Film History Comes Alive: Primary Materials Research as Participatory Pedagogy

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Teaching with Primary Sources Vol 4(3)
Emily Carman
Chapman University

Although my university is just thirty-seven miles south of Los Angeles—home to many impressive film and television archives and special collection libraries—my students often lack transportation to travel to them, are not able to patronize these institutions during normal business hours due to conflicting classes, or simply do not have the necessary time to devote to on-site archival research. Digital repositories and search engines are a welcome alternative, providing unprecedented access to primary source materials that now enable me to incorporate them directly into my classroom and research assignments. In this essay, I articulate various strategies that I utilize to teach film history to undergraduates in terms of accessing, researching, and using these digitized primary materials, in particular for assignments on studio-era Hollywood. These materials include newspapers databases available on Proquest through my university’s subscription, various trades journals, fan magazines, additional print materials from the Media History Digital Library, and the photo archive of movie theaters on the website I have also developed elective classes on Hollywood Film Censorship, Postwar Hollywood and Hollywood cinema in 1939 that make use of the Production Code Administration (PCA) records and other materials on microfilm. Teaching with primary source materials brings the past to life for my students and attests to how history is a living, innovative, and evolving entity that they can directly participate in with their own research.

Primary Materials in the Undergraduate Film History Survey Class: Online Databases

I have incorporated digitized primary materials into my undergraduate survey film history course (International Film History Part 1, 1894-1959) as a way of making film history “come alive” for my students. One assignment that achieves this goal is the “local movie theater report,” in which students find a movie theater from their hometown using Students research a series of questions about the theater (its location in the town/city, the design, audience who patronized the theater, whether it still exists, etc.) so that they get a more nuanced understanding of how movie-going and motion picture exhibition operated in the first half of the twentieth century. This assignment fosters a personal connection for students between their hometown, historical movie-going practices, and urban development, as in many cases, the nickelodeon theaters or picture palaces no longer exist or they have been remodeled for another use.

Another assignment calls for students to document a film’s reception during Hollywood’s “Pre-Code” era via film criticism available via Proquest’s historical newspaper databases. Using titles such as Baby Face (Green, 1933), Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932), and/or I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy, 1932), I model in class how to find film reviews using The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune and then underscore how we can comprehend film patronage by analyzing reviews. My students tend to be preoccupied with what the “historical audience” thought about films in their original release, and want to know if they made money at the box-office. I developed this assignment both as a primary materials based solution to their audience fixations and to highlight the differing styles and purposes of film criticism in the twentieth century. For example, after completing this activity, students have inquisitively remarked about how historical national paper responses varied from city to city compared to the uniformity of contemporary film review discourse. Others noted how one could not simply do a Google search to examine a multitude of national papers at once or consult an aggregated data of critics from a website (such as to obtain film reviews from the 1930s.

The Media History Digital Library provides a compelling contrast to mainstream newspapers with its trade journals that include substantive albeit limited runs of The Motion Picture Herald, Variety, and Film Daily. For example, the “What the Picture Did for Me” column in The Motion Picture Herald allows students to discern how small town and/or rural audiences responded differently to Pre and Post-enforced Code films while Variety’s film reviews illustrated the contemporary industry view of the period that often fixated on its box office potential. This multi-faceted reception study comprised of diverse film reviews enables students to contextualize a film during its original release, conceptualize the multi-faceted U.S. audience in the 1930s, and understand the often distinct reception of Hollywood cinema between urban and rural areas. After consulting Film Daily and The New York Times reviews, one student discovered how John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) premiere in Springfield, Illinois brought more than 100 New York and Midwest critics to the city, with the state legislature passing a resolution to commemorate the occasion (Anon. 1939, 4). This was part of a calculated marketing strategy by 20th Century-Fox, since ninety percent of the studio’s theater chain was in small, rural Midwestern towns. What’s more, these reviews demonstrate how the film celebrated mid-western values and the triumph of U.S. law through Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to frontier justice to appeal to its target regional audience. As this example attests, students actively participate in contextualizing film history, rather than passively reading about it in a textbook.

Primary Materials in the Upper-Division Classroom: the PCA Files

While The Media History Digital Library provides a useful introduction to primary materials for undergraduate students in survey classes, archival collections on microfilm are the equivalent analog resource that I use to teach advanced film history electives that include film censorship and a postwar Hollywood class. When I arrived at Chapman University in August 2010, I reached out to the Leatherby Library about purchasing the PCA records (also available through the Margaret Herrick’s online Digital Collections), a selection of which are available on microfilm as the History of Cinema Series 1 and additional primary collections on microfilm (including J. Edgar Hoover and Radicalism in Hollywood, Part 1: Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry and Part 2: Investigations of Actors, Actresses and Directors, and Major Film Periodicals for Media Research). With the library’s support, I developed specific classes around these materials and stimulate student use of the library. For instance, I created a primary research paper assignment for my class on censorship in which students select a film between 1930-1960 and its corresponding PCA file to analyze the censorship negotiation of a Hollywood film that elucidates how the film can be seen as a historical record of its time, genre, and/or place of production, especially in terms social attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and race. In my postwar U.S. cinema class, I shaped an assignment around the J. Edgar Hoover files to illuminate the impact of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the resulting blacklisting of hundreds of Hollywood creatives by the early 1950s. Students are initially hesitant to use the microfilm reader because they have never used the technology before (and it requires them to physically go to the library). Nevertheless, they soon become comfortable with the library’s new, state of the art, digital microfilm reader, which allows them to scan the file into a PDF for easy reference later on. I invite our film studies liaison librarian to lead a research session on how to access these primary materials on microfilm as well as important secondary scholarly sources in film and media studies at the Leatherby Library. The resulting papers are among the strongest undergraduate research that I have evaluated thus far in my teaching career, one of which, “Moviegoers and the Moon in 1953,” examined the complex production of Otto Preminger’s sexually-provocative film The Moon Is Blue (1953) to illuminate the perspectives of censorship groups, artistic authorities, governmental legislatures, and the Production Code Administration (PCA) in their respective appraisals of the Hollywood industry’s movie-going public. This student essay won the Kevin and Tam Ross Undergraduate Research Prize at Chapman University, which recognizes excellent research and effective use of library resources by undergraduate students.

For a course devoted to Hollywood in the year 1939, I used a combination of digital primary materials. The final paper asked students to select a Hollywood film released in 1939 and trace its reception across various contexts using available digital repositories. Students began with their film’s entry in the AFI catalog, noting the cited industry trades and newspapers. From there, they searched for those articles in the Proquest newspaper databases and then composed a two-three page paper about how critics reviewed their film for U.S. audiences of 1939. The third phase introduced students to digitized industry trades and fan magazines collections at the Media History Digital Library so that they could understand their film from a business/exhibition and fan perspective. Students explored how these different sources constructed the movie “fan” and “consumer” by analyzing the articles and advertisements featured in the magazines. Finally, they researched existing scholarship on their chosen film and discussed the film’s reputation (or lack thereof) in contemporary film and media studies publications. Here they also considered significant thematic or stylistic aspects of their film. After analyzing both primary and secondary sources they assessed how the film epitomized its historical moment in Hollywood circa 1939. Students researched an array of Hollywood released in 1939, from the adventure A-class epic Gunga Din, the second film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Woman’s picture The Women, and the aviation action film Only Angels Have Wings, to B-movies, such as the forgotten The Return of Dr. X (that features a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart as a menacing vampire doctor), the propaganda anti-Nazi film Beast of Berlin, and the Sherlock Holmes serial The Hound of the Baskervilles. Their feedback confirmed how primary materials research explains film history as a practice. One student remarked that the most effective aspect of the course that promoted student learning were the “primary research demonstrations using the digital repositories,” while another stressed how they “loved” discussing the “social and artistic implications” behind the films with primary materials so that they “could contextualize the film in its own time period.”

Primary Materials in the Era of Digital Research

Even as databases and digital repositories make archival research attainable for undergraduate research, they also create something of a pedagogical quandary for film and media historians, as items left in their original state risk erasure from our collective cultural memory (Hafner, 2007). This “digital paradox” raises serious questions both for researching and teaching primary materials (see also Carman 2014). We encourage our students to use primary materials with the relative ease of accessing collections online, yet, focusing solely on digital research has the potential to deter students from exploring additional harder-to-access-but-plentiful physical materials. As Charles Acland, Kit Hughes, and Eric Hoyt ponder in their introduction to the Arclight Guidebook to Media History and the Digital Humanities, are we as media historians, “innovating and adapting digital tools to address our research questions, or are we adapting our research interests to fit the available datasets and tools?” (Acland et. al. 2017, 1).
I contend that we as teachers of film and media history do a bit both. Digital tools have opened up the archives and democratized primary materials to make original research opportunities much more feasible for undergraduate (and graduate) education. At the same time, if we shape assignments exclusively around existing digitized materials—which for film and media studies, tend to cluster around the early to mid-twentieth century U.S. cinema, and the Hollywood film industry—we foreclose potential research opportunities of harder-to-access paper documents housed in archives and special collection libraries that often rely on patron use to remain open for research. Nevertheless, perhaps the mediation of primary materials vis-à-vis digital technology is the current incarnation of how scholars have taught film history since its inception: altered from the original historical experience and mediated through different apparatuses and technologies. Understood through this lens, digitized primary materials have the potential to empower students to critically analyze and participate in the writing of film history for themselves that in the process, enables the past to come back to life.

Works Cited

Acland, Charles R., Kit Hughes, and Eric Hoyt. 2016. “A Guide to the Arclight Guidebook.” In The Arclight Guidebook to Media History and Digital Humanities. Falmer: Reframe Books.

Anonymous. 1939. Film Daily, May 24.

Carman, Emily. 2014. “That’s Not All, Folks!: Excavating the Warner Bros. Archive.” The Moving Image 14.1 (Spring): 41-42.

Chapman Leatherby Libraries. “Electronic Resources.” Accessed March 7, 2017. .

_____. “Film/Media Arts Research Subject Guide.” Accessed March 7, 2017.

Cinema Treasures. “Movie Theater Photos.” Accessed March 7, 2017. .

Hafner, Katie. “History, Digitized (and Abridged).” New York Times 10 March 2007

“Hollywood and the Production Code.” History of Cinema: Selected Files from Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006.

J. Edgar Hoover and Radicalism in Hollywood Part 1: Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2007

J. Edgar Hoover and Radicalism in Hollywood Part 2: Investigations of actors, actresses, and directors. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2012.

Major Film Periodicals for Media Research [microfilm]. Reading, Berkshire, England: Research Publications, 1989-1991.

Media History Digital Library. Accessed March 7, 2017.

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