Early Film Archive

Last weekend, the museum screened John Ford’s epic 1940 drama Grapes of Wrath starring a young Henry Fonda. On April 10, visitors can see They Died With Their Boots On, the 1941 western directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn. These free films are being shown in conjunction with American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, currently on view in the museum’s special exhibition galleries. With the museum awash in movie magic, it seems a good time to highlight some of the film-related treasures from the museum’s Karl Struss Archive.

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Karl Struss (1886–1981), [Filming Ben-Hur], Rome, 1924-25

Struss was a cinematographer in Hollywood for 50-plus years, starting in 1919. He filmed some of the great movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age and won the first Academy Award in 1929 for his work on Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The museum’s photography collection has thousands of prints and negatives from Struss’s work on various movie sets and publicity shoots. Here are some great stills from the set of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).

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Karl Sruss (1886–1981), [The Circus Maximus — Chariot Race Set], Rome, 1924-25

The chariot race in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur remains, even by today’s standards, a thrilling action sequence and was essentially recreated for the 1959 version starring Charleton Heston. Struss’s snapshots on set often reveal the behind-the-scenes magic of movie making—as is the case in [The Circus Maximus], which shows a set crew tending to an automobile being used to film the racing chariots.

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Karl Sruss (1886–1981), [Rome Set — Front], Rome, 1924-25

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Karl Sruss (1886–1981), [Rome Set — Back], Rome, 1924-25

These are just a few of the myriad images housed in the museum’s Struss Archive. The museum’s library has more items from his archive on view, including an original program from the first Academy Award ceremony and the institute’s formal letter to Struss announcing his award. The Library, which offers support to researchers at all levels, is open to visitors Wednesday through Saturday and other times by appointment.