Perhaps I have been around too long, but as I grow older I grow despondent that those who contributed so much to film history in the past are forgotten, with others often coming along and taking claim for their achievements. One such Hollywood hero is John Dewar, whom I met when I first came to Los Angeles in 1971. He was a curator in the history department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and introduced me to the museum’s treasures relating to film history, acquired before the creation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – at a time when both institutions were housed together simply as the Los Angeles County Museum. Back in the mid-1930s, it was Ransom Matthews, head of industrial technology at the Museum, who had started collecting such materials.
Not only had John “preserved” all this material, but he had created an incredible Movie Gallery at the Museum. It was to a large extent the original Hollywood Museum, where on display one found Lon Chaney’s make-up kit and his costume from The Penalty. Mary Pickford’s curls were there, as well as her costume from Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall. From the original The Lost World, there was a background sketch and a replica of a fossil dinosaur egg.
Panels showing the technological development of the motion picture featured an original Lumière camera and a three-color Technicolor camera. There were Marie Dressler’s costume from Anna Christie, Charles Chaplin’s costume and props from Modern Times, Shirley Temple’s and Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes, Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Buster Keaton’s porkpie hat, and much more than I cannot remember.
Other pieces that I do recall John protecting, and which may or may not have been on display, include Tom Mix’s hat, an original Keystone Kops helmet, the iron mask from the Douglas Fairbanks’ film of the same name, King Kong’s articulated hand, W.C. Fields’ pool cue, Mae Murray’s shoes from The Merry Widow, and many others. If you are lucky and you search hard, you will find an article about the Movie Gallery in the fall 1970 issue of the Museum’s own publication, “Terra.”
It was a wonderful place and as William Emboden, curator in the Museum’s botany department and the author of a major 1975 biography of Sarah Bernhardt, told me, it made him feel good to enter the Museum each day through the Movie Gallery. It was Emboden who helped John “hide” some of the movie memorabilia in the botany department when the Museum’s administration and a new head of the history department declared the exhibit “a waste of space” and physically destroyed it, possibly throwing out some of the treasures.
John remained at the Museum, and was happy to share those hidden treasures with interested individuals such as myself. He also took me to the William S. Hart Ranch, to which he had first come in November 1957, and which he had curated prior to its opening. What fun it was to go around with John and have him explain how he had to move furniture around, adding a few items from his own home because he despaired of Hart’s taste.
John Dewar: ‘The most modest person’
I spent time with John and his partner Ben at their home on a hill above South Pasadena. John had built the house himself – he was that sort of guy – and there he enjoyed embracing naturism, welcoming guests and even the mailman in the nude. William Emboden describes him as “the most modest person I ever met,” but there was nothing modest about his life experience. In his spare time, John would drive me around Los Angeles, pointing out location sites that he recalled from his childhood – an amazing fount of knowledge.
John retired from the Museum disappointed at what was happening with the history department. He moved to Patagonia, Arizona, leading a self-sufficient existence and raising his own vegetables. He died there, at the age of ninety-two, in February 2004. There were no obituaries, no acknowledgement by the Museum of his death. He died as modestly as he had lived.
On a personal note, I would like to think I paid tribute to John in July 1976, when, as resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I installed an exhibit titled “Treasures from the Natural History Museum” in the Academy’s lobby. Many of the items that had been on display in John’s Movie Gallery were briefly on display there.
Note: My thanks to Archivist Cathy McNasor and Chief Librarian Richard P. Hulser at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. I would also like to acknowledge the work of Norwood Teague, whom I also remember from the 1970s and who cared for the Museum’s incredible technological holdings.
“Remembering a Forgotten ‘Hollywood Hero’” author Anthony Slide has served as both associate archivist of the American Film Institute (acquiring and preserving films for the National Film Collection at the Library of Congress) and as resident film historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He published his first book, “Early American Cinema” in 1970, and among his more than sixty additional works are “Silent Players,” “American Racist: The Life and Films of Thomas Dixon,” and “Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazines.” His “The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville” (1994) was named outstanding academic book of the year by “Choice” magazine, best reference book of the year by “Library Journal”, and outstanding reference source of the year by the American Library Association. He was once hailed by Lillian Gish as “our preeminent historian of the silent film.”
Anthony Slide wearing Tom Mix’s hat photo: Courtesy of the author.