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Discover A Trove Of Hollywood Treasures At The Motion Picture Academy Library

Jul 27, 2015
Originally published on July 27, 2015 2:21 pm

Summer blockbuster season is upon us. Dinosaurs, little yellow minions, an ant-man, all vying for our hard-earned entertainment dollars. But if you're looking for gentler thrills, try the Library of the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills. There, you can poke through artifacts from the movies' golden years.

The Margaret Herrick Library's vaults contain millions of pieces of paper holdings — director's shooting scripts, photos, production designs, payrolls and, of course, fan mail.

In one letter, in labored teenage handwriting on lined notebook paper, an 18-year-old fan writes to director George Roy Hill, who'd just won the 1974 Oscar for Best Director:

Dear Mr. Hill,

Seeing that ... I have seen your fantastically entertaining and award-winning film "The Sting," starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and enjoyed it very much, it is all together fitting and proper that you should "discover" me.

The kid really had nerve! He continues:

Now, right away I know what you are thinking ("who is this kid?"), and I can understand your apprehensions. I am a nobody. No one outside of Skyline High School has heard of me. ... My looks are not stunning. I am not built like a Greek God, and I can't even grow a mustache, but I figure if people will pay to see certain films ... they will pay to see me.

More of the letter — and the identity of the letter-writer in a moment — but first, let's dig further into the movie library's vault. Archivist Howard Prouty presides over shelves of studio art department records, contracts, production documents and ledgers — with handwritten entries of weekly salaries for everyone from electricians and messenger boys, to top stars.

"We have payroll records from MGM in the 1920s that will tell you how much money Greta Garbo made in 1926, how much money Lucille Lesueur made in 1926 before she became Joan Crawford," Prouty says.

MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer made $2,000 a week. Greta Garbo? In 1926, just $400.

"Greta Garbo was in the first year of her contract at MGM, so she was essentially on probation, to see if she was going to work out or go back to Sweden," says Prouty.

That teenage letter-writer would one day earn millions more than Garbo — but he didn't know it in 1974 when he proposed this to director George Roy Hill:

Let's work out the details of my discovery. We can do it the way Lana Turner was discovered, me sitting on a soda shop stool, you walk in and notice me and — BANGO — I am a star.

Down the hall from BANGO boy, the film library has a large plexiglass box covered with a big piece of muslin, on which there's a sign that says: "Caution, lion inside."

Inside the box is the Cowardly Lion headdress, with little pink ears and a mane and beard made of blonde human hair. The headdress was donated by makeup man Charles Schramm. In 1938 his job at MGM every morning was to turn actor Bert Lahr into a lion with bravery issues.

The lion's wig, along with a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers, will go to the academy's film museum, set to open in 2017. The museum will have costumes, too — and the Academy Library has sketches for those costumes.

Graphic arts librarian Anne Coco pulls out a watercolor that costume designers consider the holy grail: It's the design for the famous "curtain dress" from Gone with the Wind.

Scarlett O'Hara is out of money, has taxes to pay, and decides to ask her nemesis Rhett Butler for a loan. Scarlett knows she has to look terrific to call on him, so she pulls down the green drapes in her drawing room, and has them made into a dress.

She looked great in the movie, but it took television to make the drapery dress a star. "In 1976 it really gained icon status when Bob Mackie did that very famous riff on it with Carol Burnett," Coco explains. In this bit, Burnett neglects to remove the curtain rod from the drapery, so her dress has extremely broad shoulders.

"That dress is gorgeous," Harvey Korman as Rhett tells her.

"Thank you. I saw it in the window and I just couldn't resist," Burnett replies.

Costume designer Walter Plunkett's watercolor of Scarlett's dress omits the curtain rod, but librarian Anne Coco admires the elegant precision of the drawing of the fabric. Looking at the watercolor, Coco says, "I feel like you can brush your hand on it and it feels like velvet."

It's likely that the ambitious young letter-writer was more casually dressed when he wrote to director George Roy Hill all those years ago. But, like Scarlett, he had starry-eyed schemes:

Or maybe we can do it this way. I stumble into your office one day and beg for a job. To get rid of me, you give me a stand-in part in your next film. While shooting the film, the star breaks his leg in the dressing room, and, because you are behind schedule already, you arbitrarily place me in his part and — BANGO — I am a star.

All of these plans are fine with me, or we could do it any way you would like, it makes no difference to me! But let's get one thing straight. Mr. Hill, I do not want to be some bigtime, Hollywood superstar with girls crawling all over me, just a hometown American boy who has hit the big-time, owns a Porsche, and calls Robert Redford "Bob".

Respectfully submitted,
Your Pal Forever,
Thomas J. Hanks
Alameda, California

Thomas J. Hanks' letter, written when he was 18, illuminates a piece of movie history, preserved, along with millions of other film ephemera, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library in Los Angeles.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The summer blockbuster season is upon us. Dinosaurs, little yellow minions, an ant-man all vying for our entertainment dollars. In search of gentler thrills, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to the Library of the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills to poke through artifacts from the movies' Golden Years.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's freezing in here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know, I told you...

STAMBERG: The Margaret Herrick Library's vaults are cold to preserve their millions of pieces of paper holdings - directors' shooting scripts, photos, production designs, payrolls, fan mail, like this letter in labored teenage handwriting on lined notebook paper from an 18-year-old fan to director George Roy Hill, who had just won the 1974 Oscar for best director.

SILAS GORDON BRIGHAM: (Reading) Dear Mr. Hill, seeing that I have seen your fantastically entertaining and award-winning film "The Sting," starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and enjoyed it very much, it is altogether fitting and proper that you should discover me.

STAMBERG: You've got to like this fellow. He's got nerve.

BRIGHAM: (Reading) Now, right away, I know what you are thinking - who is this kid? And I can understand your apprehensions. I am a nobody. No one outside of Skyline High School has heard of me. My looks are not stunning. I am not built like a Greek God, and I can't even grow a mustache. But I figure if people will pay to see certain films, they will pay to see me.

STAMBERG: More of the letter - and the identity of the letter-writer in a moment, or two - but first, more from the movie library's vault, where archivist Howard Prouty presides over shelves of studio art department records, contracts, production documents, ledgers with handwritten entries of weekly salaries for everyone from electricians and messenger boys to top stars.

HOWARD PROUTY: We have payroll records from MGM from the 1920s that will tell you how much money Greta Garbo made in 1926, how much money Lucille Lesueur made in 1926 - Lucille Lesueur before she became Joan Crawford.

STAMBERG: MGM Studio head Louis B. Mayer made 2,000 a week. Greta Garbo? In 1926, just $400.

PROUTY: Greta Garbo was in the first year of her contract at MGM, so she was essentially on probation, to see if she was going to work out or if she was going to go back to Sweden.

STAMBERG: Now, that teenage letter-writer would earn millions more than Garbo, but he didn't know it in 1974, when he proposed this to director George Roy Hill.

BRIGHAM: (Reading) Let's work out the details of my discovery. We can do it the way Lana Turner was discovered - me sitting on a soda shop stool, you walk in and notice me and - BANGO (ph) - I am a star.

STAMBERG: Down the hall from bango boy, the film library has a large Plexiglas box covered with a big piece of muslin, on which there's a sign.

And it says caution, lion inside. Do you think you could lift that covering for me?

PROUTY: Let's see what's inside.

STAMBERG: (Laughter) It's the Cowardly Lion's headdress - little pink years, a mane and beard made of human hair, blonde, donated by make-up man Charles Schramm. In 1938, his job every morning from 7 to 8 a.m. at MGM was to turn actor Bert Lahr into a lion with bravery issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

BERT LAHR: (As Cowardly Lion) You're right, I am a coward. I haven't any courage at all. I even scare myself.

STAMBERG: The lion's wig, along with a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers, will go to the Academy's film museum, set to open in 2017. The museum will have costumes too, but the Academy library has sketches for costumes. Graphic arts librarian Anne Coco hauls a big flat box off her cart and pulls out a watercolor that costume designers consider the Holy Grail.

ANNE COCO: This is a drawing for "Gone With The Wind."

STAMBERG: Wrapped in special archival tissue paper. Oh, my goodness, look at this.

COCO: Yeah. It's a very famous green curtain dress...

STAMBERG: It's the drapery dress.

COCO: ...From "Gone With The Wind." Yeah.

STAMBERG: Scarlett O'Hara is out of money, has taxes to pay and decides to ask her nemesis Rhett Butler for a loan. Scarlett has to look terrific to call on him, so she pulls down the green drapes in her drawing room and has them made into a dress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

VIVIEN LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Great balls of fire. They're my portieres now. I'm going to a man for that $300, and I've got to go looking like a queen.

STAMBERG: She did look great in the movie, but it took television to make the drapery dress a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW")

CAROL BURNETT: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Just help me take these down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Well, what are you doing that for?

BURNETT: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Never you mind, now...

COCO: In 1976, it really gained icon status when Bob Mackie did that very famous riff on it, right, with Carol Burnett?

STAMBERG: For Carol Burnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW")

BURNETT: (As Scarlett O'Hara) I've got me a dress to make.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yes.

STAMBERG: Carol Burnett and the curtain rod. She forgets to take the rod off the drapery, so she comes down with extremely broad shoulders.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Scarlet, that gown is gorgeous.

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: (As Scarlett O'Hara) Thank you. I saw it in the window, and I just couldn't resist it.

STAMBERG: Costume designer Walter Plunkett's watercolor of Scarlett's dress omits the curtain rod, but Motion Picture Academy librarian Anne Coco admires the elegant precision of the drawing.

COCO: You can see all the detail and the feather that's atop her hat. This is a costume that was made of velvet. And when I look at it, I feel like you could brush your hand on it and it feels like velvet.

STAMBERG: It's likely that the letter-writing bango boy was more casually dressed when he wrote to director George Roy Hill all those years ago. But like Scarlett, he had starry-eyed schemes.

BRIGHAM: (Reading) Or maybe we can do it this way. You give me a stand-in part in your next film. While shooting the film, the star breaks his leg in the dressing room and you arbitrarily place me in his part and - BANGO - I am a star.

STAMBERG: Any idea who the ambitious young letter-writer is? Here's a hint.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")

TOM HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) Do you want a chocolate?

BRIGHAM: (Reading) All of these plans are fine with me. But let's get one thing straight - Mr. Hill, I do not want to be some big-time Hollywood superstar with girls crawling all over me, just a hometown American boy who has hit the big time, owns a Porsche and calls Robert Redford Bob. Respectfully submitted, your pal forever, Thomas J. Hanks, Alameda, Calif.

STAMBERG: Thomas J. Hanks, played by actor Silas Gordon Brigham, hoping to illuminate a piece of movie history, preserved along with millions of others film ephemera at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library in Los Angeles. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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