Archive Portrait: The Huntley Film Archives

Advertising was among the first uses of moving pictures.

In the mid to late 1890s, Edwin S. Porter, a touring projectionist with the New York firm, Kuhn & Webster’s Projectorscope, showed ads among other films on an open-air screen on top of the Pepper Building on Herald Square in Manhattan.

The earliest film ads were decided clunky affairs, gauging by one that Porter projected. Dressed in tuxedo, kilt, or military tunic, three men dance a highland fling in front of a banner reading “Scotch whisky.”

It’s hard to imagine the clunky short film inspiring many new drinkers of the wicked brew, but making the like of it served Porter well, because he soon went on to become the leading film director of the Edison Company, creating films like The Great Train Robbery of 1903.

Without him, advertising on film would make its way fairly successfully, too.

A modern-day film production that wanted to use footage like that could turn to the Huntley Film Archives, based in rural Herefordshire. It holds the whisky advertisement among its collection of more than 80,000 titles, searchable through an online database.

The collection is one of the largest commercial film libraries in the United Kingdom. Huntley licenses items to broadcasters and film-production companies from a collection that dates from 1895 to the present, and that emphasizes social history from Britain and around the world in such areas as advertising, architecture, art, education, entertainment, fashion, food, history, industry, media and technology, medicine, public personalities, religion, science, and transport.

A browse through the company’s directory reveals many fascinating artifacts: colour film of Tibet in the 1940’s; announcement of the death of Martin Luther King; the steam train used in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; a 1960s speech in Cleveland, Ohio, by Carl Stokes, America’s first black mayor; panic buying in U.S. supermarkets during the Cuban Missile Crisis

There’s much more: Sydney during the building of the Sydney Opera House in 1966; scenes from the Spanish Civil War, from a Nationalist perspective; 1920 footage of Lenin, Trotsky, and other figures from the Russian Revolution; social life in Shanghai in 1940; a 1960 Corn Flakes ad; a French trick-effects film from 1900 showing a strongman in a leotard…

All the films in the Huntley archive are retained in their original gauge, and transferred into clients’ preferred format, when licensed.

Amanda Huntley and her father, the late John Huntley, established the company in 1984. He was a key figure in British film collection and presentation who got his start in the industry in a storybook way: he landed a job at the end of his teen years as a teaboy at the Denham film studios of Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born director who had worked in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies, and had then become a prominent figure in the British film industry.

World War II largely shut down Korda’s studio, so after only 18 months there, Huntley joined the Royal Air Force as a wireless operator and mechanic, and later served as a wireless air gunner. Then, in 1944, he joined Coastal Command and worked as a lecturer and camp projectionist, and screened educational films at various camp cinemas he visited.

He wrote articles for various film periodicals, and began to publish a series of books on film, initially while working as a music and sound technician for the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. At Rank’s Denham and Pinewood Studios, Huntley worked on successful films including Hamlet, A Matter of Life and Death, David Lean’s Oliver Twist, and The Red Shoes.

He began working with the British Film Institute in 1952, and remained there for 23 years in such roles as presenting large film shows and festivals at The Royal Festival Hall, The Barbican, and other venues. From 1966, he helped to open dozens of regional film theatres of the BFI. He also produced and presented many television and radio programmes about film, for Granada and the BBC.

Upon leaving the BFI in 1974, he worked as a theatrical agent and continued to present film shows, and to add to his own collection of films, primarily relating to transport, but growing to encompass all topics and periods.

After he and his daughter set up their film archives, he continued his work in film and television presentation and publishing. He was renowned as a fount of information on film, and a stimulating talker. When he died in 2003, Brian Baxter wrote in The Guardian: “It would be apt, yet somehow inadequate, to describe John Huntley, who has died of cancer aged 82, as a writer and film historian, since he was above all a film enthusiast and an educationalist in the broadest sense.”


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