December 20, 2012  |  Behind the Scenes, Film
The Provenance of the Montgomery Clift Film Collection at MoMA
Montgomery Clift film cans. Photo by Art Wehrhahn, Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center manager

Montgomery Clift collection film cans. Photo by Art Wehrhahn, Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center manager

The provenance of a work of art is an important part of the acquisition process. What is a provenance? By definition, the noun provenance—with respect to art and archeological specimens—is a place or source of origin. The word root evolves from the Latin prōvenire, which means to originate. For a museum curator the chain of ownership for a work of art since leaving the artist’s hands is a critical link in the process of acquiring new collection materials. Provenance is also key to determining if a work has been lawfully passed from artist to owner, etc.; knowing who may have owned a work could factor into the acquisition process.

In 1991 The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts offered MoMA a collection of 16mm feature film prints. The library was unable to properly store the films, which they had received from an actor’s estate, and they were seeking a long-term home, so they turned to MoMA. The collection was an eclectic one, including His Girl Friday (1940), a Felix the Cat short, and more than a dozen films starring American actor Montgomery Clift (1920–1966). Turns out the 16mm prints were the personal property of Clift while he lived in New York City in the 1960s. Containing prints of A Place in the Sun (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Young Lions (1958) , I Confess (1953), The Heiress (1949), Freud (1962) and others, the collection makes you wonder: Did Clift actually watch these prints? Did he invite friends over to the townhouse where he lived on East 61 Street and have a movie night? Did he sit behind the 16mm projector with cigarette in hand and watch the beautiful couple he made with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun? As curators, we have no idea unless there is documentation to answer these questions. Even Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth doesn’t weigh in on these questions. Anecdotal information attributed to Clift’s personal assistant, Lorenzo James, states that on the night of July 22, 1966, James said goodnight to Clift and apprised him that The Misfits (1961) was showing on TV and did he want to watch it. Clift declined, and that morning, at the age of 45, he was dead.

1951: Film stars Elizabeth Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift star in A Place In The Sun. 1951. Directed by George Stevens. Paramount Pictures

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor star in A Place in the Sun. 1951. Directed by George Stevens. Paramount Pictures

Montgomery Clift was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and was a contemporary of Marlon Brando (also born in Omaha) and James Dean. He was deeply influenced by Method acting techniques and created characters known for their realism and tortured countenances. As a teenager Clift moved to New York to perform on the Broadway stage, and after moving to Hollywood he returned to the stage at the height of his popularity, in 1954, to star in a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Once Clift arrived in Hollywood he went to work, and while his filmography is a relatively short one, it is filled with iconic mid-century American films. In The Search (1948), directed by Fred Zinnemann, Clift plays an American G.I. who finds a lost boy in postwar Germany and helps the child reunite with his mother. For his efforts, Clift was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. The award ultimately went to Laurence Olivier, for Hamlet (1948). Red River (1948) was made immediately after The Search, and Hollywood fans were besotted with Clift’s good looks and tortured persona. Unlike Brando and Dean, he was not a bad boy, but his screen persona was equally remote—in life he was unavailable, aloof, and sadly reliant upon alcohol and painkillers.

In 1956 a tragic turning point arose when, during the production of Raintree County (1957), Clift was involved in a horrendous auto accident. Leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor’s Beverly Hill’s home, Clift smashed into a utility pole and suffered serious injury to his face, jaw, and head. The once classically handsome actor soon had a thinner, older, scarred face. Raintree County production resumed after two months and audiences went to see the film, mainly for the before-and-after Clift face.

As Clift’s career advanced he worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz , Stanley Kramer, and Vittorio De Sica, among other legendary directors. He also continued to return to the Broadway stage, and resumed his personal life in New York City. Due to his erratic behavior and dependence upon controlled substances and alcohol, Clift was considered unemployable in the 1960s. His longtime and ever loyal friend Elizabeth Taylor lobbied for Clift to co-star with her in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Her offer to waive her salary if Clift did not perform was a collegial gesture, but it was ultimately futile, as Clift died before production began. Ironically, Marlon Brando was eventually cast as the male lead opposite Taylor.

Digging into the research about Montgomery Clift’s life and career, I didn’t turn up any information about this film collection that he amassed while living in New York City. It seems Clift was not one to analyze his work once the work was done; he was too critical of his performances to have any objective perspective. 16mm prints were like the DVDs of their day; meant for non-commercial consumption. It is possible Clift’s studio gave him the copies, or perhaps he may have even had a clause in his contract that at the end of each production, he was to receive a print. Who knows? But what makes this small collection of 16mm prints unique is that it represents an intriguing moment in the career of an American actor who was nominated for four Academy Awards. Not to mention, the quality of the prints were good and their contents, such as A Place in the Sun, The Misfits, and Judgment at Nuremberg, (1961) are memorable American films.