Hollywood on Exhibit

Movie memories come to life inside the filmmaking collections of these seven museums

The ivory pleated dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 comedy “The Seven Year itch” is the most popular attraction at the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Motion Picture Museum. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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Reynolds' costume collection found an audience when she opened her first museum in Las Vegas in 1993. Now closed, it will reopen in the fall of 2009 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the home of Dollywood.

There are over 3,500 costumes in Reynolds's collection, the most popular being the ivory pleated "subway" dress Marilyn Monroe wore over a sidewalk grating in the 1955 comedy "The Seven Year Itch." She also has two of the most expensive costumes ever designed -- Barbra Streisand's gold beaded gown from the finale of 1969 musical "Hello Dolly" and the coronation outfit worn by Marlon Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1954 film "Désirée." Both cost over $10,000 to create.

"You have the movies, but the question is what are the tangibles that remain?" Fisher says. "Many of the actors are gone and can't tell you the stories. The idea that these costumes remain from these scenes is more important than you may think."

Chinese American Museum Los Angeles, California

Film historians consider the 1937 premier of "The Good Earth" to be a milestone for Chinese Americans on film. No Chinese-American had a starring role in the story about the struggle of Chinese farmers to survive harsh social and economic times. In fact, the all-white cast was made up in "yellow face." But the film was the first major motion picture that did not portray Chinese people as criminal or submissive stereotypes.

An upcoming exhibition at the Chinese American Museum about "Hollywood Chinese" will include film stills and a coat from "The Good Earth," along with examples of Chinese contributions to American feature films. The show, which will run between October 23, 2009, and May 31, 2010, is inspired by a documentary by award-winning director Arthur Dong, who serves as guest curator of the exhibition.

"For most of the 20th century, Chinese American actors could not be picky about their work," says exhibitions coordinator Lorien Bianchi. She cites actor James Hong, who describes a third of his roles as stereotypes, such as old Chinese Masters, but also a third of his paycheck.

The exhibit, which features approximately 50 objects from the museum's collection, also recognizes proud moments for Chinese in Hollywood. The 1961 musical "The Flower Drum Song" was one of the first to star a Chinese American actress, Nancy Kwan. And then there's the earliest known Chinese American feature film, "The Curse of Quon Gwon," a silent picture written and produced by Marion Wong in 1916. Two reels of the lost film were brought to Dong's attention during his research and the film was added to the National Film Register in 2006.

Warner Bros. Museum Burbank, California

Historically, when a costume or prop came back from a Warner Brothers set, it was stored for rent or reuse in future films. (The Maltese Falcon, for instance, made number of cameos in other films.) But when a renter found the name of cultural icon Humphrey Bogart in a costume, the head of the wardrobe department decided that star pieces should be set aside. "That was the beginning of the archive," says Leith Adams, co-executive director of the Warner Brothers Corporate Archive.


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