Asian archives and archivists: travels and revelations

Dina Iordanova, University of St Andrews

15 May 2020


I am not a specialist on archives. As an East Europeanist, I mainly know of archives in places like Tirana – magnificently supported through the Albanian Cinema Project and depicted in Mark Cousins’ film Here Be Dragons (2013) or Bucharest, the Romanian capital, where a number of B&W documentaries from the time of state socialism, made at the Sahia studio, were recently restored and published in a series of DVDs, in a project sponsored by the One World Romania film festival. Then, as a specialist on film festivals, I have had the chance to learn about the role of festivals in showcasing restored films, which expands far beyond festivals like Il Cinema Ritrovato or Pordenone, and comprises of a global network of festivals in places like in Chile or Japan, discussed in contributions to the Archival Film Festivals volume, edited by Alexander Marlow-Mann in 2013.

However, it so happened that in recent years I travelled a lot across Asia and had the chance to visit and get to know the work of quite a few Asian film archives and preservation organisations that I previously knew next to nothing about.

In 2013, friends from Kasetsart University in Bangkok took me to the Thai Film Archive, an imaginatively designed complex on the outskirts of the city which combines a film museum, a small cinema, as well as storage space. I came to know about the amazing life work of Dome Sukwong, the archive’s committed founder, who had been collecting old films on his own, with no support from the state nor institutional framework until his work came to be noticed many years later. Having commissioned a contribution from archivist Chalida Uabumrungit for the collection Film Festivals and East Asia (2011, which I co-edited with Ruby Cheung), I already knew about the adverse climatic conditions that affect preservation efforts in these parts of Southeast Asia. In Bangkok I witnessed on the spot how they address these difficulties in action, with dedication and perseverance.

Then, whilst guest lecturing at the Beijing Film Academy in 2016, I was invited to give workshops on film festivals at the venerable China Film Archive, which occupies a large 16-storey building in Beijing, and features an adjacent cinema that has a full programme of screenings of films from China’s rich film heritage, in many respects similar to the programme that one finds on a daily basis at the Cinematheque in Paris. It is here where I saw the largest screen I have ever come across in my lifetime. I also enjoyed the privilege to be shown around their restoration department, which occupies one of the floors and where over twenty young employees are seated in front of advanced computers, each engaged with clearing the scratches from the scanned old prints that they are in process of digitising. From a detailed flowchart displayed on the wall, I learned that a trainload of films for restoration are being shipped to them every week from the storage depot in Xi’an and then processed by the restoration unit. China’s whole film heritage is being digitized here. Even if this is not yet released to the public, I was able to realise that the global cinephile community will have access to an amazing resource once a decision is made for the release of this digitized material.

The Big Screen at China Film Archive

Fast forward two years later, to December 2018. Serving a term as Visiting Research Professor at the University of Hong Kong, I chose to live in Kwun Tong, a part of town where few foreigners ever set foot. A former industrial area occupied by large building blocks where various factories were clustered in the past, nowadays this is one of the places in the city where rents are still affordable. So no wonder that even if not obvious on the surface, Kwun Tong is the epicentre for the city’s cultural industries. Quite remote from Hong Kong’s glossy commercial areas such as Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, it is the home of leading modern art galleries such as Agnes Lin’s Osage and the Sun Museum, as well as of popular music venues. It only took me a few daysin Kwun Tong to discover it is also the centre for Hong Kong’s burgeoning film industry, with the venerable Hong Kong International Film Festival having its offices here, as well as many production and distribution companies occupying co-working space in the buildings nearby. One of these older industrial space, The Milky Way Building, is owned by director Johnnie To and his associates – and it is on its staircase that many scenes of well-known Hong Kong action movies have been shot.

Today the Milky Way is home of various film companies. I visited it one day with my friend, documentary producer Peter Yam, who took me to meet Bede Cheng, the director of L’Immagine Ritrovata Asia, a highly specialised film restoration lab which is local subsidiary of Cineteca di Bologna. I was shown around their premises, witnessed the high-tech equipment and seeing several young women at restoration work in front of large computer screens. The big scanner in one of the back spaces – amidst buzzing FedEx trucks and commercial spaces storing Chinese herbs — was loaded with an old copy of a King Hu film which was being scanned and slowly transferred to the new digital format.

Most recently, whilst attending the first Film Festivals and Restoration Forum at Xiamen University in China in the summer of 2019, I was privileged to join the expedition to their brand new large campus, which, being the size of a small town, is home of one of the newest film archives in China. Its holdings, still in process of being organised, are occupying several floors within their 12 -storey spacious library, which also has a good-sized modern cinema equipped for showing various formats on the ground floor. With many historical posters displayed on the walls, the colleagues from Xiamen showed us many rooms where they had stored historical projection equipment, cans of 35 mm film prints, as well as many other film-related paraphernalia. I had the chance to browse and view some of the material they screened for me, along with colleagues such as Jan-Christopher Horak of the Pacific Film Archive at UCLA and Dan Streible and Juana Suarez from NYU. Even if this archive in Xiamen is not yet organised in a manner that would allow to systematically research their holdings, it is one that will stake its presence soon.

The Film Festivals and Restoration Forum at Xiamen University, July 2019

The restoration part of the conference itself was particularly interesting, not least because it allowed for encounters with archivists from China and various other Asian countries who spoke about their work. Several of the speakers had been invited by Prof. Ray Jing, a well-known archivist and anthropologist and long-standing director of the Taipei Film Archive, whose new venture is the Film Collector’s Museum (see Jan Christopher Horack’s blog entry on his subsequent visit to Taiwan and encounter with Jing). I was particularly impressed with the account given by an amateur archivist from Lanzhou, the capital of the remote province of Gansu, who is struggling for the preservation of rich material that he has discovered after the closure of older local cinemas.

Most importantly, the event included screenings of rare restored material with introductions given by Asian archivists who elaborated on how the films were brought back to life. The programme included early ethnographic films made about Yunnan province’s numerous ethnic minorities in the 1950s, for example. But there were also screenings of several other restorations of Asian films – including the Thai classic Santi-Vina (1954) which had long been believed lost and the Singaporean gongfu extravaganza Fist of Fury (1973), which had been banned at the time of making and only now restored and shown.

Scene from the restored Thai classic Santi-Vina (1954)

In listening to the amazing stories of these restorations as told by archivists such as Sanchai Chotirosseranee of the Thai Film Archive and Karen Chan of the Asian Film Archive, I felt I was particularly inspired to realise the extent of transnational collaborative preservation efforts that each one of these stories revealed. It was also clear that film festivals had played an important part in each case. So, as someone who believes in cinema’s transnational essence and the key role of film festivals in global circulation, I felt I wanted to create a resource that would showcase these important aspects of global archiving. So I invited the archivists from Thailand and Singapore to write accounts on the discovery and restoration of the films they were presenting at Xiamen. I also asked two of the doctoral students from our programme at the University of St Andrews to conduct interviews with prominent figures involved with preservations efforts in Asia – such as Bede Cheng of L’Immagine Ritrovata in Hong Kong and Nick Deocampo from the Philippines. The dossier we created will be published in June 2020 as part of the next issue of Frames Cinema Journal.

Dina Iordanova is Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and director of the eponymous Institute. She has worked extensively on the dynamics of global film industries and transnational film cultures, with focus on non-Western cinematic traditions and contexts. The forthcoming dossier on Archives and Preservation in Asia which she curated for Frames Cinema Journal 17 will be published in June 2020. It contains contributions from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.

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.

“Certainly No Clark Gable” – Reflections on the Journalistic Discourse about Hollywood Character Actors, ca. 1915-1949

Linn Lönroth, Stockholm University, Sweden

8 April 2020


In a reader’s letter entitled “Character Actors are the Greatest” published in Picture-Play Magazine in 1926, an anonymous film fan criticised the allegedly much too predominant journalistic focus on Hollywood’s leading stars. “Always I read of stars – stars – stars!” the fan objected, and declared that leading actors were better understood as “merely a set of rather good-looking nonentities.” While emphasising the brilliance of players such as Dale Fuller, Cesare Gravina and Joseph Swickard, the letter suggested that film fans of the day were starved of stories about “the true artistes of the screen” – the character actors.[i]

Albeit not representative of the views of the editors and writers of Picture-Play Magazine, this reader’s letter is nevertheless indicative of a more widespread cultural fascination with the “non-star” in Hollywood, and particularly with the character actor. Consistently in US fan magazines and newspapers from mid 1910s and onwards through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, character acting was a significant point of journalistic interest that gave rise to lively discussions about the hierarchies of the star system and its effect on the profession of film acting. Typically framed within discussions of stardom, character actors were imagined as embodiments of difference that offered contrast to the leading stars and a glimpse into a less glamorous side of Hollywood. Distinguished by their alleged peculiarities, individual quirks, unremarkable lifestyles and run-of-the-mill presence on screen, these actors were celebrated as quintessential examples of “non-stars” in Hollywood.

Drawing on a wide array of articles, interviews, films reviews, gossip columns and other types of journalism from Hollywood fan magazines and US newspapers from the classical era, this essay explores the significant popular discourse that emerged around the character actor.[ii] While previous research has shown how such national press coverage helped to create and sustain the notion of the film star and affirm its place within US film culture, I will argue for how the notion of the “non-star,” as exemplified by the character actor, was similarly established within this film culture.[iii] Because of the close ties between the film industry and the fan magazines in particular, as emphasised in previous studies, this discourse arguably also indicates the overlooked importance of the “non-star” to the industry itself and to classical Hollywood filmmaking.[iv]

Personality vs. Versatility: The Silent Era

In order to better understand how the notion of the “non-star” gained in cultural significance in the US, it is worth going back to the emergence of the star system and the development of the many non-starring categories of actors that this system brought about. In her study of typecasting in US cinema, Pamela Robertson Wojcik has shown how the development of the star system in the early 1910s indeed gave rise to a more hierarchical division of labour among film actors. While the stars were positioned at the top of this hierarchy, the majority of actors rather had to settle for filling the many non-starring, supporting roles that the movies required. The character actor emerged at this point as a “mid-level player,” as Robertson Wojcik suggests, as it was ranked above a number of other non-starring actors, such as bit players and extras. It was, however, invariably ranked below the star. Although a certain level of movement up and down the star system’s hierarchy was possible for some actors, Robertson Wojcik notes that is was unusual for character actors in particular to ascend in the ranking. Despite their status as mid-level players, then, character actors were perceived as possessing qualities that ultimately prevented them from attaining starring roles.[v]

This dividing line between stars and character actors is worth emphasising, because it very quickly made its way into the popular discourse of the time. Already in the mid 1910s but increasingly so in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the character actor was very emphatically imagined as existing in a dichotomous relationship with the leading star. Although journalists found various ways of addressing and conceptualising this dichotomy over the years and decades, there was a notable consistency within the discourse and a prevailing sense that character actors deviated from the prevailing Hollywood ideal.[vi]

In journalism from the silent era, this perceived difference between stars and character actors was primarily expressed in terms of acting technique and personality. Curiously, the majority of reporters also sided with the character actors and emphasised their alleged superiority over the stars. While the latter tended to be described as mere figures of beauty whose personalities were simply repeated across films, character actors were instead perceived as versatile in their roles and as possessing tangible acting skills. As the New York Times put it in 1920, character actors are the “true highlights of photoplays.” Their acting style involves the “art of impersonation” and of allowing their individuality to become “absorbed” by the character in question.[vii] Stars, on the other hand, only ever rely on their good looks and personality. As such, they have to confine themselves to playing only one type of role: “that of being themselves, as they have become known to the public.”[viii]

Arguing along similar lines, many other newspaper reporters and fan magazine writers suggested that character actors were the “bright fellow[s]” or “fine old actors” with “real merit” and “skilled artistry.”[ix] Contrary to popular perception, the story went, it was the character actors who gave the most “splendid” performances; invariably a step above those of the “stars they support[ed].”[x] Indeed, within this discourse, the stars were conceived as having little to show in terms of acting technique and were rather described as “Greek gods,” “modern demigods or goddesses” or “vivacious little dolls who play silly flapper roles,” and so on.[xi]

Closely associated with the notion of the character actor’s versatility was also the idea of physical disguise. Repeatedly when discussing the character actors’ skills in impersonation, journalists emphasised the actors’ physical appearance and ability to disguise themselves in convincing ways. While the stars had to look natural in order to be recognised as the personality with whom the public had become familiar, most writers maintained, the character actors were instead free to experiment with costume and make-up in order to obscure their own “self.” As the character actor Theodore Roberts put it himself in Photo-Play Journal in 1920, the character man is someone who “carries his personality in his make-up box.”[xii]

For Roberts, the fact that his profession indeed required him to actively disguise himself was in fact something he deemed as a blessing. In his article, which was given the title “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Roberts imagined the stars as being in constant worry about their looks and personalities. Character actors such as himself, however, never felt tied down by Hollywood’s constrictive beauty norms and ideals. As he put it:

I thank my stars that I have no need to be “Lean and Slippered,” but can grow fat with no fear of the shrivelling of the salary envelope. I am on my knees in gratitude that the fates decreed me a personality that did not lend itself to the fluff and pulchritude but called upon me to clothe myself in the habiliments of other personalities than my own.[xiii]

Figure 1: Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

Contrary to Roberts’ positive outlook, however, most writers were critical of the fact that character actors were unable to attain starring roles. There was also a strong sense that the star system had destroyed the art of acting in favour of an emerging personality cult. While criticising Hollywood’s growing obsession with young and pretty film stars with popular personalities, many reporters called for change and envisioned the character actor as taking centre stage in this process. As Screenland argued in 1923, “golden curl[es]” and a “perfect profile” doesn’t do it anymore, “the public is actually demanding that actors act!”[xiv] On a more radical note, The Los Angeles Times even went so far as to proclaim that the “rise of the character actors” would come with the inevitable demise of the star system.”[xv]

Although this kind of rhetoric had little effect on the realities within the US film industry, it is nevertheless notable that certain strands within this silent-era discourse about character actors evidently formed a critique against the consolidation of the star system. Because the character actors were perceived as representing different (and, according to many journalists, better) values than those of the stars, they were repeatedly singled out as symbols for change. In this way, the character actor became central to the imagination of a film industry in which versatility was valued higher than beauty and personality. Consistently, reporters also positioned themselves, and indeed the publication they wrote for, as active agents in this change and as champions of the underdog who advocated a different Hollywood.

Godlike Beauties vs. Everyday Eccentrics: The Sound Era

As sound came to US film industry and the studio system was further consolidated, the hierarchies of the star system were reinforced rather than undermined. The discourse about character actors, however, grew stronger. Not only was there more written about non-starring actors more generally in the 1930s and 1940s, many reporters were also becoming increasingly persistent when it came to differentiating between stars and character actors. As focus shifted from the versatility of character actors and the set personalities of stars, journalists were now increasingly concerned with the supposedly unconventional nature of character actors and the ways in which their physical appearances differed from those of the stars. Although reporters continued to celebrate the character actor and to position themselves as rooting for the underdog, the sometimes reactionary tone of the silent-era discourse nevertheless faded. Rather than envisioning or calling for radical change, journalists were now reinforcing the hierarchies of the star system by persistently establishing the character actors as figures that diverged from Hollywood’s constrictive beauty ideals.

In particular, notions of physical attractiveness, glamour and youth were held as counterpoints to that which defined the character actor. There was also a growing tendency to pathologise the bodies of these actors and to foreground their traits and attributes as flawed. Numerous writers for instance drew attention to the character actors’ weight (which was typically just brought up if the actor was considered overweight), purportedly strange or asymmetrical facial features, old age or quite simply what was thought of as their unattractive (or at very least plain) bodies, especially when defined in contrast to the svelte, taught or sculpted physiques of the leads. While the stars were described as otherworldly, extraordinary and beautiful, then, character actors were rather defined according to their alleged shortcomings and imperfections. This could, for instance, include their “chubby” or “fat” bodies, “pop-eyed” and “potato pan” faces, “un-actorish-looking” appearances, “stooped shoulders,” “long nose[s],” “thick and bushy” eyebrows, “thinning hair,” “mush mug” faces, oversized Adam’s apples or more generally their lack of “sex appeal.”[xvi] As Gladys Hall put it in reference to the character actor Walter Connolly in an article published in Modern Screen in 1934, “[h]e is certainly no Clark Gable.”[xvii]

Figure 2: Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

Descriptions such as these were typically also accompanied by comments about the character actors’ peculiar behaviour, acting styles and personalities. Frequently, writers emphasised the eccentricity of the character actors’ mannerisms and commented on their posture, gestures or facial expressions. Writing in 1937, a reporter in Hollywood for instance drew attention to the “excitable” and “neurotic” foibles of Edward Everett Horton. His fellow character actor Henry Ametta was similarly noted for his “extremely nervous,” “fidgety,” and “worried” manner.[xviii] Various other reporters emphasised traits or “idiosyncrasies” such as “flutterings,” “jitters,” “bewilderment,” “occasional wheezes” or the “nervous” temperament, “snooty reserve” or “whimsical” nature of specific actors.[xix] Weighed against the otherwise naturalist, restrained and subtle acting styles that permeated Hollywood, as explored by scholars such as Roberta Pearson and Cynthia Baron, it is notable that character actors were perceived as so prone to exploring more ostentatious or eccentric forms of performance.[xx]

The blatant body shaming and othering that invariably also characterised these kinds of conversations were usually, and very much indifferently, justified as a way of stressing the alleged “humanness” or “ordinariness” of the character actor. This might seem contradictory, but the eccentric traits and attributes that many writers associated with these actors were also believed to make them into recognisable figures from everyday life. In comparison to the “unearthly” and “glamorized” “pretty boys” and “eye-filling gals,” as a reporter in Photoplay described the leading stars in 1938, the character actors were rather perceived as “real human beings.” As the writer put it, it was their job to provide the “human background” of the otherwise fairy-tale like worlds of the movies.[xxi] Although the discourse about these actors was growing increasingly problematic, then, the journalists were nevertheless in agreement that the characters actors brought something unique to the movies, and crucially something that the stars could not provide.

Struggles for Attention

Besides this continuous dialogue about the perceived difference between stars and character actors, the 1930s also saw the emergence of a conversation in press about an imagined power struggle between the two parties. In these discussions, character actors were described in a rather jarring language as reporters drew analogies to theft or burglary when referring to what they saw as a particularly arresting performance.[xxii] Variations of the expressions “stealing the show” or “stealing someone’s thunder,” as they are still known and used today, were hence beginning to be used in reference to the performances of certain non-starring actors.[xxiii]

The figurative use of language within this context cannot be emphasised enough. Metaphors, analogies and hyperbole were invariably used to amplify the reporters’ points and to add a sense of drama, comedy or fun to their writings. Typically, journalists reached for words such as “picture stealing,” “scene stealing,” “screen theft,” “lens larceny,” “cinema-swiping,” “film lifting,” “plundering” or the like while simultaneously referring to the character actors as “bandits,” “muggers,” “thieves,” “larcenists,” “pickpockets” “star kidnappers,” “film falcons” and even “rascals.”[xxiv] It was also common to describe successful character performances as though the actors were “turning the tables,” “outsmarting,” “upstaging” or even “eclipsing” the leading stars, thus evoking a sense of Hollywood being turned on its head.[xxv] It is important to note that the term “character actor” was occasionally used in conflation with, for instance, “minor actor,” “supporting actor” and sometimes “bit actor” within this context. The primary aim appears to have been to shed light on the alleged power struggle that played out between stars and non-stars in Hollywood at large.

Figure 3: “Picture Stealers,” Silver Screen, August, 1937. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

A number of journalists of the time even took it upon themselves to act as detectives of sorts in order to identify the many guilty offenders among the non-starring actors and to call attention to the alleged danger they posed to the status quo. In a photospread entitled “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood” published in 1938, for instance, Hollywood presented a list of what they called “the screen’s worst scene stealers.” Each of the eleven actors (one of whom, curiously, was a child actor) were presented with a thumbnail story as well as a photograph in the style of a mugshot. Among those accused were Charles Ruggles, who was noted for his “long record of picture stealing,” Leo Carrillo, who allegedly “terrorized many quiet dramas” and Edward Everett Horton, whom the reporter suggested was “particularly dangerous to romantic scenes where the heroine and hero wish to be alone.” Notably, the listed actors were also conflated with their on-screen characterisations and described as though they were deliberately plotting to hijack the movies. Their various physical traits, mannerisms and acting techniques were further described as devious “disguises” or “appearances” that were “assumed” in order to “gain access” or “entrance” to the most important scenes.[xxvi]

Figures 4 and 5: “The most dangerous men in Hollywood,” Hollywood, October, 1937, 38-39. Accessed via The Media History Digital Library

However extreme these usages of hyperbole appear to be, they were by no means unique or stand-alone examples. Some journalists even assumed a faux point-of-view of a judge or prosecutor and argued that, to put it in the words of Katherine Alberts, the character actors should be “charged” with “grand larceny” and “[handed] over to the audience for sentence.”[xxvii] Other reporters referred to the actors as “pirates” or “little devil[s],” suggested that they were part of the “Hollywood underworld” or compared their alleged scene thefts with “kleptomania” and even “cradle snatching.”[xxviii] The Chicago Daily Tribute went so far as to suggest that the FBI agent Edgar J. Hoover and Attorney General Frank Murphy would probably have to make an “emergency trip” to the East Coast in order to “combat the wave of scene stealing.”[xxix]

Caught up in the midst of this chaos, of course, were the stars, and they were typically described as defenceless, victimised or outright scared of the presence of their supposed subordinates. A reporter in Modern Screen suggested that movie stars were haunted by a sense of “terror” whenever they found out that a “picture stealer” was “on the lot.” The best thing for the poor stars to do, the journalist suggested, was to simply say a quick “don’t-let-him-steal-my-picture prayer” before shooting commenced.[xxx] Similarly, a journalist in Silver Screen suggested that the stars did what they could to “protect themselves” in the “dog-cat-dog business” of Hollywood filmmaking. With “hawklike eyes,” the stars watch the rest of the cast to see that they are not “photographed too glamorously, that they are not given the choice lines, that they are not given scenes that are ‘fat’ in dialogue content.”[xxxi]

Despite the typically problematic wording of this conversation and the somewhat ridiculous claim that the stars were the real victims, the majority of the articles were nevertheless jesting in tone and the reporters were evidently rooting for the character actors to come out victorious in their fight for the limelight. There was also a clear intention of bringing these actors into the public eye and to suggest that the success of movies often hinged on the presence of non-starring actors. The general idea was that a certain degree of scene stealing was necessary in order to break up the movies’ otherwise unrelenting focus on the leading stars. As Silver Screen put it in 1935, the entrance of a character actor on screen is like “a ripple of joyous expectations” sweeping over an otherwise “dying party.”[xxxii]

Even so, the idea of scene stealing of course implied ownership and it arguably affirmed the idea that the limelight did not belong to the character actor, but rather to the leading star. The whole narrative of there being struggles for attention on screen was presumably also a dramatic (in a narrative sense) and engaging way of illustrating the hierarchies of the star system and the tensions it gave rise to. Not only did it allow readers to familiarise themselves with certain non-starring actors and to recognise their place within the hierarchy. Arguably, readers were also encouraged to interpret film performance on a meta-level in the sense that the acting styles of non-starring actors could be read as calculated attempts to upstage the leading stars. That is, as deliberate schemes of resistance that challenged the status quo.

On the whole, the significant journalistic focus on character actors during the classical helped establish their place within US film culture. Because the actors’ appeal was persistently traced to how they differed from the stars, the discourse also consolidated the value of the “non-star” more generally to contemporaneous fan culture and to the Hollywood filmmaking tradition. In an article published in The Ogden Standard in 1918, the American screenwriter Al Giebler attempted to shed light on precisely this alleged indispensability of small-part actors. In his article, entitled “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” Giebler curiously tried to prove his point by comparing the movie business with baking pudding. Just as you need a variety of ingredients to make a tasty pudding, he suggested, you need a variety of actors to make a successful photoplay. As he put it, “the two stars could no more pretend to be the whole show and get away with it than the two eggs could say, ‘Behold us! We are pudding!”[xxxiii]

Figure 6: A. H. Giebler, “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” The Ogden Standard, Jan 19, 1918. Accessed via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper, Library of Congress


[i] S. H. P., “Character Actors are the Greatest,” in “What the Fans Think,” Picture-Play Magazine, September, 1926, 115.

[ii] The material for this essay has primarily been collected from digital repositories. In particular, I have gathered material from the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) and ProQuest Historical Newspapers. A limited number of articles have also been retrieved from the Library of Congress digitised newspaper database, Chronicling America as well as the Internet Archive. The fan magazines I have accessed range from leading periodicals with extensive runs in the MDHL database, such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Motion Picture Magazine, to those with shorter life spans and with less extensive runs in the database, such as Movie Classic and Motion Picture Classic. When it comes to newspapers, I have primarily found relevant material in papers such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Daily Tribune and The Washington Post. I have also gathered material from fan magazines and collections of clippings from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Margaret Herrick Library.

[iii] See e.g. Richard Abel, Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015); Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Richard Dyer, Stars, 1. ed., (London: BFI, 1979).

[iv] See e.g. Anne Jerslev, “American Fan Magazines in the 30s and the Glamorous Construction of Femininity,” in The Nordicom Review (No. 1, 1996), 195-209; Anthony Slide, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

[v] Pamela Robertson Wojcik, ‘Typecasting’ in Movie Acting: The Film Reader, ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik (New York: Routledge, 2004), 177-181.

[vi] It is important to note that terms such as “character actor,” “supporting actor,” “minor actor” and, to a lesser degree, “bit player” were often used interchangeably during these decades. While this variation of terms partly appears to have been a way for journalists to simply vary their language when referring to non-stars, “character actor” was by far the most widely used definition within this context.

[vii] “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4.

[viii] “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4.

[ix] “The Character Actors are Getting all the Bouquets,” Photoplay, November, 1927, 24; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” The Washington Post, January 15, 1928, F5; Lillian Blackstone, “Frozen Echoes,” Motion Picture Magazine, August, 1917, 126; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” The Washington Post, January 15, 1928, F5.

[x] Scoop Conlon, “Character Actors Come into Their Own After Long, Hard Struggle on Silver Screen,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 1922, D1.

[xi] Conlon, “Character Actors Come into Their Own After Long, Hard Struggle on Silver Screen,” D1; “Actors and Stars,” The New York Times, April 25, 1920, X4; “Thirty Years a Trooper,” F5.

[xii] Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22.

[xiii] Theodore Roberts, “The Happy Lot of the Character Actor,” Photoplay-Journal, June, 1920, 22.

[xiv] Eunic Marshall, “Grand Larceny: Anent the gentle art of stealing the picture,” Screenland, October, 1923, 40.

[xv] William Foster Elliott, “The Character Actor’s Boom: Claude Gillingwater Talks on Recent Developments,” The Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1922, III35.

[xvi] Mary Weisse, “Guy Kibbe’s Case” in “Fan Mail,” Hollywood, August, 1936, 16; “Here’s One Fat Man Somebody Loves,” Photoplay, January, 1935, 47; Larry Reid “Accidentally Funny,” Movie Classic, December, 1936, 77; Carlisle Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” Screenland, August, 1936, 88; Cyril Vandour, “He Supplies the Background,” Photoplay, April, 1938, 33; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29; Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” 58, Hamilton, “Roundup of Characters,” 21; Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37; Jones, “Picture Stealer No. 1,” 88; Hamilton, “Roundup of Characters,” 20; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29.

[xvii] Gladys Hall, “Average But Wonderful: A grand story about a great actor, Walter Connolly,” Modern Screen, December, 1934, 37.

[xviii] “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood: Thumb-nail stories on the screen’s worst scene stealers,” Hollywood, October, 1937: 38-39.

[xix] “Screenland Honor Page,” Screenland, November, 1936, 6; Larry Reid, “Accidentally Funny,” Movie Classic, Dec, 1936, 77; Reid, “Accidentally Funny,” 77; Fanya Graham, “Man Behind the Medals,” Picture Play, Oct, 1934, 29; Maude Cheatham, “For Laughing Purposes,” Silver Screen, September, 1937, 54; Ralph Wotherspoon, “Edward Everett Horton” in “What do You Think? Letters from our Readers,” Picturegoers, April, 1946, 14; Judith Ann Ice, “These Charming Thieves: Insight into the lives of active players you read little about,” Picture Play, June, 1934, 60.

[xx] Cynthia Baron, “Stage Actors and Modern Acting Methods Move to Hollywood in the 1930s,” Cinémas, 25:1, 2014, 109-129; Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[xxi] Cyril Vandour, “He Supplies the Background,” Photoplay, April, 1938, 33.

[xxii] It is worth noting that there are occasional examples of these expressions being used in a similar context already in the 1920s. However, these types of articles appear sparingly in the early 1920s and it is only towards the end of the decade and much more so in the early 1930s that a trend begins to emerge.

[xxiii] The expression “stealing someone’s thunder” itself dates back to theatrical traditions of the early 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term goes back to an utterance made by the English dramatist John Dennis, whose method for simulating thunder on stage was “stolen” and supposedly used more successfully in someone else’s play. See: “To steal (someone’s) thunder,” Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[xxiv] See e.g.: C. L. “Occupation – Picture Stealer.” Picturegoer, July, 1943; “Special Art Section: Scene Stealers! Pat and Jo – by request,” Screenland, May, 1936; Dwight Evans, “An Open Letter to Jack Oakie,” Screenland, February, 1941; Herbert Cruikshank, “Forty Thieves of Hollywood,” Modern Screen, May, 1931; Judith Ann Ice, “These Charming Thieves: Insight into the lives of active players you read little about,” Picture Play, June, 1934, 31; Shelia Graham, “Piracy on Film Seas Involves Notables,” LA Times, September 1, 1936, 14; M.A.C. “Scene Stealer!” Picturegoer, November, 1943, 11.

[xxv] Mack Hughes, “Tricks of the Trade,” Modern Screen, Sep, 1937, 10; Hughes, “Tricks of the Trade,” 10; Review of The Flame Within in “Reviews,” Modern Screen, August, 1935, 6; Samuel Richard Mook, “Empty Honors: Scene stealers are given their due, but their artistic thefts bring them little,” Picture Play, February, 1933, 40.

[xxvi] “The Most Dangerous Men in Hollywood: Thumb-nail stories on the screen’s worst scene stealers,” Hollywood, October, 1937: 38-39

[xxvii] Katherine Alberts, “Caught with the Goods,” Photoplay, April, 1932, 37.

[xxviii] “Picture ’Pirates’,” Picturegoer, August, 1932, 16; Paula Berc, “Our Eugenes Off to Una,” in “Movie Classic’s Letter Page,” Movie Classic, December, 1931, 8; Ed Sullivan, “Looking at Hollywood: Scene Stealers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1939, 9; Georges Kay, “Not Guilty!”, Picture Play, January, 1933, 22; Georges Kay, “Not Guilty!”, 22.

[xxix] Ed Sullivan, “Looking at Hollywood: Scene Stealers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1939, 9.

[xxx] Herbert Cruikshank, “Forty Thieves of Hollywood,” Modern Screen, May, 1931, 46.

[xxxi] Ed Sullivan, “Picture Stealers Spotted,” Silver Screen, November, 1938, 76.

[xxxii] Patricia Keats, “The Picture Savers: Edward Everett Horton, Henry Armetta, Ned Sparks,” Silver Screen, March, 1935, 32.

[xxxiii] A. H. Giebler, “The Supporting Cast in a Movie Film,” The Ogden Standard, Jan 19, 1918: no page number.

Linn Lönroth is a PhD student in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. Her dissertation is an archival study into the histories of character actors in Hollywood during the classical era. In addition to exploring the popular discourse and fan culture that emerged around these actors, the thesis examines how the industry defined, typecast, employed, credited and promoted their non-starring actors during this period.

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.

Working in and with German Archives on German-German Media History

Mandy Tröger, University of Munich (LMU)

27 March 2020


This blog post addresses international media scholars whose research focus is Germany and German-German media history. The term ‘German-German’ refers to the history of cross-border media relations between both German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), until German unification in 1990. This research leads you to working in German archives. I want to share my experience of doing archival research for my doctoral thesis on the transition of the press in the GDR 1989/1990. The focus of my thesis lay on structural conditions and shifts; I was particularly interested in the political and economic influences of different interest groups from the FRG. I tried to access archival material showing the dealings of West German political and economic players, however this became a problem and I want to show you the different ways I used to get around it.

In the end, the findings of my dissertation were entirely based on primary and semi-primary sources; I used secondary literature only if primary sources left gaps in the overall narrative. I worked in eleven public and non-public (publishers, association etc.) archives, and seven private collections. In addition, I held seventeen non-biographical interviews. This blog post summarizes what I have learned from this process.

The “Politics of Memory” in Germany

In various ways, archives are places of institutionalized “politics of memory” (Brown and Davis-Brown, 1998). In Germany, the policy of national archives is such that all files classified as “GDR” are generally open to the public (even if they contain material from after 1990). The National Archive in Berlin (BArch) holds the majority of “GDR” records. Files of the same time period labeled “FRG” are closed for at least thirty years to protect individual rights and potentially sensitive information of economic and political interest groups. The consequences of this imbalance for historical research are serious and well-known among archivists and historians in Germany. They relate to a broader political agenda to the writing and construction of German-German history. They also partly explain the often one-sided and GDR-centric approaches in current German-German history writing.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles

Three ways to access archives

However, the transition period in the GDR in 1989/1990 cannot be thought of without the political, economic and social relations, pressures and affiliations to the Federal Republic. Not having had access to these files, made it necessary to adopt different strategies.

First, the filing of “requests to shorten the term of file protection” (Antrag auf Schutzfristenverkürzung) to be granted access to classified federal documents in the National Archives in Koblenz and Berlin. The archive in Koblenz holds the files of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Inneren, BMI) responsible for media related issues. Berlin holds, for instance, those of the trust agency Treuhandanstalt. These requests are generally complicated and can take years. I was granted access to files of the BMI at the National Archive in Koblenz; two requests for the trust agency Treuhandanstalt in Berlin have been in process for four years and were just recently granted.

Second, the issue of classified access made the archives of political foundations affiliated with individual parties (Stiftungsarchive) more important. These archives are in general dispute with the national archive over new acquisitions. At times, they hold files of politicians who worked on a federal level. For instance, the Archive of Liberalism of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom, affiliated with the liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP), holds the record of several members of the FDP’s federal media commission. The Green Memory Archive (Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis) of the Böll Foundation and the Green Party in Berlin holds the estate of Gerhard Bächer, former representative of the Green Party at the Media Control Council (Medienkontrollrat, MKR) founded in 1990 (see Becker-Schaum, 2009). The Archive of Democratic Socialism (Demokratischer Sozialismus, ADS) of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the leftist party DIE LINKE in Berlin holds the estate of interim prime minister and later member of the German Bundestag, Hans Modrow (see ADS, n.d.). These archives have individually negotiated classified periods, and are generally easier to access.

The third way around the issue of access lay in the “GDR” files themselves. Since classification matters, not content, detailed communication between various East and West German interest groups can, if traced thoroughly, be found in these files. The part of my thesis telling the complicated story of early West German market interests in the building of a monopoly-like press distribution in East Germany was based on the files of the East German Ministry of Postal and Telecommunication (Ministerium für Post- und Fernmeldewesen, MPF). Labeled “GDR,” these files are open for research, even though several still-existing German interest groups might have good reasons for wanting to keep this communication off record.

Other relevant archives

Another important archive for GDR-media in 1990 was the ID-Archive at the International Institute for Social History (IISH/ID-Archive MKR) in Amsterdam. It holds an extensive collection (forty-two boxes) of the East German Media Control Council (MKR). This collection was transferred to the IISH/ID-Archive MKR in 1997. It contains minutes of the MKR-meetings, correspondence and documents regarding the reshaping of the media landscape (radio, television, newspapers and publishing houses) in the GDR in 1990, and an extensive collection of press clippings 1989-1990.

Also, the extensive library on media (policy) books in the corporate archive library of Axel Springer Publishers and the collection of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles were valuable. Both allowed access to a variety of media-related sources.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum include the estate of the former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Erich Honeker, including his library

In particular the private (personal) collections took a central role in the original research. During the transition period, with fast institutional changes, it was common for those working at ministries, newspapers, publishers or in civic groups to take files home once the job was done and no archive was in charge of storing documents.

Expert interviews

Expert interviews further contributed greatly to my thesis. The communication with over twenty interview partners was, at times, extensive. The interviews were non-biographical, my questions related to a specific subject matter at hand, such as the dealings of a ministry, a newspaper or media policy institution. My goal was to fill gaps that could not have been filled based on archival material alone. This is important, especially for the transition period. During this fast-paced period, much of the communication happened verbally and/or was not documented systematically but noted by hand on pieces of paper. This was partly due to the grassroots like character of reform institutions (such as the Round Table or the MKR) and the often non-professional background of their members, as well as to institutional shifts more generally. Thus, archival holdings often contain numerous pieces of hand-written notes and papers that require context to make sense of them, and this context can often only be provided by those who were directly involved. This is an encouragement to step out of the archive and reach out to them.


ADS, n.d., ‘Bestände/Findbücher, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’, (accessed: January 10, 2018).

Becker-Schaum, Christoph, 2009, ‘Der Archivbestand Gerhard Bächer und die Grüne Partei in der DDR’, Grünes Gedächtnis, pp. 71-76, (accessed: May 25, 2016).

Brown, Richard Harvey, and Beth Davis-Brown, 1998, ‘The making of memory: the politics of archives, libraries and museums in the construction of national consciousness’, in History of the Human Sciences, 11/2, pp. 17-32.

Mandy Tröger, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. Dr Tröger received her doctorate from the Institute of Communications Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2018. From 2015 until 2017, she was a PhD-Fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Parts of her dissertation, ‘On Unregulated Markets and the Freedom of Media: The Transition of the East German Press after 1989’, have been translated into German, and have been published in a German-language book, Pressefrühling und Profit, in 2019.

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.

  • Archives