Our latest blog comes from volunteer Dr Sabine Starmanns, who explores the fascinating world of film scrapbooks through a recent donation to the museum.
When I was cataloguing a fascinating collection of film and television ephemera donated by Keith Lodwick, I came across a number of movie scrapbooks assembled by film fans in the 1930s. This evoked personal memories, as I had myself assembled a scrapbook of sorts at age 12, documenting a year of films I had watched on television; my scrapbook consisted of a contents page and one page dedicated to each film. When I look back at the loving manner with which I assembled articles and images from various newspapers and television magazines, I can see the personal significance of these types of scrapbooks, which detailed my interests and passions at the time.
Scrapbooks were particularly popular in the 19th and early 20th century, when scrapbooking was regarded as mainly a pastime of young women who wanted to document important parts of their life. Using “mixed media sources” (Anselmo, 2019: 144), they constructed “personal media assemblages: individualized collections of media fragments both original and appropriated, including notes, messages, photographs, symbolic tokens, and snippets of meaningful items” (Good, 2013: 559). Unlike standard scrapbooks that mainly detailed aspects of its author’s life, movie fans collated “single-theme scrapbooks” (ibid.: 565) that focused on one film (or celebrity) in particular. The scrapbooks I catalogued belong to this category. For me they give an indication of: a) the publicity and promotional materials on a particular film or celebrity which were available to scrapbook authors at the time; b) the material scrapbook authors considered significant enough to keep; and: c) the individual ways in which authors assembled this material. Fans were therefore able to personalise their scrapbooks by: choosing which material to use, how to arrange and present it, and which type of paper and binding to present it in. The scrapbooks I catalogued vary in size, thickness and detail; they are either bound simply with string or consist of pages glued together. The detail on the cover page and title can vary significantly. The scrapbooks in question mainly consist of: a retelling of the film’s plot in fictional form, complete with film stills; details of cast and crew; behind-the-scenes footage; promotional articles about the stars; and stills from the film and set. Articles or figures were often collated and cut up to fit the page, which can indicate a fan’s fondness for a certain actor in the film or their preference of one star over another.
Like my personal scrapbook, the scrapbooks I catalogued did not contain a large amount of varied and personal sources, rather reassembling articles in newspapers and magazines and other publicity material. Despite this, I believe they remain an important example of the way in which fans communicated their love for a film or star through manipulation of these sources. Assembling materials in this manner could serve as a possibility for the fan to recollect, as well as celebrate, the film in question before the advent of video cassettes and film retrospectives. Creating a type of “movy albums focused on safekeeping film ephemera” (Anselmo, 2019: 144) therefore enabled the fan to revisit the film often, thereby giving their film experience a sense of “permanence” (ibid.: 148). The scrapbooks I catalogued consisted of the following British and American films: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz, 1939), Cleopatra (deMille, 1934), Dark Journey (Saville, 1937), The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan, 1938), Follow the Fleet (Sandrich, 1936), and A Yank at Oxford (Conway, 1938). Although most of these are well-known films, I would like to focus on one scrapbook in particular, that of the lesser-known British romantic comedy The Divorce of Lady X (Whelan, 1938), starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. I examine the scrapbook in more detail, with the following questions in mind: How has it been assembled? Can it give an insight into the author’s mindset?
Unlike the pre-fashioned “commercial scrapbooks” from the early twentieth century (Good, 2013: 564), all the above-mentioned scrapbooks were constructed from scratch, using items available to the author. For example, the scrapbook for ‘The Divorce of Lady X’ is made up of A4-pages glued simply together; however, the care with which the title page has been constructed indicates the author’s desire to construct a lasting and decorative document - they used black and beige tape to bind the edges and provide a frame for the cover, and the title is handwritten in a style which mimics a 3D-effect.
Although, at first glance, the clippings inside the scrapbook seem assembled merely to fit onto the page, it is possible to detect a certain structure to its compilation. There are different sections to the scrapbook, starting with pre-release articles of the film, clippings from different sources detailing cast and crew, plus a brief plot summary. The author then added a complete, ready-made booklet which retells the film’s plot with the help of film stills. In the following pages, however, the author constructs a personalised plot retelling by inserting a slightly smaller set of pages - a book within the book - featuring film stills extracted and pasted from magazines, with additional dialogue from the film handwritten under the pictures. This selection demonstrates the author’s intimate knowledge of the film and could indicate their interest in, and desire to remember, specific scenes.
The small booklet is followed by three pages of stills from the film’s set, while finally focusing on the two stars. There seems to be a specific attention on the female star, Merle Oberon, as the following pages contain numerous clippings of Oberon - fashion stills, full-page glamour shots and two detailed articles on her approach to acting and a ‘typical’ day of work - with little material on Olivier. This could either indicate the author’s greater interest in Oberon, or the possibility of a generally larger focus on Oberon by the press and film studio’s publicity team. These conclusions, however, are challenged by the addition of a A4 size, hand-drawn portrait of Olivier, complete with his signature, in the scrapbook. Its prominent position on the third page could indicate its significance to the author, as it does not follow the structure of the scrapbook that I detailed above. The fact that it is covered with protective transparent plastic further attests to its importance to the author. Anselmo argues that hand-drawing portraits of stars assists the fan in “negotiate[ing] physical intimacy with movie stars” (2019: 166), thereby highlighting the sensual nature of making and reading scrapbooks.
The sensuous nature of scrapbooking can further be seen in another scrapbook example mentioned above, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger-starrer Follow the Fleet (Sandrich, 1936), shown in the featured image, in which a page containing an article on Astaire’s dancing style is followed by a double page consisting of a collage of small stills of Astaire. These stills depict him in the act of dancing, by himself and with Rogers. The author’s choice of isolating the stills from the article and positioning them on a double page serves to highlight the physical act and kinetic nature of Astaire’s dancing and thereby demonstrates the scrapbook author’s fondness for this type of performance.
The cultural significance of scrapbooks can be seen in Anselmo’s argument that “[s]crapbooks, in paper or digital iterations, are a visual distillation of the complex ways individuals process information and stimuli at one point in time” (2019: 160). Probably in order to profit from the highly personal nature of scrapbooking, contemporary promotional movie scrapbooks have imitated its various visual aspects. For example, the studio-backed film book ‘Newt Scamander: A Movie Scrapbook of Fantastic Beasts’ (Barba, 2016) follows the scrapbook formula by assembling themed pages with photographs of various items and articles connected to the film in a seemingly random fashion, which adds a personal, and therefore more accessible, touch. A further continuation of scrapbooking in contemporary digital times can be seen in Good’s following quote:
While scrapbooking continues to be a popular hobby and a global industry in the twenty-first century, many of the old social uses for scrapbooks have carried over into the digital domain. The tradition of pasting together a media-based biography is gradually being replicated, and some would say replaced, by new habits of posting, sharing and performing online (2013: 571).
Modern versions of ‘single-theme’ scrapbooks can also be found on modern fan pages which celebrate specific films or celebrities through assembling different reviews, publicity stills and often film clips collected online. The tradition of scrapbooking therefore continues, albeit in a different format.
Anselmo, Diana W. (2019) “Bound by Paper: Girl Fans, Movie Scrapbooks, and Hollywood Reception during World War I” in Film History: An International Journal, Volume 31, Number 3, pp. 141-172.
Good, Katie Day (2013) “From Scrapbook to Facebook: A History of Personal Media Assemblage and Archives”, in New Media & Society, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp. 557-573.
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