By Lincoln Hubbard
Not many students realize that the special collections archive of BYU houses the ten commandments.
These particular commandments were never the property of Moses. Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s most respected directors, owned them.
The miniature tablets were part of a promotional campaign for his epic ’50s film “The Ten Commandments” and are now part of the Cecil B. DeMille archive at BYU.
The Harold B. Lee Library houses what is likely the largest collection of DeMille documents and memorabilia outside of the DeMille family.
Dr. James V. D’arc, curator of the literary arts and communications archives at BYU, said students from many different majors have found research opportunities in the archives.
“We greatly encourage student access because of the thrill that research into a manuscript collection dealing with motion pictures can be,” D’arc said.
“Handling an original script to ‘The Ten Commandments’ or ‘Samson and Delilah’ is an indescribable experience. All of the sudden these people who labored in the industry 50-60 years ago become living, breathing entities,” he said.
Charlene Winters, a film and theater graduate who now works at BYU’s alumni house, wrote her thesis about how DeMille revived a sometimes lagging career to establish himself as the Spielberg of his day.
Winters found the archives gave her a chance to get to know a man whom she had never met.
“I was so fortunate that I was actually able to look at the DeMille scrapbooks. He kept everything. I was able to see newsclippings, financial grosses, dialogue, even a receipt for a cleaning bill when he went to a premiere,” Winters said. “It’s as if he had a sense he was writing his own history.”
Winters said the value of having the archives on campus is immeasurable.
“I felt I was stepping back in time; as if I was picking up information no-one else really knew,” she said.
The DeMille collection index is nearly two inches thick and lists the contents of over 1,200 boxes of memos, letters, scripts and documents.
BYU houses other important film related materials. The archives are separated into three categories.
Arts and communications take care of all paper-related materials, from scripts to storyboards. Materials relating to actor James Stewart and Merion C. Cooper, producer of King Kong, are housed here.
The film music archive preserves recordings and scores for famous Hollywood composers.
Among others it includes manuscripts and records of Max Steiner including his original pencil score for “Gone with the Wind” and Academy Award statuettes.
Finally, the motion picture archive keeps all visual records, about 5-600 films to date. This archive has grown out of acquiring films along with materials for the other collections.
“Our policy is not that we will collect all kinds of motion pictures. We found many motion picture, video tape, and laser disk items, were coming in with our manuscript collections,” D’arc said.
“We keep film separate because if it gets left in with manuscripts it’s not likely to get the attention a motion picture film needs,” D’arc said.
The attention he refers to is twofold. First is preservation. Historical films were made with technologies no longer in use, so D’arc and his department transfer film onto modern mediums and do what they can to preserve the original.
“Popular film and the documents that are created in popular film, really are footprints of the 20th century,” D’arc said.
He said he believes footprints should be preserved so other generations can walk in them.
The second need for archives is research. Since acquiring the DeMille collection some 20 years ago, D’arc said there have been over 1000 significant uses of that collection.
Anytime anyone needs information on DeMille, the archives have books, articles, student papers, theses and dissertations, TV documentaries, or major world wide exhibitions, BYU is the place to come.
D’arc said he is eager for more students to use the research opportunity of the archives.
“I really wish more students and faculty would expose themselves. Researching original archive material takes more time, but a student can find it a very satisfying, rich and rewarding experience,” he said.
Winters agrees. For her, the chance to learn first hand from original documents brings some special memories.
“That was what was so great about being able to do this. I didn’t have to rely on secondary texts that much, I was able to make my conclusions from primary, original material,” Winters said.
BYU is not the only campus with a sense of preserving movie history, but D’arc noted students here enjoy much greater access than other places.
D’arc said the archives provide a rare opportunity for students to delve into the past, but students also have a responsibility to preserve the treasures they work with.
The archives interviews students wishing to do research to ensure their research topic is well defined and they are willing to obey the library protocols.
Winters said that because the film industry is changing, the opportunity to do research with original documents would decrease for the students of tomorrow.
“Today’s directors are not going to keep these kinds of records, things are computer generated. I doubt we’ll ever have another Cecil B DeMille type collection,” she said.
This is one of the reasons that D’arc concentrates on making the best use of existing collections rather than starting new ones.
“Our future plans are to catalogue the collections and let people know they are here,” D’arc said.