Hollywood's New Temple of Film


It was absolutely in keeping with the roaring confidence of the Southern California '20s that Beverly Hills chose to build its mundane civic waterworks in the form of an Italian church, with a splendid bell tower that suggested the structure at La Cienega and Olympic boulevards was Our Lady of the Waters, or possibly of Thirst.

The waterworks, built in 1928, was damaged by the 1971 earthquake but stayed in use until 1976, when Beverly Hills started buying its water from the Metropolitan Water District. The building, empty and subject to vandalism, became an item of dispute between preservationists, anxious to save a unique landmark, and locals who wanted it torn down to expand La Cienega Park, in which it sits.

Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was casting about for a new home for its sorely overcrowded library. Its massive holdings fill not only the library itself on Wilshire Boulevard but space in three nearby warehouses.

A feasibility study showed that the waterworks could be brought up to earthquake-proof standards. The building could acquire a new wing that would echo the Italianate design and preserve the waterworks' landmark status. The academy negotiated a 55-year lease with the City of Beverly Hills, earmarked $5 million for the renovation and expansion to the designs of architect Frances Offenhauser, and hopes to move in sometime this fall.

The new building will have between three and four times the capacity of the old. "We calculated the volume by which our holdings are increasing annually," says Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy, "and we project we're OK well into the next century."

The bulk of the money the academy earns every year by televising its Academy Awards presentation goes to support the library and its staff of 32 headed by Linda Harris Mehr. The library was founded in 1931 and named for Margaret Herrick, its longtime librarian (who by academy legend said the award statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar, and thus gave his name, and its, to history).

The other morning, Karl Malden, current president of the academy; Davis; film executive Robert Rehme, who heads the Academy Foundation, which sees to its finances, and John Pavlik, who is heading up a fund-drive in behalf of the library, gave a hard-hat tour of the construction.

The library's collection of 12,000 films will now be housed in great concrete vaults through which the water was once filtered. On the second level, amid the rude concrete, the dust and the scaffolding, it is possible to see what a sunlit pleasure the main reading room will be, with both clerestory windows above and large wall windows that will have window seats before them.

A parking structure is under construction and, to preserve the amenities of La Cienega Park, it will be roofed with tennis courts. By present plan, Malden says, a pedestrian overpass will link the park with the ball diamonds across La Cienega.

Before the site tour, Mehr gave visitors a glimpse of the library's riches, which, to anyone seriously (or only casually) interested in the history of the American cinema, are very rich indeed.

Margaret Herrick's first goal for the library was to acquire every book in English on the movies. The total is now 18,000 and it grows by roughly 600 to 800 titles a year, the majority of which have made use one way or another of the library's resources.

Those include files of clippings on 73,000 individuals--actors, producers, directors, writers, technicians, even the odd critic is included. There are clippings, and often stills and production notes, on more than 82,000 films. There are 5 million--count 'em, 5 million--still photographs. The library has 5,000 scripts, including such illuminating items as Fred Zinnemann's own heavily annotated script for "High Noon," with "CLOCK" penciled in in capitals where he wanted those suspense-building inserts of the approach to noon.

There are such oddments as a piece of Columbia Pictures stationery on which Rita Hayworth imprinted her lips and added an autograph. There is a copy of Eadweard Muybridge's historic 1881 book of photographs, "Attitudes of Animals in Motion." Conceived to settle a bet with Leland Stanford as to whether all four of a running horse's feet are off the ground at the same time, the succession of stills are in a sense a motion picture (and showed all four feet off the ground). The book is autographed by Muybridge.

For those who would explore the earliest days of the movies, the library has the earliest trade paper, Views and Film Index, from 1906, as well as the other pioneer trades: Motion Picture Herald, Motion Picture Story Magazine and Photoplay, which began in 1915. The library subscribes to 200 publications and clips 75 of them.

Over the years, the library has acquired some invaluable collections: the papers of John Huston, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock among others. There are some of the storyboard sketches by which Hitchcock planned his films in such detail. The collection also includes the tapes of the long interview Hitchcock did with Francois Truffaut. The papers of Stevens, who began as a cinematographer, contain some Laurel and Hardy scripts as well as Stevens' working script for "Gunga Din." There are as well the papers of George Cukor and Sam Peckinpah, Colleen Moore and Richard Barthelmess, Hedda and Louella and Sidney Skolsky.

Recently, the library acquired the files of the late Marty Weiser, a veteran Warner Bros. publicist whose imaginative publicity stunts, in an era when they could be very ingenious indeed, gave him legendary status among his peers. One fascinating item the cataloguers have already unearthed: a memo to Weiser in Hollywood from his boss in New York, Charles Einfeld, ordering Weiser to give Humphrey Bogart the star-making treatment and telling Weiser how to go about it. (Play down the gangster-role image for a start. "Sell Bogart romantically," said Einfeld's memo. Flood the papers with stills, he added.)

About 14,000 researchers come to use the library each year. (None of the materials leave the library and security is tight.) In addition, the library's researchers answer nearly 30,000 telephone inquiries a year, taking calls every weekday but Wednesday. ("Thursday afternoon is heaviest; we've never been sure quite why," Mehr says.)

To give the library a permanent endowment, freeing it from a year-to-year dependence on the television revenues, the academy has launched a $15-million fund drive. The first major gifts from the studios and production companies are in, to a total of $3.5 million.

The industry as such was notoriously casual about its own history, reflecting what was thought to be the swift commercial perishability of the product. The resulting loss is so many silent films--and of so many early talking films, not to mention the fading of even fairly recent color films--is mournful, bordering on the tragic.

But the academy took the lead, early on, in looking to preserve the documentary history of an art form that was then hardly three decades old. Now it has been given some of the studios' own archives to preserve (all of Paramount's still and press materials, for example). Under a special grant, the library is microfilming several thousand core files. It is also rewashing production stills to prevent fading and discoloring.

The new library will be livelier than a church, real or fake, but it will not so inappropriately have something about it of a temple to honor film past, present and future.

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