Reading Up on Iris Barry and MoMA Film’s Beginnings

This summer, I read two books, inspired by my being booked for a film series that will run at MoMA from October 21 through the end of the year. I wanted to get inside the point of series, and not just which films were scheduled. The books are: Lady in the Dark, a biography of Iris Barry; and Museum Movies, about Barry and the founding and early years of MoMA’s Film Library and film exhibitions.

MoMA is presenting Iris Barry’s History of Film from October 21 (reopening day for the museum) through the end of 2019. Screenings will be held every day Monday through Friday at 1:30pm. The series was organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator in the Department of Film at MoMA. 

A majority of the films in the series are from the silent era, and remainder are from the early 1930s. Iris Barry was hired by the Museum of Modern Art to found its Film Library in 1935, seven years after the museum itself opened and six years after the talkie transition. The films programmed are films that Barry herself chose for circulation by the Film Library and for exhibition in the mid-to-late ’thirties, titles that pioneered the field of film studies itself as well as the cinema studies canon for the first three decades of movies.

I’m looking forward to the series. Not just because it means I’ll have steady work (on top of other shows) for a little while, but Iris Barry’s History of Film will give me a chance to re-visit all these films, in a theatre with an audience. The reason I read Lady in the Dark and Museum Movies was that I wanted to get inside the mindset of why and how the notions of declaring that film was art and should be screened and studied came about.

While it’s easy to look at the list of titles in the series and think “Film Studies 101”, these films and their being exhibited by and at MoMA in the late 1930s is the reason they became “Film Studies 101” movies. What comes off as bold to me is the declaration of these films’ importance during an era when silent film itself was being disregarded, derided, and considered an outmoded antique.

Iris Barry John Abbott MoMA
Iris Barry and John Abbott, at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library. Image sourced from the Women Film Pioneers Project’s Iris Barry page, written by Robert Sitton

I plan to blog a good deal more about all this over the coming days and weeks, not only about Iris Barry, and the films being shown, but also another element of the beginnings of MoMA’s film exhibition which is touched on only slightly in the two books I read. It’s a key part of the initial years’ film screenings that is important to me — MoMA’s hiring of Arthur Kleiner as its full-time silent film pianist in 1939 when its new building at 11 W. 53rd Street opened. 

Modern Matinees: Iris Barry’s History of Film runs October 21 through December 31 of 2019. Full film descriptions — adapted by Anne Morra from Iris Barry’s original film notes — are available on the MoMA website, where you can also get tickets for the screenings. Shows are daily, Monday through Friday, at 1:30pm. Below are listed the silent films that I will be accompanying on either piano or theatre organ for October and November; I’ll post the December shows I’ll be playing once they go up on MoMA’s site.

  • Mon Oct 21 – Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1914)
  • Tues Oct 22 – Program of Early Films 1895-1912
  • Weds Oct 23 – William S. Hart in The Taking of Luke McVane (1915) and other shorts
  • Thurs Oct 24 – D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916)
  • Weds Oct 30 – Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1927) starring Emil Jannings
  • Thurs Oct 31 – Paul Wegener in Der Golem (1920)
  • Fri Nov 1 – The Covered Wagon (1923) dir. By James Cruze
  • Tues Nov 5 – Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (1925)
  • Thurs Nov 7 – Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1928) starring George Bancroft
  • Fri Nov 8 – Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927)
  • Mon Nov 11 – Paul Wegener in Der Golem (1920)
  • Tues Nov 12 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) – plus “Iris Barry Talks” post-screening discussion, with Anne Morra and Larry Kardish
  • Mon Nov 18 – Rene Clair’s The Crazy Ray (1923)
  • Tues Nov 19 – Eric von Stroheim’s Greed (1924)
  • Thurs Nov 21 – Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
  • Fri Nov 22 – Pola Negri in Hotel Imperial (1927)
  • Tues Nov 26 – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) with Rudolph Valentino
  • Fri Nov 29 – Buster Keaton in The Navigator (1924)

See you at the silents!

Thoughts? Comments?

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