The Film and Media Collections of The Museum of Modern Art
Produced by the Department of Publications The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1996
“My task which I am trying to achieve is… before all, to make you see.”
In 1935 The Museum of Modern Art established the Film Library, the first department in an American art museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, and exhibition of film as an art form. For at least a decade before that, the Museum’s founding Director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., had been deeply engaged in film culture, attending screenings whenever possible and meeting and corresponding with filmmakers in the United States and across Europe. As a result of this activity, Barr recognized early on that motion pictures were central to the modern experience, and he was determined to include them in any museum of art with which he might be associated. With the hiring of Iris Barry—a British film critic whose work Barr knew and respected and whose passion for and untiring efforts on behalf of the art of the cinema would become legendary—as the Museum’s first curator of film and the appointment of Trustee and film-industry executive John Hay Whitney as the new Film Library’s energetic first chairman, a solid foundation was laid for this new way of thinking about and presenting film.
In 1939, the same year that Whitney and Selznick released Gone with the Wind, The Museum of Modern Art opened its permanent home on West Fifty-third Street in Manhattan and launched the first museum-based film-exhibition program in America. With prompting from Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffith was persuaded to deposit his films and papers at the Museum, enabling the first major retrospective of a film artist to be assembled. D. W. Griffith: American Film Master set the standard for the presentation and analysis of the masters of this new art form. Today the permanent collection contains more than twenty thousand titles and ranks as the world’s finest museum archives of international film, video, and media art.
The Biograph Company’s motion picture negatives, business records, and salvageable equipment were put into storage until 1939, when Iris Barry, The Museum of Modern Art’s first film curator, was asked by the Actinograph Corporation, a holding company, to take the material into the Museum’s collections. Barry agreed, and the Biograph Collection—combined with the D. W. Griffith Collection acquired the previous year—became the heart of the Museum’s new film archive. Preservation of the collection began almost immediately. The vast bulk of the materials consisted of original camera negatives that were of a nonstandard “one hole” type unique to the Biograph Company, and that required the use of a specially adapted printing machine to transfer them to 35mm film stock. Former Biograph cameraman and Griffith collaborator G. W. “Billy” Bitzer assisted the Museum’s staff in this project, resulting shortly thereafter in the first public exhibitions of Biograph films in nearly thirty years. In the decades since, and with the help of a generous bequest from Lillian Gish, die Museum has continued to preserve this precious cultural heritage for future generations.
As Lillian Gish remembered it, she and her sister Dorothy turned up at the Biograph studio one day in July of 1912 to visit their good friend Gladys Smith (better known in theater and film circles as Mary Pickford). In short order, the two young women met D. W. Griffith and were cast in this otherwise unremarkable melodrama about a pair of orphan girls who are menaced by thieves. A noteworthy example of Griffith’s uncanny ability to make an entertaining film from slight material, An Unseen Enemy has become best known as the joint debut of two actresses who would soon become industry icons. A critic of the time acknowledged that although “not yet actresses,” the Gish sisters gave “charming” performances in this one-reel film, adding that Biograph was “a good place to learn acting.”
D. W. Griffith set some of his most important Biograph films—The Song of the Shirt (1908), Money Mad (1908), A Child ofthe Ghetto (1910), The Lily of the Tenements (1911)—in the ghetto neighborhoods of New York City, and in this he was no different from many other film makers of the time. However, unlike most of his colleagues in the industry, who used such locations primarily as colorful backdrops for standard melodramas, Griffith sought to advance a markedly progressive agenda through these films, one that used melodrama to critique the systemic corruption and vice found in the inner city.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) was part of that cycle of films, but its story is also one of gang warfare and the honor of thieves, of life at its grittiest and most cynical—or, depending on one’s point of view, most realistic. Oddly enough for a film heralded for years as being almost documentary-like in its depiction of the mean streets of the Lower East Side, careful comparison of the storefront scenes with other Biograph releases shows that the film was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey—testimony to Griffith and cinematographer G. W. Bitzer’s creative use of set dressing and camera placement.
After the box office failure of Dream Street (1921), a visually adventurous film that could not find an audience, Griffith turned to a theatrical warhorse for his next project, much as he had done for his last hit, Way Down East (1920). Griffith personally crafted the script by combining Les Deux Orphelines, a popular French melodrama that had its American premiere in 1874 as The Two Orphans, with the historical epic of the French Revolution. Fourteen acres of sets were built on the property surrounding the Mamaroneck studio, and enormous research on the period was undertaken in order to provide the kind of authenticity that audiences had come to expect from Griffith. The result is Griffith’s last undisputed masterwork (and the last time its costars, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, would ever work on a film together, or with their mentor, again). The film was a critical and popular success, but its enormous exploitation costs and unexpected roadshow losses left Griffith and his company in even deeper debt than before.
Photo Gallery – Orphans of the Storm
Photo Gallery – Way Down East