Researching at the George Eastman Museum

Submitted by Guest Post,

In the beginning of January, I had the pleasure of spending four days doing research in the archives at the Eastman Museum. During this time, I consulted two collections—the newly catalogued Leo Hurwitz Papers and some of Eastman’s own departmental files from its first film curator James Card. My interest in these collections stems from my research on American independent film distributor Thomas Brandon (1908-1982). Brandon had worked with both Hurwitz and Card at various points during his career as a member of the New York Workers Film and Photo League and employee at Garrison Films in the 1930s, and as President of his own company, Brandon Films, Inc., from 1940 to 1968.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Leo Hurwitz is an important figure within the history of American documentary film. His efforts with the New York Workers Film and Photo League (Film and Photo League after 1933), Nykino, and Frontier Films in the 1930s produced some of the most important leftist nonfiction works of the period—newsreels of protest among the unemployed in the early half of the decade, social documentaries on the Spanish Civil War and American labor struggles in the latter. Among his most famous works are Frontier Films’ Native Land (co-directed with Paul Strand, 1942) on domestic labor struggles and Strange Victory (1947), a commentary on racism in post-war American life. (Incidentally, Milestone Films will soon be releasing a stunning 2K restoration of Strange Victory on home video. I can’t recommend it enough!).

Though blacklisted for his left-leaning political commitments throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hurwitz continued his efforts as an independent filmmaker; he also worked in television. Verdict for Tomorrow (1961), a 30-minute televised piece based on highlights of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, earned him an Emmy and Peabody Award.

As a 490-page finding aid might suggest, the Hurwitz collection is extremely well catalogued. In boxing Hurwitz’s disparate materials (bulk, 1926-1991), Eastman maintained the collection’s provenance, the original order and context of which the materials arrived at the archive. While the historian in me understands and appreciates this impulse, this organizational strategy is not necessarily the most hospitable to the researcher. In a sense, it renders the researcher hostage to the archival subject’s organizational whims. In the instance of the Hurwitz collection, this means that a folder containing materials for his film Native Land might be sandwiched between a folder of medical bills on the one hand and film reel storage inventory lists from the 1980s on the other.

The cataloguers were certainly well aware of these quirks and designed a finding aid that enabled me to easily pinpoint the materials most germane to my research. Lest the future Hurwitz researcher be intimidated by the sheer scope of the Hurwitz collection, the finding aid’s 490-pages deliberately duplicates entries. The collection is divided into multiple series and subseries that correlate to phases and recurrent trends in Hurwitz’s career. Thus, single boxes or folders are cross-listed in several series and thus appear multiple times throughout the document. For example, Frontier’s Heart of Spain (Herbert Kline, 1937) is listed as a subsection of Series 3 Film/TV Projects, as well as again in Series 6 on the production company as a whole. In combing through the finding aid in advance of my trip it took me some time to figure out this listing system but once I read things more closely, I was able to get the hang of the aid’s organizational hierarchy. I tried my best to keep very detailed notes of the folders I consulted each day. Luckily, this meant only having to ask the archival staff to re-pull boxes for me twice over my four days on site.

Hurwitz’s impulse to save personal and business correspondence, production notes, and promotional materials allowed me to find records I had not seen elsewhere and I am eager to put them to use as I write my dissertation. One of the most exciting finds during my trip was a 1933 film catalogue from distributor Garrison Films, Brandon’s early employer. Garrison is an entity familiar to film historians of the period—it distributed a number works produced by Hurwitz and Frontier Films, as well as Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth (1937)—but, overall, comparatively little is known about this nontheatrical company behind some of the era’s most vibrant nonfiction film. I hope to unearth more about Garrison over the course of my research.

The correspondence between Hurwitz and Brandon from the 1940s to 1970s should also be generative. Whereas Hurwitz shared warm letters with past collaborators such as Paul Strand, correspondence between Brandon and Hurwitz remained comparatively scant and was always within a business capacity. For reasons currently unclear to me, Brandon did not manage the distribution of Native Land upon its initial release in 1942. His eponymous company did, however, distribute both Native Land and Strange Victory in the late 1940s. Brandon Films also was a distributor of Strange Victory upon its re-release in the late 1960s. For this release, Hurwitz appended a brief new epilogue to the film in response to the era’s ongoing African American civil rights movement. A flyer produced by Brandon Films from this re-release, from Hurwitz’s papers, is below. Despite its new found topicality in the late 1960s, it seems the film still struggled to find an audience. Speaking of the film’s limited profitability, Hurwitz’s attorney reported to the director: “No money has been received from Brandon. He sends reports in from time to time, but on the basis of these reports, we should see something in 2167!”

In addition to Hurwitz’s collection, I also consulted materials from Eastman’s first film curator James Card, which I am confident will be invaluable to my research on Brandon Films, Inc. in the years after World War II. Their correspondence began in 1950. Most of their early letters concerned Brandon’s desire to donate or, at least temporarily house, a number of 35mm and 16mm reels in Eastman’s vaults. This came at a time when Card was trying to grow the collection and these reels were initially welcomed (though spatial constraints later became a point of contention). As the decade progressed, the correspondence also addressed both men’s desire to track down and strike new prints of films, including the German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Redes (The Wave), a 1936 documentary shot for the Mexican government by Paul Strand, Fred Zinnemann and Mexican director Emilio Gomez Muriel. Brandon—always the businessman—also constantly kept Card abreast of his new acquisitions from abroad, pitching him ideas for films to screen up in Rochester. Their correspondence was most active from 1950 and 1959, though contact continued until the early 1970s.

In terms of my research, I anticipate the Card-Brandon correspondence as being incredibly useful in my efforts to envision the day-to-day operations and primary practices of a nontheatrical distribution company. Letters between Card and Brandon (and Brandon Films employees) feature negotiations of rental and purchase prices, requests for shipments and returns, and stories from trips abroad, all of which afford a rare opportunity to learn about and reconstruct the mechanisms of distribution in the mid-twentieth century. While a close reading of their letters reveal moments of frustrations and disappointments, overall, Card and Brandon seem to have maintained a friendly and mutually beneficial working relationship for twenty-odd years.

In addition, the Eastman departmental files offered a treasure trove of Brandon Films promotional ephemera—all in great condition! Just as the Brandon-Card correspondence reveals the quotidian nature of distribution, these catalogues, flyers, and newsletters serve as archival evidence in their own right. Over the course of the 1940s, 50, and 60s, Brandon acquired an increasingly large and varied inventory of films for rental—American and foreign films, fictions and shorts, “films of fact,” and educational shorts for children. Garrison Films, along with Amkino (later Artkino) were early distributors of Russian films in the United States, and I find it fascinating that Brandon continued to distribute Soviet films through his eponymous company in the post World War II period. I view his company’s promotional rhetoric—that films breed “cultural understanding”—as a strategic gesture in the Cold War climate. I did not get the chance to look, but it would be interesting to see if Card opted to screen any of these Soviet works for audiences at Eastman during this period.

These are only preliminary reflections about my research trip. Now that I’ve compiled these materials, I need to read through them further, and try to make sense of it all. But, even in the early stages of my project I am certain that my visit was fruitful and I hope I have the opportunity to return again for research and for pleasure (I’m hoping to finally make it to the Nitrate Picture Show in 2018!).

Thank you to Nancy Kauffman and Sophia Lorent for their immense help during my visit and to the Selznick School preservation student who hosted me!

Tanya Goldman is a PhD Candidate in the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. Her work and reviews have appeared in Feminist Media Histories, Film Quarterly, Jump Cut, and Senses of Cinema and she currently serves as IndieCollect’s inaugural Scholar-In-Residence.

Photo Citations

Top Left: Film and Photo League of the Workers International Relief, Photo, circa 1932. Photographer unknown. Leo Hurwitz Collection.

Middle Right: Brandon Films flyer for 1967 re-release of Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory. Leo Hurwitz collection.

Bottom Left: People of the World Catalog, circa 1947. Eastman Museum Departmental Files

Tuesday, April 11, 2017