A Media-History Miracle
The UW’s online archive of film and broadcasting publications is a fan’s dream come true.
Let’s say you have a favorite old movie, and let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that it’s the criminally underrated music drama Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas and Doris Day in what some people (well, I) call their finest performances. If you want to read every single article surrounding its 1950 premiere but don’t have time to visit archives around the world, you are (I mean, I am) in luck.
UW–Madison’s Media History Digital Library is an online compendium of publications that cover the history of film and broadcasting — everything from a starstruck 1915 interview with Charlie Chaplin in Picture-Play Weekly to a gossipy look at Marilyn Monroe’s career in a 1955 issue of Modern Screen. Even someone who’s seen Young Man with a Horn dozens of times can learn something new, simply by typing “Kirk Douglas + Doris Day + Masterpiece” into the site’s sophisticated search engine.
Until the Media History Digital Library came along in 2009, scattered copies of Photoplay, Variety, and other vintage magazines and trade papers were accessible only in storage rooms or on microfilm, if at all. The project’s researchers digitized millions of pages from institutions and private collections and offered them to the public for an unbeatable price: free.
“The magazines were forums where people shared ideas about movies and media, learned about new programs, and debated the future of these forms,” says Eric Hoyt, director of the Media History Digital Library and the Kahl Family Professor of Media Production in UW–Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. “And today, as we ask ourselves ‘What is the future of movie exhibition?’ and ‘What is the future of broadcasting networks?’ we can look at how these same questions were debated decades ago.”
As part of the UW’s Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, the Media History Digital Library has transformed the study of film and broadcasting. Its materials have been viewed 14 million times — or more like 14.1 million after my immersion in Young Man with a Horn references.
Even with my obsessive interest in this movie, I found it hard to stay on task while scrolling through the glamorous old magazines, with their candid photos of Humphrey Bogart and their speculation about Elizabeth Taylor’s long-ago love life. But after hours of electronic browsing, I discovered that, unlike their modern-day counterparts, some 1950s critics recognized the greatness of Young Man with a Horn.
“Excellent in every way is this film about a jazz musician, Kirk Douglas, and his driving need to play music the way he feels it rather than the way it’s written,” raved the April 1950 issue of Screenland. “Superb acting, backed by equally superb music, make this a ‘must see.’ ”
Thank you, Media History Digital Library, for making one fan’s dream come true.
Published in the Fall 2023 issue