Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Fall 2004 Newsletter

A Discovery Behind the Arras


Still photographs from Norman Bel Geddes's
1931 Broadway production of Hamlet.

Steve Wilson, head of the Harry Ransom Center's film collection, knows just about all there is to know about film. But the Center sometimes throws even the most knowledgeable curator a curve.

Recently Wilson was sorting through reels of Norman Bel Geddes film, trying to decide which film to put up for a National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) grant, when he came upon five previously undocumented cans marked "Hamlet." Upon closer examination, Wilson discovered that the contents appeared to be a fully edited documentary about a 1934 production of the play.

NFPF awarded a grant to the Center for preservation of the film, and Wilson embarked on the difficult task of finding a lab that might be able to save the rare celluloid. The documentary, titled "Hamlet 1934," was originally shot on two different types of film, reversal and print, and edited together. Over time, the two stocks had deteriorated at different rates, creating a critical problem for restoration. Though restoration was rejected as unfeasible by a New York film lab, Hollywood's Film Technology Company, one the country's oldest film restoration labs, was able to finesse an acceptable copy from the brittle and buckling film.

"Hamlet 1934" chronicles the entire production process of the play, from set construction to wardrobe development, from rehearsals to opening night. The restored film will provide invaluable information about Bel Geddes's design process for scholars and researchers.

Beyond fortifying an already significant Bel Geddes collection at the Center, the discovery and restoration of the film proved the ideal success story for the NFPF. "Hamlet 1934" appears as a case study, illustrating the intricacies of intellectual property rights, in the recently completed The Film Preservation Guide produced by the NFPF with support from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at Eastman House, and funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.  

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