‘Stardom and the Archive’ symposium, University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020: Report

Georgia Brown, Queen Mary, University of London

28 February 2020


The ‘Stardom and the Archive’ symposium, hosted by Lisa Stead and Becky Rae at the University of Exeter, opened with an engaging keynote from Maryanne Dever, who had travelled all the way from Sydney’s University of Technology to challenge our perceptions of what is an archive. By raising questions about the material traces of stardom, the cultural and political economies of archiving, hierarchies of archival significance and value, and the treatment of rubbish or trash in the context of archival collecting and processing, Maryanne started us all thinking about what ends up in an archive and how it gets there. In particular, those items which generate significant emotion in a researcher, not because they have academic significance, but because of their connection to the subject.

Maryanne Dever, Keynote: ‘On Britney Spears’ Shopping List’ (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

This enthusiasm was re-invigorated during the second keynote given by Lucy Bolton (Queen Mary, University of London), who not only described her experiences working with the archives of Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe and Iris Murdoch but also what items are in her own Bolton Archive. This created an atmosphere, maintained over the course of the whole conference, where everyone felt they could let their ‘Fan Flags Fly’ and show, not just their knowledge about their chosen star or archive, but also their sheer joy and excitement about their subject. Most conversations during the subsequent breaks were dominated by the question “what is the one item would you like to have in your private collection/archive?”

Lucy Bolton, Keynote: ‘A Theorist Loose in the Archives of Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe and Iris Murdoch’ (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

The panels themselves were equally inspiring, showcasing a variety of exciting projects and alternative approaches to both star studies and archival research. It was just such a shame that they were so well curated and programmed that it made choosing which panel to attend extremely difficult.

In the ‘Reframing and Retelling via the Archive’ panel, Anthea Taylor (University of Sydney), Jennifer Voss (De Montfort University) and, Sarka Gmiterkova (Masaryk University) discussed how information held in archives can re-visit and challenge the accepted knowledge and opinions. At the same time, Linn Lönroth (Stockholm University), Sarah Rahman Niazi (University of Westminster), Robert Shail (Leeds Beckett University) and Cathy Lomax (Queen Mary, University of London) each examined the different ways that press and publicity were used to create, or to maintain, the star image in the ‘Archiving Press and Publicity’ panel. Using a variety of archival sources, Linn examined how Preston Sturges harnessed the collective skills of his character actors to create the phenomenon that was “The Preston Sturges stock company”. Sarah introduced us to the metaphors of romantic Urdu poetry, which were used to describe the star bodies of 1930s and 40s India in two rare Urdu texts, Filmi Priyan (Film Fairies, 1936) and Filmi Titliyan (Film Butterflies, 1945). It was especially evocative as these texts contained little to no pictures of the stars. From no imagery of star bodies to an abundance, Robert bought along examples of 1960s press books, held at the BFI archives. Using Albert Finney as a case study, he examined how Finney’s image was used and adapted through the 1960s – from angry young man in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960) through the fun-loving Tom Jones (1963), to the man trying to return to his roots in Charlie Bubbles (1968). The last speaker of the panel, Cathy used the financial records, held at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library to examine the later-life advertising career of Joan Crawford. Focusing on the 1973 advertisement for Eve of Roma Cosmetics, Cathy demonstrated how Crawford established a degree of control over her image which had been denied to her in her early career under a studio contract.

 
‘Archiving Press and Publicity’ panel: Linn Lönroth, Sarah Rahman Niazi, press book of Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) from Robert Shail’s paper, and Cathy Lomax (courtesy of Llewella Chapman).
 

With a focus on British stars, Andrew Spicer (UWE, Bristol), Llewella Chapman (University of East Anglia) and, James Chapman (University of Leicester) demonstrated how different archives can hold different types of information which can be used, in particular accessing financial records to examine the costs of stardom in the ‘(British) Stars in the Archives’ panel. While in the ‘Making Visible’ panel, Lies Lanckman (University of Hertfordshire), Ciara McKay (The University of Edinburgh) and Lisa Stead (University of Exeter) examined previously unexplored elements of a star’s life and/or star image were examined. After briefly describing the circuitous series of events which led her to learn Yiddish, Lies introduced us to the discussions of Norma Shearer in the Yiddish-language American press. While the English-language press did showcase her marriage to Irving Thalberg, creating a star image based upon a happy wife and working mother, Lies had us thinking about the narratives which are neglected in mainstream medias, but which are there to be explored and examined in media of marginalised groups. This theme of re-examination and re-framing was sustained by Ciara and her analysis of Irene Dunne, using archival material from 1930 – 1935. Previously dismissed as “lady-like”, Dunne’s star image in fact encompasses modernity with the validation of working women and “companionate marriage” with her own bi-costal marriage and the suggestion that women “can have it all”. Following a last minute withdraw – and given the weather everyone was very surprised there were not more – Lisa stepped into the breach and took the opportunity to introduce us to the work she had been undertaking to interrogate Vivien Leigh’s connections with the South West of England. And there will be more about that subject in a little bit… For now, back to the conference.

‘Making Visible’ panel: Lies Lanckman and Ciara McKay (courtesy of Lisa Stead)
 

James Downs (University of Exeter), Melanie Williams (University of East Anglia) and Pamela Hutchinson showed how both too little, or too much can create issues for a researcher in the ‘Gaps, Challenges and New Archival Methodologies’ panel. After spending time at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter, James was inspired to research Anton Walbrook, no small task given this very mysterious man left behind no official archive and, indeed, very little paper trail at all. But James persevered and, after building his own archive, will be releasing his biography very soon. Melanie, on the other hand, had the opposite problem of so much information relating to Diana Dors. With a long and varied career – film star, chat show host/guest, memoirist, columnist, commentator, pin-up, recording artist, sitcom actress, variety/cabaret act, celebrity slimmer – as well as her personal life, it is more a question of having to be very focused. Pamela then took us on a tour of star graves and memorials opening our academic minds up to an archive beyond those made up of paper and photographs. Many in the audience were worried that this might have been a morbid and upsetting topic, whereas it was very thought provoking, with many of us considering a star’s posthumous image, few of us include that of their final material legacy, their memorials and final resting places. While in the other panel, ‘Image and Persona through the Archive’, Claire Smith and Wendy Russell (British Film Institute), Polly Rose (University of Bristol) and, Laura Milburn (University of Birmingham) presented on how a star’s image and persona can be examined through their archive.

‘Gaps, Challenges and New Archival Methodologies’ panel: James Downs, Melanie Williams and Pamela Hutchinson (courtesy of Lisa Stead)
 

The final two panels of the day focused on fandom in one room and Cary Grant on the other. Ellen Wright (De Montfort University) and Michael Williams (University of Southampton) both looked at fan magazines to explore the relationship between stars and their fans in the ‘Archives and Fandom’ panel. While Kathrina Glitre (UWE Bristol) discussed Cary Grant’s impact upon the production of Night and Day (1946) in the ‘Cary Grant and the Archive’ panel. With information from the daily production reports, written by the film’s production manager Eric Stacey, which are currently held at the Warner Bros. Archive at USC, Kathrina was able to pinpoint particular scenes where Grant had made a significant changes. By conducting a close analysis of this scene – the one where Cole Porter is trying to manipulate his new wife into giving up their honeymoon so he can go and work in New York – Kathrina was able to demonstrate how Grant’s attention to detail enhanced the performances in the scene. This was followed by Charlotte Crofts (UWE Bristol) who explained the curation of the Cary Comes Home Festival and his continuing impact upon the city of Bristol. She described how the festival uses locations around Bristol to stage a number of events, with previous ones being Bringing Up Baby (1938) being screened in the Natural History Museum and Notorious (1946) screened in a wine cellar along with wine tasting. Charlotte had everybody wishing they could attend both 2020 festivals, the one held in Bristol 20 – 22 November, and the one to be held in New York to mark the 100 year anniversary of Grant’s arrival in America.

‘Cary Grant and the Archive’ panel: Kathrina Glitre and Charlotte Crofts (courtesy of Lisa Stead and @ReframingVL)
 

The two panels held on the morning of Day 2 were ‘Regional Stars, Regional Archives’ with Yektanursin Duyan (Mardin Artuklu University), Claire Mortimer (University of East Anglia) and, Caroline Lankhorst (De Montfort University) who all presented on how a star is shaped by their national and regional identity and, at the same time, ‘Vivien Leigh and the Archive’ with Denise Mok (University of Toronto), Georgia Brown (Queen Mary, University of London) and, Vicky Haddock (Zenzie Tinker Conservation/RAMM) each explored different ways of examining the star image of Vivien Leigh. Visiting us all the way from Toronto, Denise explored the images held in the Edith Nadajewski Scrapbook Collection. A life-long film fan, Edith collected a vast collection of star images and curated her own archive of scrapbooks, each dedicated to a different star. Using the appointment diaries, held within the Vivien Leigh Archive at the V&A Museum, I provided insight into the day to day arrangements of a working actress, and demonstrated just how much effort Leigh expended on preparations for her performances and on her own image. The final paper of the panel was given by Vicky were she explored the impact that Leigh and the characters she performed, had on the dressmaking patterns of the 1930s and 1940s. These three papers demonstrated the labour that Leigh herself put into how she looked and just how much effort fans went to emulate her.

‘Vivien Leigh and the Archive’ panel: Denise Mok, Georgia Brown and Vicky Haddock (courtesy of Llewella Chapman)
 

Braving the weather, many conference attendees stayed in the afternoon for the Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition, which showcased the research findings of a 20-month project lead by Lisa Stead (University of Exeter) and the project’s research assistant Becky Rae (University of Exeter), and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project was run in partnership with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Topsham Museum and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Lisa led a round table with Rachel Nichols (Topsham Museum), Shelley Tobin (RAMM), Phil Wickham (Bill Douglas Cinema Museum), Keith Lodwick (V&A Museum) and Kendra Bean (Vivien Leigh biographer) as they discussed Vivien Leigh and her connection to the South West. In particular, Shelley and Rachel spoke about the Vivien Leigh items held in their collections. These included dresses designed by Victor Stiebel and by Harald, which had been donated by Suzanne Farrington, Leigh’s daughter, after her mother’s death. She chose to send them to her aunt, Dorothy Holman who established the Topsham Museum and who had a curatorial relationship with Freda Wills at RAMM.

Curators roundtable and Q&A: Shelley Tobin, Rachel Nichols, Phil Wickham, Keith Lodwick and Kendra Bean (courtesy of Lisa Stead)

The highlight was the discussion of the nightdress from Gone With the Wind (1939), which Leigh was given as a gift from producer David O’Selznick. However, we were told that her husband was disappointed that she chose this item, as he would have preferred the Burgundy Ballgown. This lead to much speculation as to why she chose the nightdress, with the practical ones amongst us stating that, with a war on, she would have gotten more use out of a nightdress, not to mention it would be easier to transport back. Indeed, it was so easy to pack that it spent some of its existence stored in a plastic Sainsburys bag. But worry not, this dress is now being properly looked after in the museum archive, to the extent that they had brought a replica with them for display at the exhibition.

Replica of Vivien Leigh’s nightdress from Gone with the Wind (1939) (courtesy of Llewella Chapman)

The exhibition had some other wonderful items on display, including the painting which Leigh herself painted, and which was bought at the recent Sotheby’s auction. We were also able to explore the outputs of Lisa’s research project. These included, getting up close and personal with the 3D models of the clothes held by Topsham Museum and RAMM, travelling with Leigh using the digital map and listening to the 3 episode podcast. All of these outputs can be found on the Reframing Vivien Leigh website (http://reframingvivienleigh.exeter.ac.uk)

Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition (courtesy of Lisa Stead)
 

It was an inspiring weekend, which generated many exciting conversations, and I would like to extend my thanks and congratulations to Lisa Stead and Becky Rae for organising both the conference and the exhibition. And I must not forget the conference dinner, where the allocated tables encouraged more conversations with new people. Future conferences will have a lot to live up to.


Georgia Brown is a PhD researcher in the department of Film Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research studies the prosodic prominence and overall rhythms in each of Vivien Leigh’s onscreen performances, by analysing the suprasegmental characteristics of accented words and the associated changes in the fundamental frequency (F0). This study will develop an understanding of how Leigh’s voice was impacted by ageing and illness and how this has affected her star image. Georgia has presented her research at the University of Lincoln as part of the Extra Sonic Practice series, at the BAFTSS ‘Stardom and Performance’ Symposium and at the ‘Stardom and the Archive’ Symposium at University of Exeter. Her next paper will be at BAFTSS 2020 in St Andrews.


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