“My father was a very typical Jewish shirt salesman in the New York garment district who became a 16mm film collector,” said Bennett Lovett-Graff, editor at Scarecrow Press and publisher of the New Haven Review.
But that word typical seems a bit of a misnomer. There was nothing ordinary about the zeal with which Herb Graff collected films, nor the generosity with which he shared them. “Shirt-salesman by day, passionate film maven by night,” as Lovett-Graff said, Herb Graff collected films for over 30 years and took every opportunity to present them to the public, through screenings, lectures, and leases so that they could be reused by educational programs or documentary filmmakers.
Fascinating and representative samples from this film collection, a significant portion of which was recently donated to the Yale Film Study Center, will be the subject of Saturday’s edition of the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series, entitled “Films from the Herb Graff Collection.” The films will screen at 2 p.m.
After the screening, which will consist of 14 nonfiction shorts — mostly black and white newsreel footage that examines a range of historical, musical, and literary topics — Lovett-Graff and Yale Film Archivist Brian Meacham will lead a discussion about the collection and its not-so-typical collector.
Born in Boston but reared in Brooklyn, Graff spent a majority of his nonprofessional life collecting, sharing, and talking about films. His charm, passion, and dedication made him the subject of a 1989 New Yorker profile. A child of the Depression who found himself inexorably drawn to film, Graff was part of an influential circle of mid-century cineastes, including William K. Everson and Leonard Maltin, who helped preserve American films for future generations.
The collectors “are known in the field as guardians of a lot of film heritage during a period of time in which it wasn’t necessarily valued by those who produced it,” explained Meacham. “These collectors are some of the people who helped bridge the time between when the films were created and when they could make their ways to the archives. Their contributions to helping collect and save and safeguard film history are invaluable.”
Analyzing film a few generations before the rise of academic film studies departments, Graff and his colleagues were experts in their areas of interest. For Graff, that meant programming film series at the Brooklyn Museum and hosting shows on PBS, where he would present everything from Charlie Chaplin’s silent films to early African-American musicals to British talkies. He crafted his programs around the entertaining and the culturally relevant, which led to discussions of more unorthodox material, such as TV bloopers and the history of Jews in film.
After Graff passed away in 2000, his collection was divided between his two sons. Lovett-Graff received all the documentary material, while his brother inherited the Hollywood, red-carpet selection. Lovett-Graff has donated his portion of the collection to the Yale Film Archive, which will now house the over 500 reels of news items, educational shorts, interviews with public figures, industrial films, and other nonfiction, non-Hollywood material recorded from 1910 to 1955.
Both Meacham and Lovett-Graff see great educational and popular appeal in the short films they will screen on Apr. 25, particularly in the insight they offer into the political, social, and cultural values of mid-century America. From Maker of Water Skis, a newsreel about a Maine water ski champion who builds and races with his own equipment, to Six Flags over Texas, an early promotional video for the original, now-iconic amusement park, to Battle of the Books, a WWII-era propaganda film from the British Ministry of Information about how the Allies encourage reading while the Nazis encourage book burning, some of the most fascinating material in Herb Graff’s collection hint at the language, clothes, manners, and topics that defined mid-century life.
They “give a window into the light news that is really lost when you look at the headline version of history,” Meacham said. “It’s hard to get that just looking for it. It more happens kind of accidentally. And when you have a quantity of collection like we do now, it’s really rich with material.”
Which gets to exactly why Graff donated the collection to the Yale Film Archive in the first place: so it can be better preserved, cataloged, and, most importantly, used.
“The collection’s possible destruction or dissolution would be the worst thing that could have happened to any memory of my father, or these films,” Lovett-Graff said. “The preservation, and cataloging, and the chance for it to be used, that’s exactly its purpose. Otherwise, you might as well burn the thing, or leave it in the basement until it floods. I know how good the material is, and it’s not worth letting that happen.”
Thanks to his donation, and the archival work of Meacham and his colleagues, we will all get a chance to see a selection of these films, projected in 16mm, opening a window onto who we were and how we defined ourselves just a few decades ago.
Films from the Herb Graff Collection will be playing from 2–4 p.m. at the Whitney Humanities Center on Saturday, April 25th. This event is free and open to the public. Please reach out to email@example.com if you would like to learn more about these films.