Long before The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film was so named, it was called the Film Library. The entity to be known as the Film Library was officially announced on June 27, 1935, and on July 2 The Museum of Modern Art Film Library Corporation was formalized with documents signed by trustees A. Conger Goodyear, John Hay Whitney, and Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The Film Library Corporation was established “for the purpose of assembling a collection of motion picture films suitable for illustrating the important steps historically and artistically in the development of motion pictures from their inception and making the said collection available at reasonable rates to colleges, schools, museums, and other educational institutions” as per the Memorandum of Agreement that the three trustees signed. It was made clear from the inception of the Film Library that curator Iris Barry’s vision was sincerely educational and had no designs on any commercial competition with the motion picture industry. Barry had an opportunity to deliver this pledge in person on August 24, 1935, at a glamorous evening garden party at Pickfair, the legendary home of stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Dressed in a delicate floral gown with a cape treatment at the shoulder, Barry was introduced to studio heads Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, Harry Warner, Walt Disney, and other industry titans. There were also other movie stars in attendance besides Pickford and Fairbanks, such as Harold Lloyd, and notable directors Ernst Lubitsch and Mervyn LeRoy.
After dinner Barry began her pitch, arguing that the films being made in the 1930s—as well as those from 40 years before, at the birth of filmmaking—should be deposited in a museum for long-term care, study, and educational screenings. She cautioned the assembled that if they were not prudent with their products and did not allow Barry to preserve their works, they would be “irrevocably lost as the Commedia dell’Arte or the dancing of Najinsky.” To further drive the message home, a selection of film clips were shown, beginning with The Great Train Robbery (1903) and culminating in a screening of the then newly produced Technicolor short Pluto’s Judgement Day (1935), supplied by Walt Disney, who by his largesse was squarely in the Barry camp.
At the end of the magical night, Mary Pickford and industry watchdog Will Hays spoke up on behalf of Barry’s plight. Pickford declared she was sending films, as did Samuel Goldwyn. Let us not forget that the movie-making business was just that: a business. However, before any of those prints arrived from Hollywood, negotiations with the studio legal offices commenced. Those documents still exist in the files of the Department of Film, confirming agreements with studios such as Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox stipulating that MoMA would be given the privilege to make prints and/or negatives from studio holdings, at its own expense, for long-term preservation purposes. Use of those materials was restricted to educational, noncommercial screenings and activities in keeping with the Museum’s programmatic pursuits. The current MoMA deed-of-gift document employed by the Department of Film still adheres to those basic acquisition tenets.
In the 1995 essay “Nothing Sacred: Jock Whitney Snares Antiques for Museum” (Studies in Modern Art 5), Mary Lea Bandy, Film Department Chief Curator Emeritus, writes, “In a broader sense, by successfully securing donations and acquisitions from the pioneers and practitioners of the American motion picture, and making them available to schools, Barry could be said to have launched film studies in the United States.” Iris Barry was ultimately responsible for so many strategies and actions concerning the development of film archives, film archiving as a profession, and the observation that film is an art form deserving of preservation, study, and exhibition.
I’ll be writing more about the history and development of The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film in upcoming posts. I will also be curating MoMA’s matinee screenings starting in September, the first few rounds of which will focus on early MoMA film acquisitions.