How to Do Research on the Movies

tags: film, Nazi Germany, Hollywood, Thomas Doherty, research, archives


Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. He is a specialist in Hollywood and filmmaking. His latest book is "Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939."

The Thatcher Library in Citizen Kane (1941).

The most famous depiction of an archive in Hollywood cinema is the Thatcher Library in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), a foreboding and noirishly lit mausoleum presided over by a prissy custodian who resents the intrusion of an actual researcher. The drudge work of scholarly investigation may yield rose buds of precious information, but the task of acquisition will be dust-ridden and tedious, and the stewards of the stacks will be cranky spinsters who eye you with suspicion as they hand over white gloves and caution you to use only the pencils and papers provided for note taking.

Unlike the reporter in Citizen Kane, I have always found nothing but friendly faces and helpful professionals in the archives, wise gatekeepers who have guided me patiently though their collections, especially in the archives I most frequent, namely motion picture archives, both to watch the films and pour over the documents. Having just completed a film-based history project (since you ask: a study of Hollywood’s relationship to Nazism in the 1930s entitled Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939), I have good reason to debunk the Wellesian slander and express a public appreciation for the many kindnesses shown a clueless stranger. More often than not, when film scholars uncover a treasure from the vaults, it is because the archivist is showing them where to look. That was certainly true with my dogged efforts to run down a little known and heretofore lost anti-Nazi film.

For a film historian, the first step in the film-finding process is not knowing where to find a film but knowing what film you want to find. This is not as self-evident as it sounds. In my own case, I had a good sense of the history of both Hollywood and America in the 1930s, but I had never undertaken a purely Nazi-centric view of the American motion picture industry during the six years under my microscope. Thus, the early prep work was to scour the contemporaneous motion picture record for possible leads and pathways. American film studies is fortunate to have a rich trove of periodicals that can be scanned for reviews, advertisements, and commentary, trade papers such as Variety and Daily Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and Motion Picture Herald. There are also the archives of the major studios, assuming you can get into them. Warner Bros. archives, housed at USC, is an easy ticket; getting into Disney’s archives is like breaking into Fort Knox.

Lately, though, the required stop for any excursion into classical Hollywood cinema is the files of the Production Code Administration, the motion picture industry's in-house censorship arm between 1934 and 1968. The opening up of the PCA archives is a great example of how a single archival collection can utterly transform a discipline. In 1986, the Motion Picture Association of America, under the leadership of Jack Valenti, donated its files to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in Beverly Hills. For most Hollywood films, a meticulous record exists -- from first pitch to shooting scripts to final print -- of the process of negotiation between the censors and the filmmakers, a fascinating back and forth over dialogue, costuming, plot points, and themes. Prior to the release of the files in 1986, most film scholarship was blissfully unaware of the pivotal role the PCA played in the content of Hollywood cinema. Sure, we knew films were censored under something called the Hays Code but we had little idea of how the process worked and how powerful the Code regime really was. Since 1986, every history of American cinema or monograph on a specific film from the studio era has had to touch base with the PCA files, supervised by the congenial and erudite Barbara Hall.

Of course, the most important source to consult is the films themselves. After all, the first rule of film criticism is: SEE THE MOVIE. I already knew about and had re-viewed the films that were most popular and acknowledged as significant -- films like Black Legion, a 1937 anti-fascist social problem film from Warner Bros.; Blockade (1938) a pro-Loyalist depiction of the Spanish Civil War; and Warner Bros.’ landmark Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), the first unapologetically anti-Nazi film from a major studio.

Yet in paging through the bound copies and scrolling through the microfilm (with the exception of Variety, which has an intermittently reliable database, none of the other touchstone film periodicals have digitized search engines), I found references to films that I had never heard of, but that were widely commented upon at the time, and that I was very, very eager to see. These films were Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934), an oddball quasi-documentary by Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., which appeared to be the first ever American anti-Nazi film; I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936), an obscure independently produced docu-drama portraying the real life travails of a pretty expatriate named Isobel Steele, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for espionage in 1934; Professor Mamlock (1938), an Soviet import about a Jewish doctor murdered by the Nazis; and Crisis (1939), a pioneering anti-Nazi documentary by the Popular Front filmmaker Herbert Kline about the betrayal of Czechoslovakia.

With undergraduate resourcefulness, I logged on to the internet to see if the films were available commercially or scheduled on Turner Classic Movies, the main television source for serious cinephiles. I also checked eBay and film-buff websites in case an under-the-radar copy of dubious legality might be available for purchase. Reliance on these sites is still a new frontier for many analog-born film scholars, but the web now links us to a network of buffs and geeks whose fetish for collection and cataloguing is often as obsessive and reliable as some of the credentialed professionals.

A few hours of web sleuthing yielded only dead ends, so the next resort was to query the established archives, notably the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Film, and, natch, the Museum of the Moving Image. I hit partial pay dirt right off. The LOC had a copy of I Am a Captive of Nazi Germany and a 5-minute trailer from Hitler's Reign of Terror. MOMA had 35mm copies of Professor Mamlock and Crisis. Both archives required site visits for the screenings. In the age of place-shifting and time-shifting, I am often amused at how our students -- undergrads and graduate alike -- are absolutely stupefied at the notion that in film studies sometimes you actually have to move your body through physical space to be someplace at a specific time to see a film.

At the LOC in Washington, D.C., I viewed I Am a Captive, which was available for streaming on site, and the trailer to Hitler’s Reign, which was available in 35mm only and had to be unspooled on an ancient Steenbeck flatbed editing table. The LOC has been transferring much of its collection to ¾-inch videotape and uploading it for on-site streaming, but many films remain available only in their original 16mm and 35mm formats. I also made an appointment with MOMA to screen Professor Mamlock and Crisis, but a few days before boarding the train from Boston, Charles Silver, curator of the Department of Film, emailed to say the print of Professor Mamlock had succumbed to a serious case of "vinegar syndrome" -- a degradation of the acetate film base -- and was therefore unscreenable.

Fortunately, dumb luck can trump archival resourcefulness. At the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, I ran into Olga Gershensen, a scholar of Soviet cinema, who told me Professor Mamlock was actually readily available on DVD in Russia and she owned a copy: the title didn't show up during my Internet search because I did not Google in Cyrillic. The Russian DVD lacked English subtitles, but Olga graciously agreed to do a simultaneous translation during a screening in her living room. My luck still holding, I next learned that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum owned a print of Crisis. Bruce Levy, project coordinator for the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, made the film available on a special link via streaming. Needless to say this was a lot easier and cheaper than schlepping to MOMA in New York for a private screening. Every time I get worked up and start railing against the unholy influences the Internet has on young people, I remember occasions like this.

At this point, I had found and viewed three of the four films I sought, leaving only the elusive Hitler’s Reign of Terror out of sight. Given the profile of the film in 1934, its total absence really stumped me. Curiouser still was its seeming disappearance from places it really should have been at least mentioned -- such as the Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. papers at Vanderbilt University, where it was not referenced at all. It appeared to be an authentically “lost” film.

So, I work on the book for a few years and, just as I begin guiding it through the process of publication, I get an email from Roel Vande Winkel, a colleague at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, with the eye-catching subject line “HITLER’S REIGN OF TERROR INQUIRY.”

Here’s the story: Nicola Mazzanti from the Royal Film Archive in Brussels got in touch with Roel with the news that the archive had come across a copy of Hitler’s Reign of Terror tucked away in a back shelf in cold storage. Mazzanti has no record of how the archive came in to possession of the film, but apparently it has been there since 1945 or so. According to Mazzanti, when a Belgium distributor ordered a film from overseas, the print would have to clear customs where it was also accessed an import tax. To pick up the film, the distributor had first to pay the tax. Sometimes exhibitors were so hard up for money that they couldn’t afford the tax and the films just sat in the customs house warehouse. Usually the exporter would pay to have the film shipped back to its port of origin, but sometimes things got lost in the shuffle and the films would lie unclaimed. After a year or two, the customs house would call the archive and tell them to come by and collect the prints if they wanted to. Mazzanti says this is the way his archive came into possession of a lot of their collection -- unclaimed inventory from the customs warehouses.

Mazzanti was kind enough to dupe the film on DVD and send me a copy. A hastily stitched together version updated to include the outbreak of World War II in Europe, it is a bit of a mess, not the gangbuster revelation I had hoped for. The first half or so seems to be from the original 1934 version and includes some striking footage of Vanderbilt on the streets of Vienna and Berlin amid Nazi brownshirts, footage I have never before seen in any archival documentary. The money shot is a truly bizarre sequence reenacting a brief interview Vanderbilt conducted with Hitler on the eve of the Nazis' victory in the Reichstag in March 1933. Vanderbilt confronts the faux Hitler's face and asks, "And what about the Jews, your Excellency?" Hitler brushes him off.

I can only surmise that sometime between the outbreak of World War II in Europe and the Nazi invasion of Belgium in May 1940, a Belgium film distributor ordered a print of Hitler’s Reign -- probably from London. The print arrived in Brussels sometime in that interim, but when the Nazis invaded Belgium, the distributor didn’t want to be in possession of an anti-Nazi film, so he never came by the customs office to pick up the print. For their part, customs officials were not likely to advertise their possession of same. Sometime after the end of the war, the unclaimed print fell into the hands of the Belgium Royale Film Archive.

There are tentative plans afoot for the Royal Film Archive and the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University to cooperate on a full-blown restoration. Of course, someday I would like to achieve a kind of archival closure, as it were by visiting Nicola Mazzzanti's film archive. At the end of the visit, it would be only fitting to steal a line from the reporter in Citizen Kane when he exists the Thatcher Library -- a line which he says sardonically and I would say sincerely: "Thanks for the use of the hall."

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