July 9, 2015  |  Film
MoMA’s Department of Film at 80: An Unprecedented Vision

Iris Barry and John Abbott, 1935. Photo by Lewis Jacobs

Iris Barry and John Abbott, 1935. Photo by Lewis Jacobs

How does one map out the scope, purpose, and practice of something that had never existed before? That might be the question Iris Barry and John E. Abbott asked themselves as they were drafting “An Outline of a Project for Founding the Film Library of The Museum of Modern Art” (1935).

When the outline was being written, Barry’s official title was Librarian and Abbott was the Secretary of the Motion Picture Department. The pair submitted their document to MoMA Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Executive Director Thomas D. Mabry, Jr., on April 17, 1935. The general statement of the outline reported the urgent need by colleges and museums across the United States who were invested in the brand-new study of “film as a living art” but could not locate the basic resources required. There were no non-theatrical distribution services, little film criticism beyond aphoristic newspaper reviews of recent releases, and certainly no film festivals. Barry and Abbott noted:

The Charter of The Museum of Modern Art states that it is “established and maintained for the purpose of encouraging and developing a study of modern art and the application of such art to manufacture and practical life, and furnishing popular instruction.”

Without accessible film prints, books, journals, film stills, posters, etc., Barry and Abbott could not carry out their intended vision and follow the Museum’s charter. How did they resolve this dilemma? By the time they began to wave their banner for the study and preservation of film, the medium was only about 40 years old. The good news was they would be able to consider the art form in its totality, providing they could locate the study materials. The bad news was the film industry had no awareness of film as an art form and was marginally wary of the non-commercial intent of those who wished to study it.

Four months after submitting their outline, Barry and Abbott were in the garden at Pickfair, the Hollywood home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, pitching a gathering of studio heads on the notion that their products were worthy of study and preservation. MoMA had planned a department of film in the original vision of the Museum and now, seven years later, in 1935, the couple found themselves in the proverbial hot seat. Barry laid out the intention behind this dazzling idea but also, understanding what she called “the peculiar constitution of this art-industry,” made clear to those assembled—who were, ultimately, businessmen—that the Museum had no intention of competing on a commercial basis. She was wise enough to understand that the materials she needed existed, but getting her hands on them was not going to happen without “a tremendous amount of personal contact, tracing, research and establishing goodwill.”

As Barry’s plan was to create a circulating library she was wise to tread cautiously. The goods she wanted were not for sale, but what could she offer for the largesse of the film community to allow her access? Flattery. The flattery was sincere, as Barry noted in “An Outline of a Project for Founding the Film Library of The Museum of Modern Art” under the subject heading “the work to be done”:

There is an urgent need for (1) tracing, preserving and making available the many films of importance now lost to sight, (2) the formation of a library or clearing house for films of merit for non-commercial exhibition (3) an organized non-commercial distributing medium for films for study, (4) a library and repository, with international contacts, for literature, information and historical data relative to the motion picture.

At the time, Barry and Abbott named G. W. Pabst, René Clair, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Victor Sjöström as “great directors” who have “had an immeasurably great influence on the life and thought of the present generation” of film goers. The studio heads, directors, and actors who assembled for Barry’s 1935 pitch must have been proud (in a very new way) of the products they formerly only considered successful if the box office draw was substantial. Now, this well-spoken, chicly dressed lady with a British accent was telling these men (many of whom were immigrants themselves to the United States) that their films mattered in the larger discourse of art. If any of the assembled, such as Samuel Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky, were looking for validation beyond the box office, they received their wish in the visage of Iris Barry.

Acquisitions of the “great directors” came to the Film Library very soon: Pabst’s Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (The Loves of Jeanne Ney) (1927) and Sjöström’s Berj-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw and His Wife) (1918). In this case, flattery and a sincere, unprecedented vision brought to Iris Barry and John Abbott the first of many films they needed to build the foundation of the Film Library.