Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hugh Hefner, Film Preservationist, Dead at 91

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
A lifelong champion of film preservation and restoration, Hugh Hefner, passed away yesterday at the age of 91. No doubt the news will focus primarily on the founding of Playboy, a men’s lifestyle and entertainment magazine, which played an important role in the sexual revolution, many failing to mention how the magazine showcased the works of Harvey Kurtzman, Jules Feiffer, P.G. Wodehouse, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gore Vidal, and exclusive interviews with public figures. The news media (being what it is) will no doubt focus on the controversy of the magazine’s liberal editorial stance with photographs of Playboy Playmates, rather than the untold millions he donated to film preservation.

For the record, Playboy rarely featured full frontal nudity for the first two decades. The cheesecake photos were to simulate “the girl next door” with teases of suggestive nudity, but competition in the field it founded – especially from Penthouse and Hustler – caused Hefner to apply a more cultural relevance. Amidst battles with the United States Postal Service, Congressmen and anyone who sought publicity by going up against him, Hefner prevailed and his magazine established him a very wealthy man. There will no doubt be those who speak ill of the dead and choose to judge a man by what the public manifested over the years, an image of wild pool parties and sexual conquests... and then there will be those who defend the man who literally changed the landscape of society – one page at a time.

Hugh Hefner's favorite movie was Casablanca (1941).

At his prime, the best-selling issue was the November 1972 edition, reaching a circulation of 7,161,561 copies. Playboy became the first gentleman’s magazine to be printed in braille. Hefner used the magazine to help lead the civil rights movement in the 1960s, advocate equal pay for women, and fight against draconian drug laws. He used his short-lived Playboy After Dark television program to highlight the talents of black entertainers. (The series had to be syndicated because none of the major networks would consider airing a program where blacks and whites partied casually.) He was an advocate of jazz music and invested money for the annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Ray Bradbury’s critically-acclaimed novel, Fahrenheit 451, was first published in serial form within the March, April and May 1954 issues. The magazine became notable for the exclusive interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, and was responsible for the famous quote delivered by the then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in the November 1976 issue, in which Carter stated, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

The Big Sleep (1946)
But what the major news outlets will forget to mention is the fact that Hefner spent millions restoring vintage Hollywood motion-pictures. A big fan of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, he was dismayed when he learned that most of the archival negatives were in poor condition. Some of the 1993 Key Video releases featured the wrong closing credits, missing scenes and inferior picture and sound. From 1993 to 1995, Hefner funded fifty percent of the cost to the UCLA Film Archive to restore all 14 of the Sherlock Holmes films. "Worth every penny," he proudly told me. If you have those MPI DVD releases and admired the superior picture and sound, you can thank Hugh Hefner for that.

In cooperation with UCLA’s film preservation efforts, Hefner wrote check after check to cover the expenses for dozens of movies including the three Warner Oland Fu Manchu movies (1929-1931), Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946), Pandora's Box (1929), and many others. In 2005, he endowed the on-going Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program, to assure classic movies would be screened for the benefit of Los Angeles audiences for years to come. At USC, the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive preserves student films, vintage newsreels and tons of silent motion pictures.
Pandora's Box (1929)

Return of Fu Manchu (1930)
His personal interest in crooner Al Bowlly, who died in 1941, led to the preservation of films featuring the under-appreciated singer. This led to Hefner executive-producing several documentaries about silent screen actors, including a critically-acclaimed documentary about Louise Brooks (pictured above in Pandora's Box), and another about Clara Bow. Discovering the 'It' Girl was responsible for re-introducing Clara Bow to a new generation, myself included. When asked why he chose to preserve her legacy, Hefner remarked: "Nobody has what Clara had. She defined an era and made her mark on the nation." The documentary was released on DVD through Kino on Video many years ago and has since gone out of print. Just try to find a copy on DVD at an affordable price today.

Mary Pickford at the camera.
He donated millions for the restoration of classic movies because, in his opinion, they were historically and culturally significant. This includes movies with Mary Pickford, Olive Thomas, Marion Davies, Lon Chaney, Theda Bara and Rita Hayworth. Devoted followers of the Vitaphone film shorts can thank the man for underwriting restoration and preservation costs for numerous musical band shorts. Many of Mary Pickford's silent movies were restored and released on DVD and Blu-Ray. The most recent release featured restoration funded by Hugh Hefner. 


Not only did he donate millions for film preservation, but also for the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign. Featured prominently along the hillside, Hefner saved and restored that sign – twice. In the 1970s he started a campaign to restore the sign that was crumbling and falling apart. Years later he started a campaign to save the land surrounding the sign. For his efforts, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

So the next time you watch an old movie, including a Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, remember the man who made a fortune with the Playboy empire was responsible for the restoration. Thank you, Mr. Hefner.

1 comment:

Sharon Beck said...

Wow, the Basil Rathbone series of Sherlock Holmes has been a favorite of mine for decades. Thanks for this interesting bit of history.

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