Hugh Hefner: The Film Preservationist

A man known for his trashy magazine must also be remembered for his love of movies.
By  · Published on October 2nd, 2017

A man known for his trashy magazine must also be remembered for his love of movies.

Everyone is familiar with Hugh Hefner the millionaire playboy. Hefner made his fortune creating an empire devoted to scantily clad women and tough journalism. The centerfold of his entire operation, Playboy magazine, kickstarted the sexual revolution and forever changed the lives of millions of individuals. Beyond his persona as a man who dealt in smut, Hefner was a film lover. Not the type of films when you think of Playboy, but of classic film. Silent cinema, detective stories, and other classics from the 20s through the 50s. Hefner not only started a movement but helped keep cinema alive for generations to come.

Hefner founded Playboy magazine in Chicago in 1953. It came at just the right time. The catch was to create a lifestyle magazine for men and feature nude and semi-nude photos of women throughout.  The very first issue featured actress Marilyn Monroe and was an instant sensation. The magazine was also home to some inspired writing including Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and The Man in the Bomb Suit by Mark Boal in 2005. You may remember that Boal story as the Academy Award-winning film The Hurt Locker. That barely touches the amount of quality writing that has been in the pages of Playboy, but it does prove that people did read the magazine for more than just the beautiful women.

Throughout the years Playboy magazine and Hugh Hefner were considered one-in-the-same. The media-mogul fully embodied the lifestyle that his magazine was selling: high-class parties, loose morals, and a paradise of attractive women. It was in the 1990s that Hefner started to use the wealth he had amassed from decades of popularity to help preserve the film industry.

When Hefner was growing up in the 30s, he loved the movies. In 2002, he was quoted saying, “Movies were my escape into the dreams and fantasies of what might be.” Action packed cinema like King Kong and detective stories like those of Sherlock Holmes were his favorites in his youth. That would then lead to his monetary contributions to the preservation of Sherlock Holmes films. He would go on to donate sums in the seven figures to the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The original nitrate negatives of six Sherlock Holmes films were taken out of vaults and restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive. These films weren’t all-time classics but were of significant importance to Hefner.

Pandora’s Box Source: Janus Films

Enabling UCLA and USC with his contributions, both have made strides in film restoration and preservation. Some of the other titles Hefner directly influenced were films like Howard Hawk’s classic The Big Sleep and numerous Fu Manchu titles. Another notable film was the 1930s silent, Pandora’s Box. In the mid-90s, Martin Koerber was trying to put together the materials to restore the film to its original glory. It wasn’t until digital tools had advanced enough in the mid-2000s that David Ferguson and Angela Holm were able to put together the restoration. Hefner was part of that restoration and in fact, silent films were a once a week screening at the Hefner home screening room.

Not only did Hefner contribute to saving movies, but he also saved an icon of Hollywood. The Hollywood sign was originally erected in 1923 and read Hollywoodland. It was not just a sign, but a symbol of the type of life that was only attainable in Hollywood. In 1978, the sign had deteriorated and needed significant funds in order to restore it for the future. The Hollywood Reporter writes, he threw a lavish fund-raiser, auctioning off letters from the old sign for $27,000 each. Countless celebrities stepped up to the plate and the sign avoided destruction. Vanity Fair says the sign was once again in trouble in 2010 and needed a million dollars otherwise it would be removed. Hefner donated $900,000 of his money and helped purchase the surrounding land protecting the sign. It was right at that final moment too as he told People, It would have been a real shame after having restored it if it wound up sold, it’s become something iconic and represents not only the town but represents Hollywood dreams, and I think that’s something worth preserving.” Without Hefner’s contributions, we would never have Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd performing on top of the sign.

Hugh Hefner will be remembered for a lot of things, both good and bad. There will be no question about his love for movies though.  Hefner’s contributions to both UCLA and USC will help generations find and experience classic films. He helped an icon of Hollywood survive after multiple attempts to take it down. That might be fitting for Hefner was an icon himself, one that undoubtedly changed the world.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.