tags: classic film, detective, Director, Hollywood, Jason Eberly, photography, retro, scavenger hunt, vintage
I work for a network TV show. During the three years on the job, I’ve become good friends with our prop master named Kevin. His family has a long and storied Hollywood history. He often tells us tales about working with Clint Eastwood, his relatives’ adventures on Apocalypse Now and In Cold Blood, or how he (as a boy) received a sweatsuit as a gift from John Huston. In August of 2014, Kevin told me an intriguing story about seeing his grandfather, Frank Shaw, in a vintage behind-the-scenes photo from the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey (1950). Frank was the film’s assistant director and actually the first Shaw to enter the film business back in the 1920s.
The photo was hanging in a restaurant called Hollywood & Vine Diner about ten years ago and Kevin saw it while working on a film shoot. Other crew members were coming up to Kevin and saying, “There’s a man in a black-and-white photo who looks exactly like you.” Sure enough, the picture of Frank looked a lot like Kevin and he immediately called his father to find out who this gentleman was. Up until he saw the picture, Kevin didn’t know that his grandfather was such a legendary AD (assistant director) and Kevin hadn’t seen any pictures of young Frank before. The restaurant owner unfortunately wouldn’t sell Kevin the photo and he’s been looking for it ever since. Being the classic cinema nerd that I am, I was determined to secretly find this photograph and surprise my friend with a print in time for Christmas.
My first plan of attack was to contact the owner of Hollywood & Vine Diner and see if he would let us professionally scan the photo to create a copy. But, it was a restaurant located in Hollywood. So of course it went out of business years ago. I tried to go through the new management and city records to track down the old owner, but it was a dead end. This particular print of Frank Shaw was long gone; but other copies had to exist. So, in the middle of October, I reached out to a contact at Universal with a plan to search their photo archives since Harvey was a Universal production. While my contact waded through red tape for two months, I searched Internet archives for any picture of Frank that I could find. The only image I uncovered was in a scanned DGA oral history document on Henry Koster (the director of Harvey and many classic films). The picture is below and Frank (second from the left) is barely visible behind Jimmy Stewart.
This poor quality screen-capture would obviously not be enough to end my search. But it was proof that more candid crew photos existed. At this point, I was in too deep and the hunt was now 40% for my friend and 60% for selfish ambition. All I could do was wait for my Universal contact to access the Harvey archives. In mid-December, the red tape finally cleared and all the Harvey photos were pulled from the archives and sent to Universal. The Christmas deadline was fast approaching but I was confident we could still find the print in time. On the 23rd of December, I went to the Archives and Collections Department to comb through all the original photos from Harvey. There was a stack of about fifty prints, but these were only promotional stills of the actors. This was everything that Universal had left from the film, no behind-the-scenes photos in sight. The Universal archivist said that most of the candid stills from classics were sold to private collectors decades ago. It was now two days until Christmas and the hunt for Frank hit another dead end.
With my pride on the line, I went back home with one last plan of attack. I remembered the oral history document on Henry Koster (Harvey director) and I began an online search for any Koster estate information. The family would surely have access to candid stills from Mr. Koster’s films. Besides Harvey, Frank was also the AD for seven more Koster films, including his first American feature in 1936. My investigation lead me to one of Henry’s sons, Robert (Bob) Koster. Bob was a prolific AD and UPM from the 1960s to the 1980s, working on classics such as Hello, Dolly! and numerous Robert Downey Sr. films. Bob was still living near Los Angeles and I was able to uncover his e-mail address through a bit of online snooping. I sent him an e-mail later that evening and crossed my fingers for a response.
At 4:49am on Christmas morning I got this reply from Bob: “Call me . . . I have stills and movies of Frank Shaw. Dad was a compulsive photographer. Had good things to say about Frank Shaw too. Happy to share. Merry Christmas!” Success at last! I had missed the Christmas deadline for giving my friend the actual print, but I could celebrate a small victory with this promising lead. A week later on December 30th, I was invited to Bob’s house, located about an hour outside of Los Angeles. I got to hear some amazing stories about classic Hollywood and see scans of Henry Koster’s vintage photo albums. It was page after page of incredible behind-the-scenes stills, preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. We also watched converted and restored 8mm behind-the-scenes footage from Henry’s early Universal productions. A few minutes into the footage, the elusive Frank Shaw appeared on the screen, waving and smiling for the camera. I had definitely hit the jackpot in this crazy hunt.
We also found six high-quality photographs that featured Frank, most of them from 1930s productions with Deanna Durbin. Although I never found the exact picture that was hanging in the restaurant, I think these discoveries surpassed my initial goal. On January 5th, I made large prints of the photos and finally presented them to my friend Kevin. Needless to say, he was quite surprised by the discoveries and has since shared them with all the other Shaw relatives. The images are copyrighted, but I received special permission from Bob Koster to post them on my blog. I believe these images were taken in the mid-1930s, during production for Three Smart Girls and One Hundred Men and a Girl.
Images curtesy of Robert Koster