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That’s Not All, Folks! Excavating the Warner Bros. Archives
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There are still thousands of articles to come out of the Warner Bros. Archives, it is so rich and vast.

professor rick jewell, hugh m. hefner chair for the study of american film, university of southern california

This essay profiles one of the most complete and pertinent paper document collections related to Hollywood cinema that is open for research access: the Warner Bros. Archives (WBA) housed at the University of Southern California (USC) and managed by the School of Cinematic Arts. Donated to USC by Warner Communications in 1977, the WBA brings together production, distribution, and exhibition records (legal documents, studio correspondences and memos, publicity, story files, and various script drafts) with musical scores, animation backgrounds, art department drawings, and more to document the creative and industrial activities of a vertically integrated Hollywood studio. Although USC owns the physical documents of the collection, the studio Warner Bros. Entertainment (now a subsidiary of the media conglomerate Time Warner) retains the intellectual property rights, and the archive thus straddles the corporate and educational worlds in its policies and scholarly uses. The WBA’s influence on cinema and media scholarship cannot be underestimated, as the archive has played a vital role in both disseminating and preserving American moving image heritage and film history, particularly for the zenith years of the Hollywood studio system.

Despite the preponderance of scholarly work that has been produced using this immense collection, there is a dearth of research on the WBA itself. Although Warner Bros. is not the sole studio collection available for scholarly research on industrial practices of classical Hollywood, its counterparts, by comparison, are either split among various archives and institutions or incomplete (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, RKO, and Universal), and thus do not provide a complete spectrum of studio operations, or are not open for public access (Disney, Fox, Columbia, and the RKO legal files). Only the United Artists (UA) collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) rivals that of the WBA. Because UA was not a vertically integrated studio and was a distributor for independently produced films, the WCFTR UA archive offers a detailed perspective on primarily distribution and financial operations. Therefore, the WBA collection—its history and its legacy as an important primary source for twentieth-century Hollywood cinema and television—is a unique research subject that merits further scrutiny from film and media studies and moving image archival communities. This essay provides a brief history of the archive’s inception and chronology derived from interviews with past curators Leith Adams (1978–92), William Whittington (1993–97), and Haden Guest (2004–6); its most recent director of archives, Sandra Joy Lee Aguilar (2006–12); and its previous curator, Jonathon Auxier (2007–13), as well as with key scholars and researchers who have utilized the collection in compelling ways. As a former curator of the WBA in 2007–8, I also have firsthand knowledge of the archive’s versatile collection, former preservation initiatives, and patronage. Together these perspectives highlight the uniqueness of the WBA as a motion picture archival institution from the heyday of the classic Hollywood studio system.

The curators’ experiences also underscore the preservation practices that have kept this collection intact as a key resource for a versatile research community. For example, in academic year 2011–12, the WBA serviced 437 reading room appointments. Patrons ranged from undergraduate and graduate students to scholars, Warner Bros. studio employees, professional authors, and filmmakers. Although more than half of this patronage was from USC and California, the remaining third ranged across the United States and abroad.

The archive contains the paper records of Warner Bros. Pictures Inc. and its motion picture subsidiaries, including First National, Vitagraph, and the Stanley–Warner Theater Chain, from 1917 (the release year of the Warner brothers’—Albert, Harry, Sam, and Jack—first feature film, My Four Years in Germany) through 1968 (with the sale of the studio to the conglomerate Seven Arts). Additionally, the archive offers extensive production records for Warner Bros. Television Department from 1955 through 1968. Despite the impressive range of materials housed in the WBA collection, it is not a complete record of the studio for these forty years. For instance, there are no...



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