From Hollywood to the Classroom

by Patricia A. Scott, librarian for archives and digital initiatives.

What do these things have in common: a photograph of Ginger Rogers’ mother, a program autographed by Gertrude Stein and a World War II ration book? The answer is an emeritus English faculty member at Penn College predecessor Williamsport Area Community College. These and many other interesting items belong to the Hugh MacMullan Collection at the Roger and Peggy Madigan Library.

Hugh MacMullen portrait

A Williamsport native, Hugh Murdoch MacMullan was born on March 19, 1908. He was the grandson of one Williamsport mayor, Seth T. Foresman (1905-1908), and the great-nephew of another, James S. Foresman (1888-1889). MacMullan graduated from Williamsport High School in 1924; earned a Bachelor of Arts from Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., in 1928; and a Bachelor of Letters from Exeter College, Oxford University, in 1931. Lecture notes written in his senior year at Oxford show MacMullan’s interest in textual criticism and his attempts to master Elizabethan script.

His teaching career began at Pittsburgh’s Shady Side Academy in 1931 and continued at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass., from 1931 to 1935. From his days as an English teacher at the Berkshire School, the library holds a program for “Pigeons on the Grass Alas” from the opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” signed by Stein, who wrote the text. (It is copy No. 1 of a limited edition of 100 copies.) His work with the Berkshire student theater group caught the eye of one of the famous Warner brothers and resulted in a job with Warner Bros. Pictures’ New York branch as both a director and an associate producer.

In 1938, MacMullan went to Hollywood, where he was known for his work as the dialogue director on “Casablanca,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and other films. Letters from Edith Head, William Holden and Elia Kazan remind us of his life in the film industry.

"Much of what Hugh MacMullan did may not be known to many, but they and this community are the beneficiaries of his very full life."

During World War II, Lt. Cmdr. MacMullan served in the U.S. Naval Reserves, where he wrote and directed more than 100 documentaries. The library’s MacMullan Collection includes several scripts he wrote and directed between 1942 and 1946. Among them are “Introduction to Combat Fatigue” (1944) – which, thanks to MacMullan’s influence, brought the film’s crew and star, a young Gene Kelly, to Williamsport for parts of the filming – and “Deep Diving” (1943).

A note written by MacMullan states that the latter, which was still in use in October 1971, was the first film shot in Technicolor Monopack (a multilayer film stock that could be used in a standard black-and-white camera) to be shown to an audience. According to the Internet Movie Database, the first feature film released in Monopack was “Son of Lassie” (1945).

Theatre groupHis creativity was not confined to documentaries. He also wrote poems, plays, short stories, essays, articles and a novel, “Louder than Words,” which was published in 1936 and is part of Madigan Library’s Special Collections.

After the war, MacMullan resumed his Hollywood career as a dialogue director, story editor and associate producer on a number of films including “The Glass Menagerie.” Before retiring to Williamsport in 1957, MacMullan served as dean of the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts (1955-1956). That year’s commencement program contains a photo of young comedian Ruth Buzzi among the second-year certificate recipients.

Upon his return to Williamsport, MacMullan resumed his career as a documentarian by writing and producing films for the School of Hope and the Lycoming County Crippled Children’s Society.

In 1965, MacMullan joined the English faculty of the newly established Williamsport Area Community College. He became the department’s first chair and was promoted to full professor in 1969. The 1971 edition of Montage, the yearbook of WACC, was dedicated to MacMullan. A brief article on the dedication in the Feb. 19, 1971, edition of the student newspaper, Spotlight, describes him as “a donor of time and talent all his life.”

Much in MacMulllan’s collection documents his passion for literature. His correspondence includes a letter and two signed poems by Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps. The letter is addressed to Marshall E. Bean, a Maine educator who had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and worked with children who had intellectual disabilities. A Google search of Marshall E. Bean reveals that he wrote to many famous people in the 1960s requesting photos and favorite inspirational quotations. His letters are housed in the archival collections of Martin Luther King, John Steinbeck, Nancy Reagan and many other celebrities. How MacMullan acquired the Bontemps letter and poems is a mystery we are trying to unravel.

Letters written by and about American author Conrad Richter, who won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Town,” attest to MacMullan’s attempt to establish the WACC Library as a center for Richter studies.

He was a member of the Greater Williamsport Community Arts Council – serving as its president from 1967 to 1971 – a charter member of the Brandon Park Cultural Committee and the curator of the James V. Brown Library’s Cummins rare books collection. When asked what he planned to do upon his 1973 retirement from WACC, MacMullan responded that he wanted to translate Latin manuscripts in that collection.

MacMullan ended his career as he began it, in scholarly pursuits. His death on July 19, 1981, inspired a Williamsport Sun-Gazette editorial a few days later, which stated that “much of what Hugh MacMullan did may not be known to many, but they and this community are the beneficiaries of his very full life.”

As an institution, we are privileged to have known MacMullan and grateful that we can continue to know him through the papers and personal effects he entrusted to our library.

Letter to the editor

Wonderful article and inclusion of archive collection items on Hugh. I have passed the online link on to Don Skiles and Roger Holdstock. Hugh hired both of them based on phone interviews when they were living on the West Coast. Both are among the most highly regarded faculty (by students and colleagues) when at WACC as well as among the most accomplished in what they did after leaving the college. Don is a well regarded poet, short story writer, and critic who has published extensively. Don lives in San Francisco where he had a distinguished teaching career. Roger retired from teaching in Vancouver where he created a Canadian film studies program. He is also active in a folk style singing group that writes its own songs. They are prominent in Vancouver at labor and similar type rallies. Roger was awarded a Canadian national faculty of the year honor at one point. Roger has already replied that he learned things about Hugh from your article that he did not know.

Well done by you! Thanks for recognizing Hugh. My footnote regarding Hugh is that after being isolated for my first year where my office cubicle meant that teaching at night I rarely interacted with other faculty -- I asked Hugh to get me into the Strailey building. It was the place to be for Liberal Arts faculty. He did that and thus my experience at WACC changed by being in the small small area as some of the wonderful faculty with whom I then became friends. When Pete Dumanis came, he asked me to get him into the building which fortunately I was able to do. One good turn deserved another!

Thanks again!
Daniel J. Doyle, emeritus faculty, history

Emailed on April 3, 2013.

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