(Im)memorabilia: Moving Pictures/Still Images
Keystone/Lodestone: Claudette Colbert
Most of the prints in this gallery feature one face. Why this face and not another? I find it difficult to account for my passions. And yet, public display seems to demand justification. I asked film historian James Robert Parish to sum up the significance of the actress whose likeness you see reproduced here:
The life of Hollywood film star Claudette Colbert (1903–1996) is a unique example of self-reliant womanhood in the twentieth century. Colbert, who won a Best Actress Academy Award for It Happened One Night (1934), was the embodiment of modern feminism. Its exceedingly tight control over her work and image reflected a fierce independence that was rare for her era, even in comparison to such strong-willed box-office rivals as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis
.Her legendary business shrewdness made Colbert one of the highest-paid women in the world for decades. None of this detracted from her ability to radiate elegance, glamour, and feminine self-assurance in each of her many performances on stage, film, radio and television.
Lobby Card Stories: Arise, My Love
My enthusiasm for Claudette Colbert dates back to when I was nine years old. I remember watching television with my grandparents and seeing Colbert’s Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night (1934). American movies were highly popular when my grandmother, Ella Gartz (1915–2013), was a young woman. Germany was one of the biggest markets for Hollywood films until the Nazis imposed a ban on their import in 1940.
Grandmother would not have seen Arise, My Love (1940). Colbert’s favourite among her own movies, it was never released in Germany. In the United States, it played in cinemas over a year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. At that time, the US still maintained its neutrality. As the lobby cards suggest, the film’s plot is an uneasy mixture of battle of the sexes and the fight for survival.
In Hollywood movies of the 1940s, Germans were almost universally vilified. The Nazi characters I got to see as a child instilled me with a sense of otherness and a dread of being hated for an accident of birth. Displaying these prints here for the first time is no matter of indifference to me.
Artefacts: Autographic, Photographic, and Biographic
Many collectors of memorabilia live vicariously through their acquisitions. They imagine the past and private lives of the mementos they keep. I never met Claudette Colbert. During my first year at college, I wrote a speech about the actress, which I sent to her home in Barbados. Weeks later, I received the autographed postcard shown elsewhere in this gallery [and pictured left]. Though not personalised, it takes pride of place in my study.
Artefacts do not only capture memories. They generate them. Looking at them, we recall how they entered our lives. My friend, the writer William Schoell, was the long-time domestic partner of biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, whose book on Colbert I cherish. As Bill recalls:
Larry first met Claudette when he was living in Hollywood. Decades later, he wrote his illustrated biography of her. Around that time, Colbert starred on Broadway, so Larry got an invitation to visit with her backstage. He gave her a lifetime achievement award named for his uncle, James R. Quirk, the editor and publisher of Photoplay. If anyone suggested to Larry that he had never actually met Claudette, he would proudly hold up this picture of them together and smile.
Lawrenc J. Quirk died in October 2014, a few weeks before (Im)memorabilia opened.
Lobby Card Stories: Imitation of Life
Lobby cards like these were displayed in cinemas to get moviegoers excited about current or upcoming films. To attract attention, the cards were generally printed in colour, even though most movies of the 1930s and ‘40s were shot in black and white.
The cards were leased to the exhibitor and remained property of the studios. Despite the printed warning that they ‘must not be traded, sold, given away or sub-leased,’ many of them enjoy an afterlife in private collections. That they were issued in sets of eight adds a challenge for the collector: to complete the series.
These promotional prints are designed to suggest a diversity of scenes and characters. In the case of Imitation of Life (1934) they deliberately obscure the film’s central plot: the story of an interracial friendship. The complete set of cards with the print missing from my collection renders this guilt of omission apparent.
Lobby Card Stories: The Seven Year Itch
The first lobby card to enter my collection was given to me by my parents in the early 1980s. As a teenager, I was enamoured with Marilyn Monroe. My parents catered to this fixation. It assuaged their suspicion. Eventually, they realised that it was not my desire to have Marilyn.
Growing up and coming out during the AIDS crisis, I continued to find Monroe’s childlike persona reassuring. I also identified with her vulnerability and her longing for companionship and acceptance. The safe-sex allure of a woman who had died before I was born did not taunt me for my inability to get aroused by her.
Mass-produced ephemera are granted new and private lives by their collectors. Artefacts may become invested with meanings that lie well beyond their intended purpose or current market value. Dismissing the collection of memorabilia as ‘escapism’ may mean to trivialise the realities inscribed in these objects.
Marilyn, Myself and I (1987–2011); digital and digitized photographs, appropriated images, collage and metallic marker
Resonance and Relevance: Lady with a Lamp
As collectors, we often become closely identified with our collections or with the habit of collecting in general. Those around us come to regard certain objects as our characteristics. Adding to our collections, they mould and reconfirm a persona made up of bits and pieces of matter.
These film stills from the British biopic The Lady with a Lamp (1951) were given to me by the former owner of our home here in Aberystwyth. Visiting us shortly after my partner and I had moved in, Mr Roberts took note of my collection of posters and lobby cards; some time afterwards, he presented me with this set of prints.
In the spring of 2014, the images – and the historic events of 1854 they commemorate – gained new currency during the conflict involving Russia and Ukraine over the control of the Crimean Peninsula. Though collections may define their collectors, collectibles remain open to indefinite associations. To enable these connections, collections must be shared.
Souvenirs and Collectibles: Cinegrams
Cinegrams are souvenir programmes that were sold at British movie theatres in the late 1930s. Each sixteen-page booklet contains black-and-white images of scenes from a particular film, a summary of its plot, a cast list, portraits of the leading players as well as tidbits about them.
Only a small number of the promoted films are now considered classics. Many more were run-of-the-mill productions that Cinegram helped to elevate to the status of an event worth memorialising. Some films, such as The Mind of Mr. Reeder, are now lost or forgotten. This turns the ephemeral memento into a nostalgic tease, a glimpse at something impossible to attain and therefore desirable.
Today, Cinegrams are widely traded online. A piece of cinema history, they change hands for a few pounds. Some ephemera live on as outcasts, as keepsakes.
Fleeting Sound, Permanent Record
The satisfaction derived from completing a collection is short-lived. When the number of collectibles is finite or the supply exhausted, many collectors find ways of branching out to keep on collecting.
My love of Hollywood films and my enthusiasm for one actress in particular led me to go in search of her performances in other media. In my undergraduate years, I took a broadcasting class that made me alive to radio adaptations of motion pictures. I began collecting broadcast recordings. Until the late 1990s, they were traded as cassettes or CDs. By the turn of the century, recordings were being shared as MP3 files.
For years I had painstakingly gathered material for a doctoral study on American radio. Suddenly, thousands of historic broadcasts became readily and freely available online. Without hesitation, I discarded my collection. I was not attached to the physical objects. The thought of collecting what is literally of no matter is a fitting climax to my pursuits.
The recordings available for listening in the gallery (and online) are as follows:
- “The Gilded Lily,” Lux Radio Theater, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, David Niven (11 January 1937)
- “It Happened One Night,” Lux Radio Theater, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable (20 March 1939)
- “Midnight,” Lux Radio Theater, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Gale Gordon (20 May 1940)
- “Skylark,” Lux Radio Theater, Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Brian Aherne (2 February 1942)
- “Guest Wife,” Screen Guild programme, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Dick Foran(20 May 1946)
- “The Egg and I,” Lux Radio Theater, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray (5 May 1947)