More than forty years ago, while doing research at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library, I came upon an item in a trade magazine about a short-subject which featured footage of Carole Lombard directing Alfred Hitchcock in his cameo appearance for their 1941 comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I’ve been looking for that footage ever since. In fact, I’ve been looking for any prints of the series where it appeared: Picture People. I have canvassed private collectors and archives alike with shockingly little success.
There were 26 shorts released between 1940 and 1942 and in all that time I have managed to acquire just one 16mm print. The Library of Congress has the same episode I have, Palm Springs Weekend, plus one more, Hollywood on the Hudson, and that one is duplicated in the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art. That accounts for two altogether…and neither one includes the tantalizing Lombard-Hitchcock scene.
My friend Steven Smith recalled using the Lombard scene in an episode of A&E’s Biography series that he produced years ago. He got me a copy and his memory was accurate. I’ve been able to capture frames from this enticing moment in Hollywood history, which was used without its original soundtrack in the Lombard documentary. Its source seems to have been Producers Library, a stock footage house in Los Angeles…but their searchable database doesn’t offer any leads on other Picture People shorts.
Why does this matter so much? Because I have read synopses of the entire series and they contain long-unseen footage of Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, Bing Crosby and a veritable who’s who of show business. I refuse to believe that this priceless material doesn’t exist somewhere and I want to see it all. (Don’t you?)
Ownership of Picture People is as elusive a matter as the films themselves. They were produced by RKO-Pathé, a division of RKO that was also responsible for a twice-weekly newsreel, the Flicker Flashback shorts, a March of Time-like series called This is America and short-subjects based on the popular radio shows Information Please and It Pays to be Ignorant. At some point all of these films were separated from the RKO feature film library (and the Hollywood studio’s own shorts featuring Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol) and sold off…to whom, I do not know.
Here’s another puzzle: for some reason the Picture People series was never registered for copyright.
Some years ago I followed a lead to an individual in New York City who claimed to own Picture People, as well as several early television variety shows. When I pressed him for details and pleaded him to let me see some of the shorts he became vague and my follow-ups led nowhere.
Behind-the-scenes shorts were not a new idea when Picture People debuted in 1940. Screen Snapshots originated during the silent era and continued at Columbia Pictures through the late 1950s. The appeal was obvious, as RKO promotional copy declared, “These subjects have all the appeal of fan magazine interviews—and more! They are intimate, personal, real! The public is avid for news of their favorites. Fan magazines for many year have enjoyed a tremendous popularity. The 14 best sellers have a paid circulation in excess of 14 million, and the total number of fan magazines sold each month is said to total more than 8,000,000. From the very inception of the picture business the public has had an insatiable interest in the personal life of the stars Picture People is designed to satisfy the public’s curiosity.”
RKO also saw a pointed opportunity to promote its current and upcoming releases, so particular attention is paid to the likes of Lucille Ball, Michele Morgan, Lum and Abner, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Citizen Kane’s leading lady Dorothy Comingore, among others.
Coincidentally (or not), around the same time that RKO initiated its series two competitors entered the arena: Paramount introduced Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood and Republic Pictures offered audiences Meet the Stars, hosted at first by Harriet Parsons, the daughter of Hopper’s longtime rival Louella Parsons. Although they both incorporate valuable footage from today’s standpoint they apparently didn’t fare well with theater owners and faded from the scene within a year. (The Hedda Hopper series was released on 16mm by Blackhawk Films and later turned up on videocassette from Republic. It would be nice to have access to them again.)
To emphasize why I am so determined to find the Picture People library, here are just a few highlights I’ve found in trade reviews and RKO’s official press releases:
Buster Keaton demonstrates “his prize invention,” a Rube Goldbergian contraption that has been described in several Keaton biographies but never filmed, to my knowledge, except here.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson shows off his prowess at pocket billiards.
W.C. Fields is among the guests at the opening of a club called Don Dickerman’s Pirate Den where he dons a noose in a make-believe hanging ceremony!
John Barrymore rehearses for one of his appearances on Rudy Vallee’s popular radio show in Vallee’s kitchen.
Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester enact an eerie play under the direction of radio’s famed writer-director Arch Oboler, who directs his stars as well as his sound-effects man.
Jack Benny offers a humorous look at how his writers prepare a script for his radio show.
Anna May Wong gives us a tour of her distinctively decorated house and garden.
Ray Bolger demonstrates a new tap routine for songwriter Harold Arlen.
Director Garson Kanin and his stars Ginger Rogers, Burgess Meredith and George Murphy share scenes from their upcoming comedy Tom Dick and Harry.
Basil Rathbone updates Sherlock Holmes’ modus operandi by examining the latest detective gadgets at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.
Claire Trevor’s hobby of shooting 16mm home movies is shared (it says here) by Alexander Korda, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and David O. Selznick!
Fresh from the set of The Magnificent Ambersons, movie newcomers Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter are caricatured by the resident artist at the Brown Derby. (The actor’s name is misspelled Cotton, a recurring problem that persists to this very day.)
Newlyweds Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz go bicycling during a weekend getaway in Palm Springs.
George Hurrell, master portrait photographer, shoots Ilona Massey for a Red Cross poster. Other notable fotogs are featured in this reel including Paul Hesse, Ernest Bachrach, Gene Lester, and Earl Thiesen.
Richard Bennett attends a family gathering with his two famous daughters Constance and Joan.
This is just a sampling of the footage waiting to be found, along with shots of Rita Hayworth being fitted for a new dress, Gene Autry doing tricks with his horse Champion, Gail Patrick shopping at the Farmer’s Market, etc. I refuse to believe that all of this is lost to time. Can’t someone uncover the treasures that constitute Picture People?