These days there are lots of things that make me feel ancient — typewriters in antique shops, 1990s movies referred to as “vintage,” 5-year-old computers classified as “expired,” 4K Ultra HD discs whatever those are and especially when people who are younger than me retire.
Reading that Jim D’Arc was retiring this month falls into the latter category. I really thought he’d be at Brigham Young University forever.
In the 1980s and ’90s, my newspaper job title was simple: “Deseret News film critic.” For television, the job title was a bit more pretentious: “KSL movie specialist.” More often, though, people just called me “the movie guy.”
But I’ve always thought of D’Arc as “the movie guy.”
His job title could be used as a memory quiz: senior librarian and curator of the Motion Picture Archive for the L. Tom Perry Special Collections in the Harold B. Lee Library. Whew!
If there is a single figure towering over everyone else when it comes to archiving and promoting film in our pretty, great state, it’s D’Arc.
He’s been the keeper of BYU’s film collections since the mid-1970s, and he hosted twice-monthly movie series for years, bringing classics of every genre — including films made in Utah — to the library’s theater screen and offering tidbits about each one from his encyclopedic brain.
In fact, D’Arc even wrote a colorful, informative, photo-packed and very entertaining book — “When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Moviemaking in Utah” — about the films that were shot here from 1913 forward. I recommend it.
But his most significant contribution is acquiring historical movie collections — to include film prints, posters, scripts, personal papers, etc. — for BYU’s archives from major figures in cinema history.
D’Arc’s first major coup was obtaining the papers of Cecil B. DeMille, whose singular and extremely influential career can be traced from the development of the film industry in the early 1900s to the mid-1950s. His 1914 silent film “The Squaw Man” is revered as Hollywood’s first feature-length film, and many more followed. But he is best remembered for his stunning biblical epics, the silent films “The Ten Commandments” (1923) and “The King of Kings” (1927), and the still-popular sound remake of “The Ten Commandments” (1956).
That acquisition opened doors for BYU to add important collections from many others, including the great film director Howard Hawks, who broke ground with the screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) and directed some of John Wayne’s best Westerns, including “Red River” (1948) and “Rio Bravo” (1959); Merian C. Cooper, the writer/director/producer of “King Kong” (1933) and other films, who lived a rich life as an aviator, world traveler and documentarian; and legendary actor James Stewart, whose work with Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra and many other top Hollywood directors made him an international box-office draw for several decades.
Those three are the cream of the crop, but there are many, many more.
D’Arc can also be seen and heard on several noteworthy DVD/Blu-ray releases over the years, using his wealth of knowledge and the BYU archives to provide materials for bonus features on such major video releases as DeMille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments,” Cooper’s “King Kong” and the very first best picture Oscar-winner, the silent World War I thriller “Wings” (1927).
And he was the driving force behind 20th Century Fox’s 2003 DVD release of “Brigham Young” (or as the poster title reads, “Brigham Young — Frontiersman”), the 1940 Hollywood Western about migrating Mormon pioneers. In his own affable way, D’Arc badgered the studio into releasing the film on video and he’s a prominent figure on the featurettes, in addition to providing a fact-filled audio commentary (which is quite instructive about how movies dither with the facts when retelling history).
While writing this, I happened to receive for review a new documentary, “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” to be released on DVD in October. The film chronicles an intensive search for the massive set used in DeMille’s 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments.” When the production wrapped, the huge facades were buried in a California desert, where they have remained for nearly 100 years. At the end of the documentary, I watched the end-credits crawl, and lo and behold, there’s a nod to the BYU Motion Picture Archives and James V. D’Arc.1 comment on this story
From where I sit, D’Arc’s contributions to film history can’t be overstated. And during my time covering the movie beat, it was a privilege to get to know and work with him many times at BYU, to tour the archives and see some of the fantastic materials he accumulated for the university over the years.
D’Arc’s passion for movies and his ease at working with people — and trust me, showbiz folk are not always the easiest to work with — has made BYU a go-to resource for researchers, historians and buffs of motion picture history.
His are big shoes to fill but for someone, it’s an enviable task.