Officially, James D’Arc deals with films.
As the Brigham Young University film archivist, D’Arc is responsible for acquiring and maintaining the university’s extensive collections of motion pictures and film music records.
But if you ask D’Arc, he’ll describe his position a little differently. He may work with films, but he deals with people. He acquires papers, correspondences, photographs, scrapbooks and personal journals. He’s tasked with maintaining filmmakers’ lives, memories and trust.
It’s a tall order, even for someone who’s been doing the job for 41 years.
“You have to have the diplomacy of a Henry Kissinger … and, yet, you also have to have the bedside manner of a doctor,” D’Arc said.
In September, D’Arc will retire from his position at BYU, where he has worked since he was a student in the 1970s. D’Arc began working with the library’s special collections when he was an undergraduate majoring in history.
“I got so enthused about dealing with original materials that I said to myself, ‘Where has this been all my life?’” he said. “In early 1976, the department secretary in special collections was leaving her job because her husband was graduating. Well, I could type, I could file. I figured this was my way in. I suspect I was the first male secretary (in special collections).”
It was D’Arc’s suggestion that the university begin acquiring the collections of actors, producers, directors and technicians. The Los Angeles native joked that he’s had film in his DNA since childhood.
“(Television networks) would show dozens and dozens of vintage films from the 1930s, 40s and early 50s as I was growing up,” D’Arc said. “I was fascinated. Not just because film is an entertainment medium but because it introduced me to a number of disciplines that I later pursued in academia … Popular film turned out to be a window to the world for me.”
Guided by D’Arc’s ardor, the library acquired its first major collection from celebrated filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, the mind behind 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.” The DeMille collection remains the department’s largest acquisition.
Obtaining “Mr. Hollywood’s” papers was, as D’Arc said, a major coup. And it was only a starting point for the burgeoning collection. In 1977, D’Arc acquired the papers of Howard Hawks, the director well-known for his versatility in films like “Scarface,” “Bringing Up Baby” and “Rio Bravo.” Later, the BYU library received the collections of actor James Stewart (known for films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) and Merian C. Cooper (the producer of films like “King Kong” and “The Most Dangerous Game”). Now, the motion picture archive alone contains the collections of 38 different filmmakers, actors, critics and historians.
“Each collection has its own story,” D’Arc said. “I think the most difficult one to acquire was the Merian C. Cooper papers. It spanned a period of eight years from the time I first met Mrs. Cooper, Dorothy Cooper, and stayed in touch during all those years … So, in a way, it could be called difficult. In another way, it’s just developing a relationship so that individual has confidence in who you are … and how safe the material will be.”
In January 2000, D’Arc decided it wasn’t enough just to collect motion pictures and papers. He began the Harold B. Lee Library Motion Picture Archive Film Series, where he showed two films every month to students and community members. The series ran for 18 seasons, drawing visitors from across Utah and even Wyoming.
“I suspect that there are less than a handful of venues in the United States that do what we are doing in showing classic American films only,” D’Arc said. “People will tell me how they used to watch these when they first came out, or young students will tell me they watched ‘Casablanca’ with their father or mother on television, but seeing it in a theater with an audience of 200 people made this film an entirely new experience.”
It’s yet to be seen whether the film series will continue under the new archivist. It’s also yet to be seen what D’Arc does with his retirement. As he told the Deseret News, he’s never done it before.
“And like anything I haven’t done before, I wade into it,” he said. “It’s like stepping off the edge of a diving board. I still need to feel what the water’s going to be like when I jump in. Then I’ll learn to swim.”
Nevertheless, D’Arc is pleased with his career at BYU.
“It’s been a privilege, really, and a joy, to see how these collections are used in spreading the knowledge of these great filmmakers,” he said. “When a collection is established somewhere, it’s like a magnet. It draws students and scholars to it so that the names of these great filmmakers and performers never leave the culture. They are always there to remind us who they were and the great accomplishments they made during their lifetime.”