanks so much.

    All good wishes,

    Andrew.

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