George Eastman Museum Offers Films from its Collection, Free

Films by groundbreaking documentary maker Leo Hurwitz are among selections from the collection of the George Eastman Museum that you can now watch on the museum’s website.

In a new project, Eastman is providing free online access to a selection of digitized films from its moving image collection. So far, it has released 23 digitized films for general viewing.

The museum, founded in 1947 in Rochester, in New York state, is the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the largest film archives in the United States. It is located on the estate of its namesake, a key pioneer of popular photography. It holds more than 450,000 photographs and 28,000 motion picture films, as well as a renowned collection of photographic and cinematographic technology and library of books about photography and cinema.

In addition to films by Leo Hurwitz, Eastman has made available a Rochester-based film about Eastman Kodak Company and a group of 13 rare screen tests from the David O. Selznick Collection. Those include a screen test of the recently deceased Olivia de Havilland for her signature role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind.

Normally, the museum exhibits works in their original formats, Peter Bagrov, curator in charge of the Moving Image Department at the Eastman Museum, said in a statement. But the Covid-19 pandemic and the isolation it has enforced on many film enthusiasts have made online resources valuable and appreciated, he said: “We know that viewing these films on a computer or handheld device is not the way they were intended to be seen, but for now, in an effort to provide some special cinematic experiences during this pandemic, we hope that you all enjoy the shows!”

The museum has a collection of 35 films by Leo Hurwitz, as well as extensive documentation about them. During his 60-year career, Hurwitz became an influential documentary filmmaker for such works as Emergency Ward (1952) and The Young Fighter (1953, left), which were predecessors to direct cinema.

Hurwitz made the latter while blacklisted and working without formal credit.

Also available via Eastman’s online exhibition is Dancing James Berry (1958), Hurwitz’s record of African American social jazz dancing, and Here at the Water’s Edge (1962), which Eastman describes as “a visual poem that grows more relevant today in the context of climate change.”

Eastman preserved those Hurwitz titles with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rohauer Collection Foundation.

Also provided for public view on the Eastman website are some of its collection of more than 300 screen tests for motion pictures that producer and studio executive David O. Selznick made with Hollywood stars as well as lesser lights.

The tests include some that Selznick made for The Young in Heart (1938) and Gone with the Wind (1939): Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel were filmed to try out various hairstyles, makeup, and costumes. Also among the Gone with the Wind tests are some of actors who did not find roles in the film, such as Susan Hayward and Margaret Tallichet, who auditioned unsuccessfully for the Scarlett O’Hara role, and Georgette Harvey (who auditioned for Mammy).

Also in the collection are tests of two American theater legends, Maude Adams and Laurette Taylor, who were considered for the same role in The Young in Heart. The tests are the two icons’ only recorded acting in sound films.

The Eastman Museum’s online selection also includes a film about the Kodak film company’s production of film and cameras: James Sibley Watson Jr and Ken Edwards’ Highlights and Shadows, from 1937. The filmmakers used an innovative multiple exposure technique developed by Watson to dramatize the company’s production processes.

Also now online are Motion Picture Industry Red Cross War Fund Week Trailer (1945), directed by Jacques Tourneur and featuring Ingrid Bergman; Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Enamored Heart), a German film from 1919; the first of Lotte Reiniger’s acclaimed silhouette films; and a group of actuality films preserved through the Saving America’s Treasures initiative: A Connecticut Skunk Farm (1914), The Key to Beauty (1917), and The Latest Kinks in Canning (1917).

Peter Bagrov, the curator of the selection, said in an online introduction that “in the days of global isolation, online resources become particularly valuable and appreciated.” He said the new exhibition — sponsored by Nocon & Associates, a private wealth advisory practice — serves as a showcase for film preservation, because the Museum digitizes only films that have been preserved, either by Eastman’s own Film Preservation Services, launched in 2014, or other labs around the world.

He said his unit plans to display more titles, particularly rare and obscure ones that “could seldom be seen in a cinema, most of them unique to our collection.” Not everyone can come to Rochester to see the films, so “one could argue that it is better to watch a film online than not to see it at all. Fair enough.”

Still, he added, “an online publication is but a surrogate. We have to realize that. Online communication is a surrogate of communication—at times a necessary one.”

— from press release and exhibition notes

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