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Film History (2013) - Severed Objects: Spellbound, Archives, Exhibitions, and Film's Material History




Chancing upon the prop scissors from Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) led me to explore the importance of saving film artifacts and the complex process of providing access to them. Examining how they might be presented for public education, I follow the scissors through production notes, photographs, documentaries, a visit to an archive, and a museum exhibit. Each juncture in the journey highlights how conservation can work at cross purposes with education, and how exhibition decisions can turn props into baubles—or into resonant embodiments of the creative labor of filmmaking. Such an experience, I argue, requires archives to accommodate intimate sensory engagements with artifacts.


Severed Objects: Spellbound, Archives, Exhibitions, and Film's Material History

The tinsel and sawdust that Hollywood generates have a short shelf life. Mundane elements are momentarily animated by a camera and actors and then abruptly recycled for another production — or, occasionally, gifted to an archive. A producer, director, star, secretary, wardrobe assistant, or estate manager believes that a pair of ruby slippers, or even a fake box of soap, holds a significant cinematic essence. salvaged, the thing hopefully filters into an archive to make the filmmaking process clear to the public. One of the more compelling rescued artifacts is the gigantic scissors prop from the psychological melodrama Spellbound (1945). Created for the film's celebrated dream sequence — a joint venture between painter Salvador Dali, director Alfred Hitchcock, and producer David O. Selznick — the scissors were transferred between 1981 and 1995 from Selznick's personal holdings in California, and the oversight of his two sons, to his official collection, open to researchers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.1

Debates over film's material byproducts beyond negatives, prints, and various home-release formats are increasing.2 surveys of stars' personal effects, and enduring markets for collectibles from posters to obsolete equipment, underline the singularity with which objects encapsulate events, memories, and meanings.3 For props like the titular bird from The Maltese Falcon (1941), Vivian sobchack attests to their elusive status as mere hunks of stuff and their power to foster a limitless "gyre" of fantasies, myths, and values.4 Sobchack's study also implicitly suggests that examining props necessitates substantial connections to collectors and the film industry. Sets, costumes, and props are not systematically saved for research, given their likely reuse, the costs of preservation, and the limitations of storage space. It is also difficult to curate artifacts so that they provide insights into filmmaking not already available through other materials.5

Entering into the debate, I highlight the importance of saving film artifacts and, more importantly, providing access to them.6 Access, I believe, entails recognizing artifacts' trajectories over time through an intersecting prism of disparate documents and experiences.7 I follow the scissors through Spellbound, production notes, photographs, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a visit to the Ransom Center's reading room, and a trip to see the prop in an exhibit. Each form and display directs my attention toward distinct concerns surrounding the scissors and props in general: the embodiment of otherwise unrecorded creative labor, conservation practices, and exhibition decisions made by archives and museums.

The latter, I argue, determines what kinds of knowledge props like the scissors convey, particularly if institutions (purposefully or unwittingly) accommodate intimate, extended sensory engagements with artifacts. In an era lacking standardized guidelines for film object preservation and presentation, props are wild cards. Treated as educational instruments, they reveal film history as a boldly material phenomenon. Props offer an experience and communion with the past that is felt rather than read or viewed, which puts us in touch — quite literally — with the systems of workers who have long constructed much of what is seen onscreen.8 Artifacts, both for cinema and for other histories, then, have a spectacular and subtle way of bringing the forgotten and anonymous to the foreground.


Notwithstanding the scissors, Spellbound itself encourages a material reading. The film centers upon a young psychiatrist, Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), who falls for amnesiac John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck), desperate to uncover the source of his neurosis and clear his name of murder. Through analysis of dreams and memories, the lovers resolve Ballantyne's condition and prove his innocence. Within the plot, the scissors are one in a series of sharp items, from letter openers to skis and straight razors that double as mnemonic devices for Ballantyne's tortured past. in the film, the scissors appear only once, in the "gambling room" of the dream sequence, slicing through eyeball-covered drapes surrounding the space.

Intensifying the emphasis on objects, Hitchcock and scriptwriter Ben Hecht campaigned for Selznick to fund Salvador Dali as the designer of Ballantyne's dream,...

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  1. Thomas Schatz, e-mail message to author, March 28, 2011.
  2. The foundation for discussions about mise-en-scene as they operate on-screen remains David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). The haptic, affective nature of film viewing and the cinematic image, however, has been greatly expanded by Vivian Sobchack, "Film Theory and the Objectification of Embodied Vision," in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 14-25. See also Laura U. Marks, "Loving a Disappearing Image," in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 91-122. Considerations of film as a physical form are incredibly numerous. The most salient to this discussion of archives and preservation are Phil Wickham, "Scrapbooks, Soap Dishes, and Screen Dreams: Ephemera, Everyday Life, and Cinema History," New Review of Film and Television Studies 8, no. 3 (2010): 315-30; Karen Gracy, "Documenting the Process of Film Preservation," The Moving Image 3, no. 1 (2003): 2-41; David Pierce, "The Legion of the Condemned — Why American Silent Films Perished," Film History 9, no. 1 (1997): 5-22; and The Film Preservation Guide: The Basics for Archives, Libraries, and Museums (San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2004). On the materiality of home-release formats, see Lucas Hildebrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Beyond media forms, an equally strong strain of material anthropology examines artifacts within archival contexts. To my mind, the best overviews of the field are Ewa Domanska, "The Material Presence of the Past," History and Theory 45, no. 3 (2006): 337-48; and Frank Trentmann, "Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics," Journal of British Studies 48, no. 2 (2009): 283-307.
  3. Mary Desjardins, "Ephemeral Culture / eBay Culture: Film Collectibles and Fan Investments," in Everyday eBay: Culture, Collecting and Desire, ed. Ken Hillis, Michael Petit, and Nathan Scott Epley (New York: Routledge, 2006), 31-45.
  4. Vivian Sobchack, "Chasing the Maltese Falcon: On the Fabrications of a Film Prop," Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 2 (2007): 220, 239.
  5. Steve Wilson, e-mail message to author, March 15, 2011.
  6. Amelie Hastie, "Detritus and the Moving Image: Ephemera, Materiality, History," Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 2 (2007): 171-74.
  7. Amelie Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 9.
  8. My use of the term communion comes from Michael Lesy's discussion of literally being intouch with an itinerant photographer's collection of stills in the Library of Congress. See Lesy, "Visual Literacy," Journal of American History, no. 94 (2007): 143-53.
  9. David O. Selznick to Mr. King and Mr. O'Shea, 17 July 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
  10. Leonard Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987), 138-39.
  11. Ibid., 155.
  12. Hitchcock's directorial status has regularly been based upon his approach to objects. They are often imbued with a foreboding animism that Hitchcock uses to construct a sense of tone while referencing a kind of unknowable parallel universe, a second life embedded in objects that becomes briefly apparent to characters. See Joe McElhaney, "The Object and the Face," in Hitchcock: Past and Future, ed. Richard Allen and Sam Ishii-Gonzales (New York: Routledge, 2004), 64-66.
  13. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick, 139-40, 152.
  14. Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosity, 9.
  15. Ibid., 27.
  16. Sobchack, "Chasing the Maltese Falcon," 227.
  17. David O. Selznick to Dan O'Shea, Richard Johnston, 25 July 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  18. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick, 152.
  19. David O. Selznick to Richard Johnston, 10 July 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  20. "Shooting Schedule: Dream Sequence," 24 August 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  21. Dawn Ades, Dali's Optical Illusions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 154.
  22. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick, 159.
  23. Ibid., 157-58.
  24. The memo that truly clinches the tumultuous nature of the dream sequence shoot is David O. Selznick to Mr. O'Shea, cc: Messrs. Johnston, Basevi, Hal Kern, Miss Keon, Spellbound — Dream Sequence, 25 October 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Felix Ferry to David O. Selznick, 20 October 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  27. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Da Capo Press, 277.
  28. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick, 115-74; and Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 381-407.
  29. Selznick's tornado of memos is the stuff of legend. See Rudy Behlmer, Memo from David O. Selznick (New York: Random House, 2000).
  30. Sobchack, "Chasing the Maltese Falcon," 230-33.
  31. Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosity, 4.
  32. Janet Staiger, "The Hollywood Mode of Production: 1930-1960," in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, 309-38; Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1993); and Gerald Horne, Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
  33. "Production Still of Dali Directing Final Touches," 1945, box 4536, SHE-X-291, David O. Selznick Collection.
  34. Hastie, "Detritus and the Moving Image," 172; and James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 255.
  35. Rhys Thomas, "The Ruby Slippers: A Journey to the Land of Oz," Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1988, http://articles.latimes.com/1988-03-13/entertainment/ca-1511_1_ruby- slipper; Monte Burke, "Inside the Search for Dorothy's Slippers," Forbes, December 3, 2008, http://www.forbes.com/2008/12/03/wizard-slippers-collection-forbeslife-cx_ mb_1203slippers.html; Lee Margulies, "Ruby Slippers Find a New Home at Movie Academy," Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2012, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/ 2012/02/wizard-of-oz-ruby-slippers-new-home-movie-academy.html; and Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 1992).
  36. Sobchack, "Chasing the Maltese Falcon," 238. She mentions that the falcon from the original 1931 film does not have nearly the same appeal as the prop from the 1941 Bogart version. Not all props possess a similarly strong aura.
  37. Umberto Eco, "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," in Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 199.
  38. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 151.
  39. Sobchack, "Chasing the Maltese Falcon," 221-23.
  40. Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosity, 3, 5, 19-71.
  41. Carolyn Steedman is absolutely unparalleled in her discussion of how the body is always implicated (sometimes deleteriously) in interactions with elements of the past in the archive. See Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), particularly chap. 2, "'Something She Called a Fever': Michelet, Derrida, and Dust," 17-37.
  42. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 10.
  43. Elizabeth Edwards, "Photography and the Material Performance of the Past," History and Theory 48, no. 4 (2009): 141-48.
  44. Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (New York: New Directions Press, 1939), 132.
  45. Glenn Willumson, "Making Meaning: Displaced Materiality in the Library and Art Museum," in Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, ed. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (New York: Routledge, 2004), 62.
  46. G. Thomas Tanselle, "A Rationale of Collecting," Studies in Bibliography 51 (1998): 12.
  47. Edwards, "Photography," 135-36, 148.
  48. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Silent Cinema: An Introduction (London: British Film Institute, 2000), 66. On the thorny issue of how preserved films should be exhibited, Haidee Wasson's Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) provides an excellent investigation into how institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art historically delineated film preservation as synonymous with very specific screening practices.
  49. Steve Wilson, e-mail message to author, April 1, 2011.
  50. Gillian Rose, "Practicing Photography: An Archive, a Study, Some Photographs, and a Researcher," Journal of Historical Geography 26, no. 4 (2000): 567.
  51. Robert Lamm, "Where I Want to Go for Summer Vacation: Film/Video Museums around the World," The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers / New England Newsletter, June 1995, accessed May 24, 2013, http://www.smpte-ne.org/articles/museums.html.
  52. "What's in a Name?," Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Update 2, no. 1, accessed February 20, 2011, http://www.moviemuseum.org/newsletters/vol2/06.html.
  53. Dominique Paini and Guy Cogeval, eds., Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences (Rome: Mazzotta Edizione, 2000).
  54. Christina White, "The Fine Art of Fear," Time, July 23, 2001, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2047384,00.html#ixzz2Cd8KYUEi.
  55. Ades, Dali's Optical Illusions, 154. The Ransom Center has a dearth of holdings with a link to the painter. Only photocopied charcoal sketches of various dreamscapes are included in the Selznick Collection, along with the publicity stills of the painter on the set and memos about his involvement. The lack of objects stems from the contract brokered between Dali and the producer.
  56. Felix Ferry to David O. Selznick, 2 August 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  57. A detailed electronic version of the exhibit is available at the MoMA website; accessed May 24, 2013, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2008/dali/.
  58. Robert Dann to Dan O'Shea, Hal Kern, 30 October 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection; Robert Dann to Dan O'Shea and David O. Selznick, 9 January 1945, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection; and Fred Ahern to Robert Dann, 10 January 1945, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection.
  59. Selznick's note to his lawyer Robert Dann is especially illustrative of how Dali's work on set was amended without consideration of his original authorial intent: "How much privilege do we have to do what we please with the Dali paintings? We're going to absolutely require complete freedom to use these paintings in any way we see fit, including repainting them for tonal values, adding to them or subtracting from them, building sections of them based on the paintings, et cetera. Please advise me immediately. DOS" (David O. Selznick to Robert Dann, 28 October 1944, box 230, folder 230.14, David O. Selznick Collection).
  60. Making Movies, February 9-August 10, 2010, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
  61. Rosalind Krauss, "Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View," Art Journal 42, no. 4 (1982): 311-19.
  62. On the subject of fandom's reliance upon a commercial exchange of material artifacts in order to satisfy desires for proximity to stars, see Desjardins, "Ephemeral Culture / eBay Culture."