BYU classic film screenings still a hit two decades later
Brigham Young University has been screening classic films once a month since 2001 when BYU’s former film curator James D’Arc decided it was time to dust off the reels of sixteen millimeter celluloid film in their collection.
He thought they should be showcased the way they were made to be seen — on screen, in front of a live audience. Located inside the BYU library, the BYU Motion Picture Archive’s Special Collections features films that are still beloved today, like the 1946 holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to lesser known films from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like “Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love,” that are only found in the university’s collection.
A brief lecture is given before each screening on the history that surrounded and inspired the night’s film. Silent films are accompanied by a live organist, as originally intended. Moviegoers include community residents and students of various majors, all of whom are encouraged to participate in the post-screening discussions.
“In December of 2021 they screened Jimmy Stewart’s personal print of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ That was one of the most amazing movie experiences of my life,” said Deven Hunsaker, a recent BYU graduate. “Classic films to me represent the pinnacle of filmmaking, and have shaped a lot of our modern pop culture. The details always make the viewing experience more profound. More of the public should definitely attend — they’re free, educational and fun.”
These free screenings typically draw between 100 and 150 spectators. For the January screening of “Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love,” the showing was moved to Varsity theater in anticipation of an even larger crowd. In the end, all 375 seats in the larger theater were filled.
“One of the wonderful characteristics of cinema is that it was conceived as a communal art form – one to be experienced with a crowd. And there is still nothing like it. Last Friday we screened ‘Vertigo’ for James Stewart’s birthday and the younger generation, who hadn’t ever seen it, were gasping and yelling out loud at the end,” said Ben Harry, BYU’s current curator of audiovisual materials and media arts history.
In addition to bringing films out of retirement, some have been declared as time-based, meaning they are not allowed to be on display in a case for library patrons to view as they come and go. Instead the library has exhibits that support each film with most of their props from movies and other memorabilia being donated directly from actors, such as Stewart.
After the actor played a leading role in the 1980 LDS Church film “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas”, he walked away with good feelings towards the church. D’Arc later asked Stewart if he would consider donating his personal papers and other memorabilia to the university’s collection. He agreed to donate, believing it was good fit for his legacy, Harry said.
The library is home to Stewart’s entire collection of papers, the extent of which is massive. Just recently BYU library technicians have wrapped up their study and preservation measures of the pieces, which will soon be made available to the public.
The BYU Motion Picture Archive features items from director, producer and actor Cecil B. DeMille, film music pioneer Max Steiner, pioneering director Merian C. Cooper and many others. Pieces from actors Andy Devine, Howard Hawks, Henry Koster and Utah native Laraine Day are part of the larger collection on display for the general public.
“It is just so different from streaming media alone at home on a device. I think James (D’Arc) wanted to celebrate the communal aspect, celebrate the history of cinema, and bring attention to the rich Hollywood collections we house at the BYU Special Collections,” Harry said.
The next screening will be held June 9 for audiences to view the 1963 comedy “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” starring Spencer Tracy and Ethel Merman. The summer screening schedule can be found on the library’s website.