A Day at the Archives… Warner Bros. Archive

Jennifer Voss, De Montfort University

17 April 2018

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In the summer of 2017, I embarked on a 12-day archival research trip to the film libraries and studios in Los Angeles, along with a cohort of PhD students and supervisors from the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre and Drama Research Group at De Montfort University, Leicester. Having developed connections with various libraries and archives in Hollywood (such as the Margaret Herrick Library and Warner Bros. Archives) via email prior to the trip, we were able to discuss our requirements and request our materials well in advance. We were also fortunate enough to be able to arrange some additional activities to enhance our experiences within the archives, such as tours of the archives and vaults, as well as a meet and greet with a number of librarians and archivists working as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

With my PhD thesis addressing actor training processes and women’s experiences working as actresses within the film industry during the transition from silent to sound, I spent my time in LA divided between the Margaret Herrick Library, and the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. The Margaret Herrick Library reminded me somewhat of the British Library; in terms of the formalities, securities, and hushed reading rooms, as well as a sense of prestige and legacy. The Warner Bros. Archive, however, was a much more unfamiliar research environment, but one I was eager to immerse myself in.

Located in an industrial area of University Park, across the road from the Los Angeles DMV, the Warner Bros. Archive is housed in a large but unassuming, white painted building. There are no visible windows, just a small door at the front, with ‘3716 S. HOPE RESEARCH ANNEX UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’ printed above it. After being buzzed in via the intercom, my colleague and I were lead through to a set of big double doors with the words ‘USC WARNER BROS ARCHIVES’ stencilled above it (had it not been my colleague’s second day in the archive, I would not have been confident we were in the right place until seeing this sign!). We were then taken through the archive, beyond rows and rows of shelves stacked high with boxes, to a small study area tucked in the back corner of the archive. The Archive Curator, Brett, set me up at one of the 6 or so research desks, and presented me with my single box of requested items.

Prior to the trip, there were some issues accessing the Warner Bros. Archive index, and so there was not a centralised online catalogue or system to search and request. However, this was not a problem as I spoke to Brett via email, and he was quick to offer assistance. I sent him a list of actresses and films I was interested in, as well as the HR information I might find useful, and he sent me a list of potential items to look through and request.

Here are a few examples of some of my exciting finds at the Warner Bros. Archive:

  • Contract files for Dialogue Directors and Dramatic Coaches; detailing the films they were contracted for. Particular highlight: business card/pamphlet for Malvina Dunn, Dramatic Coach, revealing her connection with the Paris Conservatoire.
  • Legal papers and contracts for Colleen Moore from 1928-1928, showing additional clauses for her first three ‘talkies’.
  • Production file for Footlights and Fools (1929); Colleen Moore’s third sound film

On the third day of the trip, the whole group met up at the Warner Bros. Archive, where we were given a tour. The tour began with a brief overview of the history of the archive. Brett explained how the archive was donated by Warner Bros. to the University of Southern California in 1978, and that the archive holds a vast range of Warner Bros. film, television and music material dating between 1918 and 1968. Due to a number of reasons, including the condition of the items, as well as copyright restrictions, the items held in the archive have not been digitised, and are therefore only available to access by researchers on-site. Moving through to the shelved unit situated right next to the study area, we were told that in order to make accessing documents relating the most popular/most frequently requested films easier for both staff and researchers, the archive has ready made-up boxes of records/documents for certain film titles. Brett had set-out one of these boxes for us to look through, to see the sorts of material held in the archive; the film was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart. The file included correspondence from the research department file, script/story developments, legal files, set department stills, budget and other financial statements, press releases, wardrobe and make-up files, as well as more general inter-office memos and correspondence. After taking time as a group to move around and look through the documents, Brett took us on a tour of the building to see where the different files are pulled from, in order to make up the boxes for each individual researcher’s requests. It was a unique opportunity to be able explore the cataloguing and curating side of the archive, and we also got to see some incredibly exciting items, including an original animation drawing of Daffy Duck!

The extensive knowledge of the archive curator was invaluable throughout my time in the archive; he was keen to know what was useful and what wasn’t, and he was more than happy to dig out any additional material while I was working on my pre-ordered items. Similarly, the relaxed and informal atmosphere of the study space creates a really calm and comfortable working environment. The ‘thank you’ messages from students and academics alike which completely cover the partition wall is a testament to the great support offered at this fascinating archive.

This blog post has been adapted from my short blog series documenting my 12-day research trip to the film archives and studios in Los Angeles: https://vpp.midlands3cities.ac.uk/pages/viewrecentblogposts.action?key=P10513638dmuacuk


Jennifer Voss is a PhD candidate in Drama Studies and Film History at De Montfort University, and is funded by the AHRC in partnership with Midlands 3 Cities. Jennifer’s doctoral research, which uses performance theory to build upon a traditional film studies approach to cinema history, focuses on actresses’ performance of emotion during the transition from silent to sound cinema in Britain and America.

https://vpp.midlands3cities.ac.uk/display/P10513638dmuacuk/Welcome


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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