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Preserving Pickford: The Mary Pickford Collection and the Library of Congress

From: The Moving Image
Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2003
pp. 59-81 | 10.1353/mov.2003.0013

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The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 59-81

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Silent film actress Mary Pickford had one of the most important early film collections owned by an individual. As producer and distributor of the majority of her feature films, Pickford personally held domestic and foreign camera negatives, work prints, and early generation and reissue prints of much of her work. She had even purchased a large number of camera negatives and prints from her early days at the Biograph and Independent Motion Picture Companies. Outtakes, promotional footage, and home movies could also be found among her film holdings. Though several institutions sought to acquire and preserve this important collection, the Library of Congress was Pickford's ultimate choice for the storage and preservation of films from her twenty-three-year career.

It has been nearly sixty years since the Library of Congress (LC) first acquired the Pickford Collection. When Pickford donated her films, the institution's Motion Picture Division was in its infancy, and the field of moving image archiving was relatively new. The following story of what happened to her films at the LC over the last six decades is an all-too-familiar tale to many of us who work in film archives because it is not unique to any institution or collection. Though I am documenting the history of Pickford's films to aid the LC in salvaging what remains of them, I also hope to create a greater awareness of what is happening to other collections and encourage similar surveys within institutions.

The LC became interested in acquiring "the famed Pickford Collection" in the summer of 1943 when Howard Walls, assistant in charge of motion picture collections, suggested to Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish that Mary Pickford could be persuaded to donate her massive motion picture holdings. Walls rightly believed that Pickford was seeking a place for her film legacy and that the LC was well positioned to make the request due to the failure of its two direct competitors to acquire the collection. The silent film actress and producer had turned down the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) request for her personal film holdings in the 1930s. Later, Pickford offered her collection of motion pictures to the National Archives, but was refused by the institution "on the ground[s] that the Archives could accept only American historical films." The LC had recently begun collecting moving images for archival purposes, and the Pickford collection was seen as the first of many high-profile Hollywood acquisitions. On June 24, 1943, three days after he received Walls's suggestion, MacLeish wrote Pickford, asking her to "consider the Library of Congress as the ultimate repository" for her "contribution to the cinema arts." The actress was obviously pleased, replying she would "be very happy to cooperate in any way possible." In turn, MacLeish promised to contact Pickford once storage could be arranged.

Probably, Pickford did not anticipate that it would be almost two years before there was any further attempt to acquire her moving image material, but the institution [Begin Page 62] did not have proper storage facilities for her large nitrate film collection (estimated at one and a half million feet) and was busy with the details of how to establish a national motion picture center. In addition, progress on the acquisition was likely slowed when the film program's chief sponsor, Archibald MacLeish, resigned as librarian of Congress on December 19, 1944. But Pickford was still interested in finding an appropriate home for her moving images. In the late spring of 1945, she offered her motion picture collection to the LC. Librarian of Congress Luther Evans "proposed to perpetuate her place in the dramatic history of the country...through the preservation of her films" and by "making them available to the historical worker and the student."

In the fall of 1946, the LC was still not able to accept Pickford's gift. Fearing the "matter was growing a little cold," John Bradley, the recently hired director of the Motion Picture Project, met with Pickford in Hollywood in late October. He reiterated the LC's interest in the collection and allayed her fears about the institution exhibiting them to...



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