Author Archives: Adrien Hilton

The Depth of New Yorker Films

Written by Sarah Cassone, Processing Intern Dan Talbot Papers

MS Student, Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University

 

One thing that is striking upon processing the Dan Talbot Papers is the types of materials his company kept and the attention to detail each film was given. When I think about the functions of film distribution companies my immediate thoughts are acquiring, distributing, and publicizing. Talbot’s New Yorker Films seemed to go above and beyond what was required for such a small independent film company.  With a staff of just nine individuals (according to a quick internet search) the amount of material within the Dan Talbot Papers surrounding New Yorker Films is astounding. The collection spans over 500 boxes and includes a variety of materials from printed and audiovisual material to operations files.

 

The most surprising files I’ve found have been the reviews of each film Talbot’s company distributed. Not only does the collection contain both original newspaper clippings as well as copies but these reviews are sometimes broken down by region (for example East Coast and West Coast reviews) and sometimes even more specifically by state. I’ve never considered how much importance a film distribution company would place on film reviews. It seems a little odd to me to collect nearly everything written about the film. As a matter of practice, you would think a film company would care more about how much money the film is making rather than whether or not it is being favorably received. Perhaps it was Talbot’s own history as a former film critic (he wrote for The New York Times in the 1960 as well as The Progressive) as well as his nature as a cinephile that made him want to read and save pages upon pages of reviews.

 

I was also surprised at the detailed marketing attention some of the films in his distribution company received. While it is entirely common for film companies to put together press kits of film synopses and photographs in order to send out to the media, it is quite another to be engaging in the creation of original artwork for the films. The film Peppermint Soda, a 1977 coming of age French film, directed by Diane Kurys and distributed by New Yorker Films, features some incredibly stunning hand drawn art, from full posters and transparencies to individual prints.

The above poster and transparency for the film were created by Floc’h, a French artist who previously collaborated with director Jacques Rivette. It is likely he’d already provided his services prior to Talbot’s acquisition of the title, as Gaumont films originally had the rights to the film. Regardless, the detail in marketing and publicity for Peppermint Soda is so specific to the film’s content and genre and was clearly given a lot of time and focus after Talbot’s acquisition of the title.

 

Many files within the Dan Talbot Papers contain ads for films. These would appear in newspapers and magazines and are usually presented with quotes. They are normally stills from the film. The ads for Peppermint Soda, however, contain original 8 1/2 by 11 hand drawn black and white illustrations, based upon scenes in the film.

Some of this artwork was then set within print newspaper ads.

From my experience processing thus far, it appears that Talbot kept all the print ads to most of his films, from each publication they appeared in. The Dan Talbot Papers are not only a treasure trove of material from the independent and foreign film scene for cinephiles, researchers, and scholars alike but the collection also provides insight into the inner workings of an independent distribution company and just how far that role extends.

The Death of the Guest Book

Written by Sarah Cassone, Processing Intern Dan Talbot Papers

MS student, Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University

 

I’m currently working on processing the Dan Talbot Papers at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University. The Dan Talbot Papers were acquired by RBML in April 2009. Dan Talbot was the founder of New Yorker Films and a key figure in Art House and Independent cinema.  As described in the initial Columbia University press release, “The collection is composed of correspondence files that span more than 30 years, more than two decades of producer reports, contract files, files related to New Yorker Films, financial records, guest books dating back to 1960 and production related ephemera.”

 

It’s the guest books section of the collection that I’ve chosen to focus on first. These guest books are from Talbot’s New Yorker Theater which was operational from 1960 to 1973. The New Yorker Theater was an art house cinema that screened classic and foreign films, as well as Independent and avant-garde films of the day. The theater was the first of its kind to hit New York City and provided an outlet for many up and coming filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese as well as notable film critics such as Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris. Talbot established the use of guest books in his cinema so that patrons could state what they’d be interested in seeing.

 

The guest books yielded a variety of responses — from a few overzealous viewers who decided to draw guitars as their way of saying they’d like to see the Nicholas Ray film Johnny Guitar, to the cinephiles who take up an entire page with a few films titles because they were just that passionate.

Some patrons didn’t leave their names; others did. A few notable individuals who attended the theater and suggested what they’d like to see were none other than Gene Wilder and Martin Scorsese.  

There is also an entry written by Gloria Swanson, and if it really was the classic actress then narcissism was rearing its head as her chosen film was — wait for it — Sunset Boulevard.  

While it’s likely this amusing entry, complete with an address, was Swanson, there were quite a few patrons who did enjoy pretending to be people they were not. A few imposters spotted amongst the guest books included Groucho Marx, Judy Garland and Orson Welles.

 

The idea of guest books at a theater seems completely foreign to me today. We go to the movies and see what is offered because the majority of the movie-going public attends mainstream movie houses. Talbot utilized the guest book as a way of sussing out what his audience was really interested in and attempting to obtain those films because his goal was to bring Art House cinema to the foreground.  However, it was not always easy. Talbot’s own difficulty at obtaining foreign titles to screen at his theater was the catalyst that lead him to found New Yorker Films in the first place, in 1965.  

 

The New Yorker Theater is no longer around and what we have left is several dozen guest books encapsulating a period of time that had New Yorkers excited and hungry for art and culture. Art House theaters do still exist, especially in the city. A notable one is the Film Forum, which showcases a variety of classic and foreign cinema and very often has retrospectives on certain genres or directors. Others include the Museum of Moving Image, the IFC Center, Landmark’s Sunshine Theaters and the Angelika Film Center.

 

Each of these theaters screens a variety of classic and foreign film selections in addition to current independent cinema. Talbot and his wife now run Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It’s a small theater and very close to the Lincoln Center Loews, yet offers a variety of films that are usually not shown there. When a film says it opens in limited release in New York and L.A., you can bet that Lincoln Plaza Cinemas is one of the theaters in New York to screen it.

 

Having been at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas myself I did not see any guest books in the lobby. However, it would be wonderful to see the return of this outreach tool in one of these establishments to give cinephiles a voice for what they’d like to see. Dan Talbot had the right idea in the 1960’s with his New Yorker Theater and it was that cinema is a collaborative art between filmmakers, film distributors, and its patrons.

Processing is the Process of Processing

Clifford Odets and Margaret Brenman-Gibson, circa 1950s
Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers, Box 15

I started working at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library as a processing archivist in August of this year. It's been just four short months and already I've seen some amazing things. But before getting to a few of the goodies, let me tell you a little bit about what I do day in and day out.

Aside from managing the reading room a couple of hours a week, which is often full of eager researchers, I mainly process archival collections. Processing is the process of processing large amounts of information into findable units. It entails organizing, weeding, foldering, re-filing, and re-boxing often times messy papers.  It also means describing those now not so messy papers so that eventually a researcher will be able to find what they are looking for both in the reading room and from the web. I describe the collection both in the analog, as in writing on a lot of folders and labeling a lot of boxes, but I also describe the collection digitally using all sorts of fancy programs and software like Oxygen, the Archivists' Toolkit, and Voyager. It's funny, since coming here, I'd say I am mastering the art of processing the mid-range collection. Not large, not small, just somewhere right in the middle, say 40-50 linear feet. Processing a collection can take anywhere from an afternoon to several years, depending on the size and the level to which the collection is going to be arranged and described. Typically, these 40-50 linear foot collections have been taking me about a month from start to finish.

The first collection I tackled was the Thomas Whiteside Papers (MS#1545). Whiteside was a journalist for the New Yorker for over 45 years. He wrote on all sorts of topics, most famously Agent Orange. Somewhere in his correspondence I found mention of Whiteside's notoriously messy desk. This messy desk was easy to envision as I opened each box and found a jumble of files and loose documents. I find that by the end of processing a collection, you either sort of admire or are vaguely irritated by the person and the files they kept. I really did grow to love Thomas Whiteside despite the mess. The reason I liked this collection though, was that it was fun to piece back together in some sort of meaningful way, the organization of a career. I ended up arranging the material pretty much as it was found, which was grouped around each article or book that Whiteside wrote. I put the files in an alphabetical order. And we now have a neat little outline of the writer's career.  My favorite little snippet from this collection was a short congratulatory letter to Whiteside from Andy Rooney. You can see for yourself, but it tells a little more about Rooney then it does Whiteside!

Andy Rooney letter, 1978
Thomas Whiteside Papers, Box 10

Following Whiteside, I got to do something a little different, which can be referred to as "accessioning as processing." I won't go into the finer points of this, but basically, it means taking in a new collection, which is called accessioning, and sort of minimally arranging and describing the materials in such a way that they become immediately available, never entering the repository's backlog of unprocessed collections. The collection I worked on was the Howard "Stretch" Johnson Papers (MS#1634). It was pretty small and already in good order. It was sent to the RBML from Stretch's daughter who lives in France, and it came in these perfectly cute French boxes. I hung on to those boxes for a long time, before finally recycling them. Contrary to popular belief, we archivists do like to throw things out. Stretch was an interesting figure. He was both a tap dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1920s and a communist. Unlike a lot of communists who later go on to say that their affiliation with the CPUSA was a mistake, Stretch was really proud. His collection is full of wonderful material: ephemera, photographs, letters, and drafts of his autobiography. Below is a pamphlet he wrote, originally published by the National Veterans Committee of the Communist Party.

The Negro Veteran Fights for Freedom!, 1947
Howard "Stretch" Johnson Papers, Box 3

 

The next big project I took on was processing the Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers (MS#1635). Brenman-Gibson was the biographer of American playwright Clifford Odets. The collection consisted mainly of her research files for the biography. It was very neat and well organized all be it stored in a variety of liquor and beer boxes. For the biography, Brenman-Gibson corresponded and interviewed all sort of famous actors, directors, and playwrights, all family, friends, and acquaintances of Odets. While most of the correspondence is brief and deals with recollections of Clifford Odets, it was exciting to see Marlon Brando's signature, Elia Kazan's stationary. There was even a short note from someone I wasn't expecting, author Anais Nin.

Anais Nin letter, 1972
Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers, Box 6

Clifford Odets, in addition to being a playwright, was also a painter. In 2006, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery on West 57th Street in New York, hosted an exhibit of Odets' work called, "It's Your Birthday, Clifford Odets! A Centennial Exhibition." The New York Times did a nice review of the show. Odets was friends with Brenman-Gibson and her husband, William Gibson. I'm not sure for how long, but from the correspondence in the collection, it appears that the three were in touch for the last 10 years of Odets' life, from the early 1950s through to 1963. Odets would send the Gibson's letters outlining his work and describing his personal life. You can really get a sense of his personality through these letters. Occasionally there would be a drawing or doodle. His son sent them the small painting below, which I can't help but think is a little treasure within the already rich collection.

"Lily Pond", Clifford Odets, 1958
Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers, Box 15

I'm eager to begin my next project, which is processing the Gregory Mosher Papers, and excited to share some minor tidbit that I find, which hopefully will provide a window into that collection and also into what it is archivists do.

The finding aids or guides to all of the collections mentioned in this post can be found on our website by searching the Archives Collections Portal, or by following the links provided.