Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Film or Video?

Motion picture film enthusiasts can revel in more than a century of people and places, the artistry of Bergman or Hitchcock, the shimmering beauty of nitrate prints, all preserved on film, which boasted a golden age before videotape was born. Hollywood's film industry was an actor's dream and a tourist's destination before tape existed. Early TV shows were preserved not on tape but on film taken by pointing a motion picture camera at a television screen. Movies offered a brief escape from the Great Depression; television is now derided as the opiate of the masses. But if you associate video with television, videotape may win the numbers game with film because American homes hold so many TV sets. Yet it seems that film has the edge.

But I'm thinking labels (again). The archives relies on labels to identify the content of audiovisual materials. A vague or incorrect label--or even worse, no label at all--lowers the preservation priority of the item to which it is affixed. When we've got thousands of sound and moving-image materials identified with good labels, the poorly identified ones inevitably fall to the bottom of the work plan--unless we can play them back.

Playback can be problematic. We can only play an item if we've got the right equipment, which is often lacking. In addition, in our efforts to preserve the material, we play archival sound recordings and moving images only once, during the reformatting process.

That leaves the simplest operation: carefully unwinding the reel and eyeballing the content. Videotape is magnetic, existing as particles on a tape base. It looks black, undeveloped, opaque. You can't discern anything when it has been unwound. Film is optical, a sequence of photographs. Look at it with a light box, and you can see the images, overcoming the obstacle of a missing or damaged label. Score one for film!

Frames from film of German Day ceremonies held in Hindenburg Park, Los Angeles, 1936, Warren Olney motion picture film, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The King’s Speech Found in an Attic

By now many will have seen The King’s Speech, the excellent movie about the relationship between Britain’s King George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. And many will have watched the Academy Awards in February, when the movie won four Oscars, including for best picture. (By the way, weren’t the dresses fabulous? Except maybe…but I digress.)

For an archivist, however, most interesting of all was the February 20 episode of 60 Minutes, which had a segment on the movie’s production. CBS’s Scott Pelley interviewed David Seidler, the scriptwriter, who had received permission from the Queen Mother as early as 1977 to publicize the story. But he could only do so after her death, which came in 2002; Seidler proceeded with the project in earnest as soon as he heard the news.

To flesh out Logue’s character, researchers for the film needed photos. Fortunately, they were able to locate his grandson Mark, who not only had photos of his grandfather but also his diaries, and not just diaries! When rummaging through the family’s archive in the proverbial attic, Mark Logue and the movie team discovered documents that not even the family knew it had: more than hundred letters between Logue and the king, revealing how much their professional relationship had evolved into friendship; appointment cards showing hour-long sessions daily, including weekends; and…THE speech! Yes, the original version drafted by the king’s entourage and typed on Buckingham Palace stationery but annotated by Logue, with some words crossed out and replaced with ones easier for the king to pronounce and with vertical marks indicating the optimal moments for him to take a breath.

Of course, the movie producers did have at their disposal—and did use—the official audio recording of the king’s famous speech of September 3, 1939, in which he announces that Britain has declared war on Germany following Germany’s invasion of Poland, but it’s hard to imagine this crucial scene in the movie without this annotated version of the speech, with Logue guiding the king through it word by word, as the camera zooms in on those vertical lines.

Moral of the story: when doing research in our library and archives, don’t look for just one thing and don’t stop looking even if you find that one thing.

Postcard depicting the royal family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day, May 12, 1937, including Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth (sorry, Queen Elizabeth and King George VI). Mrs. Leland E. Cofer papers, envelope D, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Money Ball

Over the years, the Commonwealth Club of California has featured such noted speakers as Milton Friedman, Cesar Chavez, William Shockley, Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker, and Billy Beane. Because the club is interested in all aspects of life, its collection here at Hoover includes materials related to some things one might not expect, such as professional sports in the Bay Area, especially baseball. With the new baseball season just underway, I thought it might be interesting to highlight this.

Going back to at least 1954, the club’s sports events have not been superfluous entertainment but generally concern things of economic (and social) importance. For example, Mayor Frank Jordan dedicated half of his talk to what his administration was doing to keep the Giants in San Francisco. Other events of the era concerned the same topic. Revenues and salaries come up as well, as does drug use by athletes. Baseball’s movers and shakers have visited the club pretty regularly and they’re still at it.

The Commission for Relief in Belgium (C.R.B.) Delegates baseball team, playing its only game on Independence Day, 1916 in Brussels, Belgium. Philip S. Platt is at bat. Philip S. Platt collection, photo file, Hoover Institution Archives