A woman for all seasons: processing the Mildred Freed Alberg Papers

This is a guest post from our spring 2015 intern, Gabby Womack!

When I began my internship with the Harvard Film Archive, I knew that I would be working with the papers of a female television and film producer from the 1960s. In fact, Mildred Freed Alberg was one of the reasons I was drawn to the internship. I was curious about what her life was like, what kinds of shows and films she produced, and whether or not she was successful, because I had never heard of her before.

Star Intern, Gabby Womack holding a photograph from the Mildred Freed Alberg collection.

Star Intern, Gabby Womack, holding a photograph from the Mildred Freed Alberg collection.

Mildred Freed Alberg was a female film and television producer from the late 1950s into the 1980s. She began her work in radio and worked her way up to producing TV shows, telemovies, films/documentaries, and a play. She was best known for her work in shows such as Hallmark Hall of Fame (1955-60) and Our American Heritage (1959-62), as well as her documentary The Royal Archives of Elba (1980). Alberg also brought Shakespeare to television, despite much skepticism. Basically, she was awesome and ambitious.

I was excited to dig into her papers once I had an overall idea of her accomplishments. Of course, I was in for some very cool surprises once I began. After weeks of processing, I found a short letter discussing the cast schedules of the film Hot Millions (1968) starring Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith. Although the find was small, it made me excited. So many Millennials have only seen Maggie Smith in her later years and have come to picture her as Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter films, or Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey. I loved reading Alberg’s letter asking about whether the young starlet was going to become a part of the cast and begin rehearsals. I later found compelling letters discussing the possibilities of casting Muhammad Ali or Johnny Cash as a lead in a movie that never ended up being filmed (Rogue). There were many letters to and from Johnny Cash about the role, attempts to meet, and Alberg’s thoughts on those meetings. The part that I found pretty funny was the way she referred to him as “a young musician who is on the rise and well liked by the younger crowd.”

Promotional item from the Mildred Freed Alberg collection

Promotional item from the Mildred Freed Alberg collection

Mildred Freed Alberg also worked with notable author Elie Wiesel on scripts for the 25th Anniversary of the State of Israel in 1972. It seemed to me that Alberg wanted her work to be as authentic as it could be, and conducted thorough research into Wiesel’s work as well as biblical stories and Israel as a whole. In fact, everything she produced showed the same depth of research. In one episode of Our American Heritage, she received some negative feedback from someone who claimed that she had misrepresented some information on Eli Whitney and his invention of the cotton gin. Alberg did not take kindly to this criticism because they had implied that she had not done her research on everyone in the episode. She wrote back to this person and shared her letter with the heads of the production company she worked for. The letter tore apart the recipient and detailed exactly where she found her information, all the way down to the page number and paragraphs.
Processing the Mildred Freed Alberg collection has shown me how this tough, but likeable, woman worked her way up to the top within the entertainment industry and never let anyone or anything stop her. Before processing this collection, I had no idea women were able to find work within that field besides acting and being assistants. She was an inspiring woman and I believe that she is a great example of what the industry is missing to this day.