Feb. 7, 2007


DALLAS (SMU) – No one knew that film canisters in a dusty Tyler, Texas, warehouse would unearth a treasure of black film history or that years later, a student would find original sketches proving to be a second SMU discovery of black film history.

See a slide show of the Cabin sketches.
See a WFAA report on the sketches .
See reports on the black film collection by KLTV, WFAA, and Fox News.

In 1983, an SMU professor got a call to investigate the canisters in Tyler. As it turned out, they held forgotten race films of the 1930s and ’40s using black screenwriters, directors, actors and actresses. Years later in February 2006, a student archiving theater artifacts at SMU’s Hamon Arts Library found original sketches of Vincente Minnelli’s first film, “Cabin in the Sky,” one of the first Hollywood-produced films with an entirely black cast.

The film canisters formed the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, the only one of its kind in the world with films and newsreels all written, directed and produced by blacks, featuring life in a segregated society. The films were transferred to safety film in 1985 for preservation, digitally restored and later made into a three-DVD boxed set, including seven full-length films and seven short subjects.

“The Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection is an important part of the history of film in this country,” said Tinsley Silcox, former director of SMU’s Hamon Arts Library, who oversees the Black Film Collection.“These films stand as a testimony to the determination and ingenuity of a people marginalized by the prevailing thought of their day.”

The discovery of Minnelli’s “Cabin in the Sky,” which premiered in Dallas in 1943 to segregated audiences, also depicted life in this era. Even though the movie featured black stars, such as Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong, it was still made by white Hollywood for white America said Sean Griffin, a professor of cinema-television in SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts.

“Minnelli is possibly the highest regarded director of musicals in Hollywood, and the sketches provide a unique insight into his vision for his first film,” Griffin said. “They also show the limits of white liberal thought at the time with their stereotypes of blacks.”

Having both film collections on SMU’s campus provides a unique look at black film history in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Usually films by blacks during this era were on a tight budget,” said Silcox, “‘Cabin in the Sky,’ however, was a Hollywood film with the full support of the studio. Having both collections allows us to compare and contrast these films produced by both blacks and whites in this era.”

The Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection is a part of the G. William Jones Film & Video Collection. The “Cabin in the Sky” materials are part of SMU’s Jerry Bywaters Special Collections. Both collections are part of the Hamon Arts Library on SMU’s campus.

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