Anthony T. McKenna, University of Derby
6 November 2018
Fifteen years ago, I was struggling to decide what the focus of my PhD thesis would be. A lifelong obsession with 1950s and 60s Americana had led me to the name Joseph E. Levine, one of American cinema’s great showmen. Scanning the internet for information about him, I happened across the website of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which informed me that the center held some Levine-related items. The website is now much improved, but it was rather rudimentary then, so I contacted the center for some more information. Alex Rankin, assistant director for acquisitions, replied that they had forty-three boxes of Levine’s personal papers. The focus of my PhD research was thus decided, and I visited the centre seven times over the next thirteen years, researching my PhD thesis and subsequent monograph on Levine.
Levine was the most versatile movie promoter of his generation, and certainly the most diverse. He promoted a dizzying inventory of juxtaposing film forms, from European arthouse to cheap exploitation to teen weirdies to Hollywood blockbusters. It is therefore fitting that his papers should be housed in an archive bearing the name of Howard Gotlieb, who was a considerable showman in his own right. Gotlieb’s unaffected eclecticism and terrier-like tenacity is imprinted on the archive. It holds more than 2000 collections and is a tribute to the indiscriminate appetites and acquisitive nature of Gotlieb, who saw archival acquisitions as a combative, zero-sum contest.
Gotlieb struggled, strategized and schemed to create BU’s archive. Lacking the funds to build a prestigious collection from scratch following his appointment in 1962, Gotlieb asked promising or up-and-coming figures to donate their papers to the archive in the hope that they would one day become eminent. Many remained unknown, but others became significant figures in American culture, including James Clavell, David Halberstam, Dan Rather, and Martin Luther King. Collections belonging to the already notable required a different approach. Gotlieb was relentless in pursuit of his quarry, and would charm, flatter, cajole, grovel, or simply exasperate his targets. He emerged victorious in securing the personal papers of Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison, and Bette Davis; but was battle-scarred and defeated when he lost a prize, such as when Gloria Swanson donated her papers to the opposition at the University of Texas, despite Gotlieb’s persistent pestering campaign.
The Joseph E. Levine collection was acquired through more traditional means. Levine was a native Bostonian, and the collection was donated to the center by his son, Richard. The collection spans Levine’s entire career in the movie business but, as with most collections, there are many frustrating gaps. Of interest to even the most casual observer are letters from the likes of Spiro Agnew, Richard M. Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, who ask Levine for advice or thank him for campaign contributions. Horror buffs would be thrilled to meet Fats, the ventriloquist’s dummy that drives his owner to murder in Levine’s production of Magic (1978). For the Levine researcher, there are many more treasures.
Levine may have corresponded with presidents in the 1960s and 70s, but in the 1930s he was hawking exploitation films around New England. The financial ledger for one of these, The Body Beautiful (c. 1938), a long-forgotten sex-hygiene film, provides insights into Levine’s operation at this stage in his career, and the appetite New Englanders had for disreputable films. The files relating to another of Levine’s early career ventures, a feature-length compilation of silent film clips entitled Gaslight Follies (1945), are especially fascinating. The files contain press clippings from local newspapers, along with press and publicity materials, and photographs of Levine on the road. The portrait of a tyro-showman that emerges from these papers, of Levine promoting his own film in the provinces and proudly mounting related reports in a scrapbook, gives wonderful insights into Levine’s early days as a promoter.
The real gold of this archive lies at the opposite end of Levine’s career, in the wealth of information related to A Bridge Too Far (1977), his biggest production. These files contain letters and telexes to and from the key players: the director Richard Attenborough, screenwriter William Goldman, members of the cast, crew, and many others. The detailed correspondence takes the researcher from casting to completion and is supplemented by the personal diary of Levine’s wife, Rosalie, which provides further detail. Researchers are usually only given glimpses of a film’s production in the archives. It is rare indeed to be given so many pieces of a jigsaw just waiting to be put together.
Other films well represented in the collection include Magic – preview cards reveal that test audiences felt that the evil ventriloquist’s dummy trope was pretty hackneyed back then; Gandhi (1981) – Levine was deeply involved in casting before he abruptly pulled out of the project in 1979; and Tattoo (1981) – Maud Adams was cast as the female lead after Nastassja Kinski failed to show up for a meeting in Paris. Levine’s 1960s heyday is, however, poorly represented. But his appointment book from 1965 reveals many meetings with the then editor of Variety, Abel Green, which may go some way to explaining the paper’s positive accounts of Levine’s antics during this time. There is also Levine’s personal copy of the October 1961 issue of Mad magazine, which contains a strip entitled ‘Mad Visits Joe LeVenal: Hollywood’s Latest Producing Genius’, and it would be interesting to know what Levine thought of seeing himself ridiculed in this manner. One suspects he would have approved, given that the Mad lampoon was only a slight exaggeration of Levine’s own exaggerations – and it was free publicity.
I’ll wrap up with a few pointers. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center is free to use by appointment, and easy to find – just get the T to Boston University Central Station, and it is on the fifth floor of the Mugar Library Building. The archivists are knowledgeable and keen to discuss their collections. No cameras or electronic equipment is allowed in the reading room – pencil and paper only (and white handling gloves, of course).
Finally, no report on the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center would be complete without a mention of the grand and ornate reading room, one of the most beautiful I have ever worked in. It is such a beautiful place to work in that you may wish to plan your next research project according to the archive’s holdings. Perhaps I might write that book about Leonard Nimoy after all …
Anthony T. McKenna is a senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of Derby. He is the author of Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and his Revolutions in Film Promotion, co-author of The Man Who Got Carter: Michael Klinger, Independent Film Production and the British Film Industry, and co-editor of Beyond the Bottom Line: The Producer in Film and Television Studies.
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