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The History of Film--the Sequel : Movies: The new Center for Motion Picture Study speaks volumes on the industry's respect for its past.

January 23, 1991|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tonight's opening of the $6-million Center for Motion Picture Study on La Cienega Boulevard, between Wilshire and Olympic boulevards, may go a long way toward erasing a widely held impression that the film industry has no respect for its history.

Built and operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the film center will include the historic volumes of the academy's Margaret Herrick Library and the vast Film Archives and Photographic Stills Archive.

Over the decades, the film community hasn't scored the best marks for preserving its history, in the opinion of many film historians. The film industry has allowed some of its greatest celluloid achievements to disintegrate, auctioned off many of its most famous memorabilia and is still lacking the kind of showcase museum many people feel the medium deserves.

Historians also note, with regret, that in the world capital of movies there is not a world-class film festival, and that in the geographic district known as Hollywood, the most overt signs of its celebrated past are footprints in the foyer of Mann's Chinese Theater and Chamber of Commerce stars in the sidewalks.

Only recently have plans for the long-proposed American Cinematheque been approved. But it's not certain when ground at its Hollywood Boulevard site will be broken for the nonprofit facility that someday may house theaters that will show a constant array of films.

"Hollywood is a business," said Linda Harris Mehr, the director of the Margaret Herrick Library, agreeing with the assessment of the historians. "What is commercially viable is what they hold on to," she said, adding that what isn't commercially viable has often been lost.

All this hasn't been lost on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which began its library in 1931. Under the direction of Margaret Herrick, one of the earliest librarians, the library took on its present scope, Mehr said.

"We try to save everything at the library, because it is a record of our culture," Mehr said. "Movies are the scriptures of our age, so to speak."

The library's growth necessitated the change of locales.

"The library maintains the behind-the-scenes material on how these works were created," Mehr said. "It is of value to many disciplines--historians, sociologists, the business world, literature, the art world."

"All kinds of students and writers about the business would have to scramble if this collection didn't exist," said producer Richard Zanuck ("Driving Miss Daisy"), a financial contributor to the center. "Hollywood is the center of the film business . . . always has been, so this center is needed."

Tonight's unveiling of the Center for Motion Picture Study is "a proud moment for the academy," echoed Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director. "This is what an arts academy is all about . . . preserving the history of the art for study. And the new location gives the library a prominence that it never had before."

"It takes a lot of money and enterprise to do this," said Edward G. Stotsenberg, the president of the Mary Pickford Foundation, named for the actress who was one of the academy's founding members. "Hollywood has tried to get museums started. But it takes someone like the academy to get something like this started because it has the connections with all the studios and actors and all phases of the motion-picture industry."

After the opening tonight, and three other preview parties this week for the academy's more than 4,800 members and patrons, the center will be open to the public beginning Monday.

"It's not a tourist attraction. But we make the collection available to those with a serious interest in the art of film," said Mehr, as she surveyed the shelves of books in the De Mille Reading Room. (Mehr's appreciation for film history was established early in life. "My mother worked at the studios and I practically grew up on the RKO lot," she said.)

The library and its companion Academy Film Archive are unlike any other film resource center in the world. Consider the figures: Five million still photographs; clipping files on about 60,000 films and 50,000 individuals; 18,000 books, pamphlets and magazines; 5,000 scripts and more than 12,000 features, documentaries and shorts.

More than 14,000 persons used the old facilities in person during 1990, and another 33,000 used its resources by telephone or mail, Mehr said.

In the collection, safely filed in climate-controlled rooms, are the personal papers of such film luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Pickford, Hal Wallis and Fred Zinnemann, plus original columns by Hedda Hopper, tapes of interviews with Francois Truffaut and Hitchcock, and original sketches by the likes of designers Lea Rhodes and Edith Head.

Letters and documents from the days when the Production Code and the Hays-Bren Office governed the content of movies are on display, as are a number of rare original movie posters.

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