Despite a short-lived campaign in the late 1920s when Hollywood briefly pursued Harvard as a means of elevating film to the stature of the other arts, film studies was for many years folded into Literature at the university. However, today’s Film Study Center did not originate in the art or literature departments, but in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Harvard student John Marshall’s Peabody-supported expeditions to the Kalahari produced an early ethnographic classic The Hunters (1957), the first Harvard film production. Another seminal work of visual anthropology soon followed, Dead Birds (1963), made by Marshall’s colleague Robert Gardner (1925 - 2014).
As the first director of the Film Study Center, Robert Gardner also oversaw its move to the freshly built Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in 1964 and played a crucial role in Harvard’s burgeoning film program—initially titled the Department of Light and Communications—teaching film classes, and with fellow faculty, including filmmaker and professor Alfred Guzzetti, film scholars Vlada Petric and William Rothman, and philosopher Stanley Cavell inaugurated a film collection at Harvard. Harvard and other New England colleges collaborated to establish the University Film Study Center, originally housed at MIT, with the intention of collecting 16mm film prints for the use between participating schools.
On weekends, the University Film Study Center also presented “Center Screen”—a public showing of films—at the Carpenter Center which by 1968 housed all of the artistic entities of Harvard within its walls as the “Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.” Meanwhile, VES classroom screenings took up most of the weekday evenings. By the end of 1975, the Carpenter Center’s film program had expanded its screenings to two theaters: the main lecture hall—outfitted with 35mm and 16mm projectors—and the smaller classroom next door—which screened 16mm and video. With a growing collection of film and an extensive new schedule, Vlada Petric was named the first curator of the Harvard Film Archive. The inaugural screening of the restored version of Ernst Lubitsch’s silent film Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) took place on March 16, 1979 with live piano accompaniment by Martin Marks.
During the first years of the HFA, the repertory primarily supported courses offered at Harvard—mostly films assigned in VES classes, along with some that were co-sponsored by other departments. Later, the schedule reflected a healthy eclecticism: including films assigned in Harvard courses, occasional "Special Events" at which invited filmmakers or scholars discuss films with the audience, and recent cinematic achievements which attracted larger audiences. Special series and retrospectives were also programmed, often with repeat screenings.
From the start, the HFA provided an opportunity for Harvard students, faculty and the greater Boston community to view films under comparably professional screening conditions, particularly films not shown in commercial theaters. This aim was fully realized in 1980 when 35mm projectors with a Dolby sound system were installed in the Carpenter Center's large lecture hall, making it the only professional screening facility on the Harvard campus. The distance between projectors and the screen in relation to the theater seats remains one of the best in the area, allowing for a perfect image size and clarity.
During their respective careers HFA founders Gardner, Cavell and Petric each left their indelible marks upon the HFA and the intellectual and artistic communities that it fostered. A pioneer of poetic ethnographic cinema, Gardner defined nonfiction cinema—documentary as well as avant garde and animation—as a central focus of HFA programming and collection, bringing treasures into the Archive’s collection and establishing important relationships with a great number of major filmmakers and artists from around the world. One of the great modern American philosophers, Stanley Cavell (1926 – 2018) was especially celebrated for his pioneering studies of studio-era Hollywood cinema through the lens of Western philosophy. Cavell’s trailblazing writing and thinking about film was matched, from the very beginning of his long tenure at Harvard, by his ardent efforts to establish a physical site for the study of film at Harvard during a period when it was considered an unworthy pursuit.
An indefatigable and famously inspirational instructor of film history, Vlada Petric brought his tremendous energy and fathomless knowledge of film history and aesthetics to remarkably creative cinematheque programs. As the HFA’s first curator, Petric oversaw the year-round, nightly screenings of classic Hollywood cinema, independent and international features, animation, experimental and documentary work for which the HFA is now celebrated.