Friday, July 3, 2015

What Price, Hollywood?

Debbie Reynolds was one shrewd cookie. On May 3, 1970, David Weisz Co. auctioned off the contents from seven sound stages at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios which included 350,000 costumes. While this 20-day auction event was being held, Miss Reynolds' fellow thespians were lounging comfortably in their palatial Beverly Hills homes lamenting the final curtain call of MGM studios, while the actress herself was emptying her bank account - some $600,000 - and attending each auction, buying up all the costumes and props she could afford. She wanted to preserve some of the treasured mementos from the greatest film studio in Hollywood. 

"They literally threw away our history and I just got caught up in it", Reynolds explained. She also had the foresight to recognize that the props and costumes which were termed "worthless" would be worth quite a penny in the near future. 

Reynolds wasn't the only person to savor the thrill of owning a piece of film history and its investment potential. Movie memorabilia collecting existed long before MGM's famed auction. Why, as far back as 1938 my grandmother was saving the posters from the films that were showing at the Serbian theatre that she worked at as an usherette. Alright, she didn't realize they were of any monetary value, instead her mother used them as wallpaper in their outhouse ( she often claimed they had the prettiest - and warmest - outhouse in their village ). Nevertheless, collecting memorabilia is good business and, even if it weren't, it is too fun an activity for the average film fan not to participate in. 


Through online auction sites, you can - for as little as $1.00 - own a piece of history. Now how cool is that? We're not talking about collectibles here - that's an entirely different field ( and one not worth spending money on ). Memorabilia are genuine articles used in the promotion or making of a motion picture. Collectibles are all the knick-knacks that various companies manufacture to cash in on popular films or celebrities. That Elvis Presley lamp hiding in your uncle's basement is a collectible. If Elvis owned it himself ( how vain! ), it would be memorabilia.


When it comes to memorabilia there are several different buying routes you can explore. You can purchase original material used for publicity purposes ( movie stills, lobby cards, posters, fan cards, tickets, pressbooks ); items used in the making of the film itself ( props, costumes, set pieces ); behind-the-scenes memorabilia ( scripts, clapboards, film cameras, office memos ); or even personal items owned by a celebrity ( like Richard Burton's diary ). 

Since we're in the movie stills business, we recommend that a novice collector begin their purchasing quest buying movie stills, publicity photos, lobby cards and the like. They are inexpensive, easy to maintain, and great to frame. Movie stills were distributed by studios to newspapers, magazines and movie theatres for the promotion of their upcoming releases. They were also assembled in "key books" and archived within the studios' own libraries. With most films, several hundred photos were taken, so it is very likely that you will find a still from a favorite scene. 


Other publicity photos include posed shots of actors in costume for their roles. These are not from scenes in the films and are therefore a bit rarer. They usually include the leading couple getting cozy for the camera or a staging of one of the key scenes in the film, sans the props. Studio artists used these photos as reference when painting the poster artwork. 

The next best memorabilia to begin with would be scripts. Original scripts were printed in limited quantities ( generally less than 50-75 copies ) and therefore their price can range from $10 ( for a new film's script ) to $5000 ( eg. for a script used in the making of Gone with the Wind ). Scripts are good investments since they are made of paper. As the years go by it gets more difficult to find scripts in really good condition, hence they become rarer. 

Scripts from Battleground, Bad Day at Black Rock and Undercurrent

If you are not interested in owning a script then why not purchase a small prop? These can include items such as handkerchiefs, office memos, stationary, cuff-links, watches, etc. Small props are easy to store as well and - although their value does not increase too much - it's just neat owning a piece that was actually used in a movie. 

Once you start buying small props, it is very easy to get lured into the big game...the ultimate props. These are the iconic items that you see predominately in your favorite motion pictures. If you have a few hundred grand to spare, then these are great items to have around the house. However, since most of us cannot afford to buy Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat or Terry-Thomas' spare teeth, we thought we'd share photos of these iconic items instead ( along with the prices that they sold for ). The workers at those film studios never knew what treasures they were handling on a daily basis! 


Harpo Marx gifted Debbie Reynolds with one of his beloved hat and wig combos but after keeping it for years Debbie realized she had no use for Harpo's wig since she wasn't planning on donning his garb and honking at anyone. The wig went up on auction two years ago and sold for $22,500. Now she has something to honk about!


The great Paul Lukas wore this beautiful tweed coat in his role as Professor Bhaer in the original 1933 film version of Little Women starring Katharine Hepburn. Walter Plunkett designed the coat for the picture and oddly enough, it only sold for $275. It costs more to buy a coat like that new. 


Mae West's dazzling ensemble fetched quite a bit more than Professor Bhaer's coat. It sold for $8,500....$3,500 more than anticipated. Travis Banton was the creative mind behind this design, which was worn by Miss West in Belle of the Nineties ( 1934 ).


If you think that amount is a lot to spend on one costume, someone paid $150,000 to have just the head of Gort the robot. The famed alien helmet from The Day the Earth Stood Still ( 1953 ) was made of wood and fiberglass and held up very well over the years. Aliens always did know how to keep their heads intact.


This prop is more in line with our budget. In the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, Max Zorin ( Christopher Walken ) pulls out his checkbook and write a $1,000,000 check paid out to Stacye Sutton ( Tanya Roberts ). Stacey promptly tears it up so we're assuming that prop no longer exists, but someone saved a clean Zorin check...just in case she made a mistake! This one sold for $300.


If there were any two stars who could take the cake for wearing the most elaborate costumes it would be Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. This beautiful Adrian-designed military outfit was worn by Eddy in the 1938 operetta Sweethearts. It sold for $1,100.


The ten commandments .....unbroken! Can you imagine telling your friends that you purchased the original ten commandments? No, these aren't the ones that the Lord engraved, but they are second to it in fame having appeared with Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments ( 1956 ). Some lucky buyer purchased these fiberglass tablets for the mere sum of $60,000 ( cough-cough ).


The person who bought the ten commandments must have also bought the ark of the covenant ( where else would you store them? ). This wooden construction cost the tidy sum of $13,000 and looks just as good as the day it appeared in David in Bathsheba ( 1951 ).


While we're on the subject of Old Testament memorabilia, here is King David's tunic from the same film. When Gregory Peck wore it, the tunic had a whiter shade to it, but then everything yellows over time. This tunic sold for $3,000.


Not all of us have the room to store a beautiful designer gown, so for those who don't want to invest in clothing...there are costume sketches to be had! This beautiful rendering by Helen Rose was created for High Society ( 1955 ), MGM's remake of their own A Philadelphia Story ( 1940 ). It sold for $4,000.


Of all the memorabilia from past auctions this piece amazed us the most. This is the title lettering artwork for My Fair Lady ( 1964 ). It was painted on a 22 x 31 inch plate of glass with the white letters in "Warner Bros Pictures" being painted on the front and the black shading on the back of the glass ( to give it depth ). This plate of glass sold for $10,000... Yikes!


Jerome Courtland used this clapboard while directing an episode of Walt Disney's The Wonderful World of Color in 1978. You would have thought that they wiped the names of the crew cleaned and just reused the clapboards, but perhaps they thought this one was old enough to retire as is. It sold for $2,250 on auction. 


The vamp of the silent era - Theda Bara - wore this bejeweling brassiere in the 1917 silent classic Cleopatra. By itself it doesn't look like much, but on Theda..wow. Someone obviously thought they could pull off wearing it just as well as she did and forked over $8000 to buy it. 


The ultimate Star Wars prop would probably be Darth Vader's helmet, but second best would be this DL-44 blaster owned by Hans Solo ( Harrison Ford ). He zapped a whole ton of space slugs and Vader villians with this baby. Although it doesn't "blast", someone thought it worth dishing out $200,000 for. 


Lastly, a treasure to behold! The entire cast - and many of the crew members - of The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938 ) gathered together to sign a 1936 Rand McNally edition of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. A truly collectible item and it sold for a truly collectible price - $8,000. 

So there you have it...a few gems that were put up on the auction block and currently enshrined in the homes of devout collectors. Every week items like these are being auctioned off across America and - unlike the prices you see above - great deals are still to be had on props that you would never have believed were preserved.

All of the photographs used in this post were obtained from Invaluable.com - the online site where the world's premier auction houses auction their valuables. The majority of these items were auctioned off between 2012-2014 from Profiles in History, which hosted Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood auctions. Click here to view and search more movie props, costumes, and rare memorabilia from past auctions!

7 comments:

  1. Nice roundup of the Hollywood memorabilia field Silver Scenes. I was at the first Debbie Reynolds auction in 2011. I came away with one costume sketch. Of course Debbie had to go through bankruptcy ( or rather her Foundation did) before all the costumes and props went up for auction. Too bad really, as most of the best costumes went to Korea. Hollywood never managed to set up a viable museum to take on her collection as she had always worked for. I agree with you that the photos are a good place to start. They are the most plentiful and are still affordable - but go for the "original vintage" not the "reproductions", "lab prints" etc.

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    1. Yes, you're quite right...reproductions and prints aren't worth the money, especially since the photo market is down right now, you can buy original photos for the same price. The only time they are good to buy is when you want a rare scene from a film and want it in a large size. For example, Movie Market has some great photos from Errol Flynn films in 18x24 size.

      Debbie Reynolds tried to get the Academy ( of Motion Pictures ) to buy her collection and they turned her down - five times! Sometimes it seems as though Hollywood doesn't care at all for its own history.

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  2. I love the the My Fair Lady painted glass title--but $10,000! Of course, the one I really want is the signed edition of ROBIN HOOD, a relative bargain at $8,000. BTW, your grandmother's outhouse sounds like it was awesome.

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    1. That Robin Hood book is indeed a winning piece. I'd be content with a reproduction of it. There were a number of other glass-painted titles on auction the same week as the My Fair Lady one and I was amazed at the prices they sold for - all of them were in the 8-10k range. One was the lettering "Columbia Pictures Present" from an unknown film and even that went for over 8k. Wow!

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  3. I would love that copy of Robin Hood -- wowsers! I have a few lobby cards and production stills, nothing particularly pricey, but they're fun to hang on my walls!

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    1. Movie photos are indeed great to hang on the wall! I remember the very first still I ever bought : the scene of Hayley Mills, Brian Keith and Joanna Barnes by the pool in The Parent Trap ( 1961 ). My sister and I went with our dad and our grandfather to a flea market and a woman had boxes of original movie stills ( at 10 years old I didn't know half the stars or films that she had ). They were all $4 a piece and that seemed like such a lot of money! I think I only had $5 on me at the time. I still have that photo and every time I hold it I get the same thrill as the first time that I bought it. Today my sister and I own nearly 2000 stills but no other photos from The Parent Trap.

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  4. Boy would I love to have Gort's head and the Ten Commandments! I guess they don't really go together, do they? LOL! I don't care -- I would put them on different tables. I really enjoyed this, and wished my budget were a lot bigger!

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