Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Hugh Hefner: The Ultimate Classic Movie Fan

Hugh Hefner with Vivian Blane and Rita Hayworth at the Hollywood Sign fundraiser, circa 1978
Photo source: AP and Another Mag

On a cold wintry day in 2015, I sat in a makeshift screening room of a Holiday Inn in upstate New York. It was the final Cinefest and one of the highlights of the show would be a screening of the once lost Me and the Boys (1929). This jazz short starring Estelle Brody and Ben Pollack's band clocks in at nine minutes. Discovered in 2013, it was restored by the UCLA Film & Television archive and presented at a few screenings including Cinefest. Only die-hard cinephiles, and maybe jazz nuts too, would be interested in this obscure gem. One of the most famous figures who fits into that category was Hugh Hefner. The media mogul was known around the world as the founder of Playboy magazine but to our small community was known as a patron of classic film restoration. Hefner contributed funds to restore Me and the Boys and many other shorts and feature-length films.

Hugh Hefner passed away last week at the age of 91. Over the past few decades Hefner has contributed much to the preservation and exhibition of classic film. His love of movies started as a child living in Chicago during the Great Depression. Hefner said,
“The movies, other than family, were the major influence of my childhood... I was in a very typical Midwestern, Methodist home with a lot of repression and not much demonstrative expression of emotion. My escape was the darkened theater." 
“The reality is because I was not shown affection, I escaped into an alternate universe, and it came right out of the movies. Love for me is defined almost exclusively in terms of romantic love as defined by the films of my childhood."

Hefner held onto that love for the classics throughout his life. Even his well-known fascination with blondes came from watching icons like Jean Harlow and Alice Faye on the big screen. When interviewed during the early naughts at the Playboy Mansion, Hefner proclaimed,

“My dreams came from movies of the 1930s and 40s. There in the dark, all dreams are possible.”

The Playboy Mansion boasted an enormous film collection accrued by Hefner over the years. His movies were organized by genre and color coded. Orange was comedy, blue was crime, green was musicals and so on. Within the genres, the films were arranged in chronological order. The mansion's living room converted into a full movie theater several times a week. One or two nights were devoted to new releases while Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for the classics. Hefner would devote what he referred to as "an afternoon I really can't afford" to writing up an introduction which he would then present to his guests before screening a classic movie.

Hefner's favorite movie? It was Casablanca (1942). Every year on his birthday he would host a Casablanca themed birthday party. Men were required to where cream colored tuxedo jackets like Humphrey Bogart does in the film. Women dressed up in their most glamorous gowns. The dining room was decorated to emulate Rick’s Cafe and the birthday cake was decorated with the Casablanca poster.
“Movies are my passion.” - Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner also adored movie stars. Not only were the celebrities of the moment invites to his many lavish parties hosted at the Playboy Mansion, he also befriended many classic film stars. Writer and critic Glenn Kenny shared this sweet story of Hefner meeting Alice Faye at Cinecon in 1993.

“My task was to keep the droolers (for lack of a better term) from getting too weirdly close to Ms. Faye. She was very game through each signing event. Hefner and his pal Chuck McCann made the pilgrimage on a Sunday morning. They waited on line like everyone else. Once Hefner met Alice, he was diffident, worshipful. He quietly rhapsodized to Alice of matinees spent gazing at her loveliness. Alice was moved, but not knocked out. She knew who Hefner was, but his world was not one she was conversant with. That didn't matter to him. He was there to meet his childhood silver screen crush. A relatively innocent and clearly precious thing. His real heart was in this past.” - Glenn Kelly

Hefner simply loved Hollywood. In 1978 when the landmark Hollywood sign was in disrepair, Hefner hosted a fundraiser selling each of the old letters to wealthy buyers. He raised enough to pay for a brand new sign. Three decades later in 2010, the sign was once again in trouble. The land around in danger of being developed. Trust for Public land was trying to raise the $12.5 million to save the surrounding property but were $900k short. Hefner stepped in and contributed the rest. When asked about the Hollywood sign, Hefner said, “it’s become something iconic and represents not only the town but represents Hollywood dreams, and I think that’s something worth preserving.”

In the last decades of his life, Hugh Hefner made many contributions to support classic film preservation and exhibition. Hefner frequently contributed to the UCLA Film and Television Archive and in 2005 he contributed $1 million to start their Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film program. Over at USC, he contributed $1.5 million dollars in 1995 to endow the Hugh M. Hefner Chair for the Study of American Film and funded the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. For over a decade, he was a guest lecturer for a film censorship class which he also contributed financially to.

Hefner directly funded the restoration of numerous films including obscure musical shorts and feature-length silent and talking pictures. Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project had this story to share:
"When the long-lost Bing Crosby short TWO PLUS FOURS (Pathe, 1930) was found, I contacted Hef's (a huge Crosby and Al Bowlly fan) assistant Mary O'Connor to see if he'd fed its restoration. She called back to say he would. I then stupidly said I'd find out the cost and let her know. She said, nicely but recognizing my. cluelessness, "Ron, just send us the bill!".

Below is a list of film preservation projects that Hugh Hefner has been credited as funding. If you know of any ones I missed, please tell me in the comment section below (along with a creditable source) and I will add it to my list.

Hugh Hefner Film Preservation Projects
Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
The Lost World (1925)
Al Jolson in A Plantation Act (1926)
The Band Beautiful (1928)
Harry Wayman and His 'Debutantes' (1928)
Me and the Boys (1929)
The Opry House (1929)
Pandora’s Box (1929)
Tal Henry and His North Carolinians (1929)
Warner Oland Fu Manchu films (1929-1931)
The Benson Murder Case (1930)
Two Plus Fours (1930)
The Spider (1931)
The Big Broadcast (1932)
Too Much Harmony (1933)
Murder at the Vanities (1934)
14 Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films including...
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), The Spider Woman (1944),
and The Scarlet Claw (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Ruthless (1948)

Starting in the late 1990s, Hugh Hefner was executive producer on numerous documentaries about classic film. These include the following:

Documentaries produced by Hugh Hefner
Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (1997)
Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu (1998)
Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl (1999)
Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood (2000)
Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (2001)
Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000)
Rita (2003)
Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart (2003)
The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006)
Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema (2007)
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2017)

Those of us who love and support the arts know that the biggest obstacles are financial ones. The classic film community was lucky to have such a generous patron.

Glenn Kenny Twitter
LA Times 
Hugh Hefner tour on MTV Cribs
Leonard Maltin
The Hollywood Reporter
and others

Note: This article serves to inform my readers about Hefner's contributions to classic film preservation and exhibition, his love of movies and his work to save the Hollywood sign. It is not meant to be about any other aspect of his life. Please consider this when leaving a comment below. Any irrelevant or inappropriate comments will be deleted.

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