Arts & Culture

Family of ‘Doc Burr’ donates ‘treasure trove of American cinema’ to HFA

3 min read

It began as a childhood hobby, but for Howard Burr, collecting films became a lifelong passion. A dentist by trade, Burr amassed a collection that would make most cinephiles envious: nearly 3,000 films, including many rare prints, B films, and vintage Technicolor prints. To guarantee the collection can be of use to future generations of film students, scholars, historians, and cinephiles, Burr’s family recently agreed to give the collection — which also includes posters, promotional materials, nearly complete runs of film collecting and fan magazines, and vintage projectors — to the Harvard Film Archive (HFA).

“This collection is a treasure trove of American cinema, popular culture, and the lost art of film collecting,” said Haden Guest, director of the HFA. “The posters alone would represent a significant collection, but to have the film prints, and, in addition to them, the lobby cards, Dr. Burr’s correspondence regarding this collecting activities, and even several projectors — it’s a wonderful collection.”

Though the vast majority of the films collected by Burr date to the classical studio era (1930-60), the collection also includes several reissued prints of films originally produced as early as 1916, as well as more modern films, which date to the early 1980s.

While the films themselves are the heart of the collection, promotional materials such as the lobby cards and posters can provide scholars with crucial insight into the workings of the studio system, Guest said.

“What’s interesting is [that] the publicity materials, like the lobby cards and the posters, were not owned by the studios,” Guest said. “They were owned by the National Screen Service, which would actually request the materials be returned to them. Nevertheless, people would find ways to collect it — materials would get ‘lost’ or just wouldn’t be returned. When the National Screen Service closed in the 1960s, this material was dispersed near and far, and since then it’s become highly collectible.”

Other parts of the collection, such as fan magazines and film collectors’ catalogs, offer scholars an important window into the world of film collecting, which was a major hobbyist activity from the 1950s until the emergence of video as a home-viewing format.

“What are really fascinating are the papers,” Guest continued. “The collection includes correspondence between Dr. Burr and other collectors, as well as a wonderful trove of vintage film and fan magazines, many quite rare and in almost complete runs.”

Now being processed and cataloged, the collection will gradually be incorporated into the HFA’s collection. Though the paper materials may be available sooner, it will likely take several months to process all the films, Coffey said. A finding aid for the material will be available in Harvard Library’s online search engine OASIS (Online Archival Search Information System).