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Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film Hardcover – April 1, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231165781
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231165785
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,197,423 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

As founder of the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library in 1935 and the institution’s first film curator, Iris Barry (1895–1969) was a vivacious and populist critic, an early advocate for film preservation, and a central figure in the legitimization of film as a cultural art form. Sitton relies on first-person accounts from Barry’s prodigious correspondence in the first comprehensive biography of the curator’s thoroughly modern (and often disorderly) life. Barry’s story encompasses multiple art histories as she moves from the Bloomsbury group of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats in 1910s England; through 1920s New York’s cultural elite surrounding Alfred Barr, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and John H. Whitney; and on to the glamour of 1930s Hollywood, where she convinces such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, and Mary Pickford to commit their work to her archive. Sitton also delves into fascinating detail regarding the administrative power dynamics at play during MOMA’s early years, as well as the Film Library’s role in developing propaganda for the U.S. government during WWII. --Lindsay Bosch


Sitton's book is chock full of fascinating detail and tells a compelling story about an unusual character, a woman who built institutions and contributed to a way of thinking about film that we take for granted today. The result is a much larger and untold history about art, film, and culture.

(Haidee Wasson, author of Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema)

Museum of Modern Art film legend Iris Barry mattered to cinema history, and this book makes her life matter as well. Sitton's sharp biography spans Barry's life from her fascinating times among the literati of post-Victorian Britain to her famed career in the United States, which entailed her virtually founding the influential MoMA Film Library. This is a rich and captivating story.

(Dana Polan, author of Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film, 1915-1935)

Iris Barry was film's first great archivist and a crucial figure in turning a curious novelty into the most significant new art form of its century. She has long deserved a biography as graceful and expert as the one Robert Sitton has delivered so handsomely. It offers a lively portrait of modernist New York when it was fresh and new and is the better for the richness of its quotations from Barry's stirring writings. It cannot be praised too highly.

(Richard Schickel)

I confess that I thought of Iris Barry as an English snob who had rejected many exceptional silents as products of the much-despised Hollywood, but she is so much more interesting--and maddening--than I ever suspected. Her autobiographical fragments are superb, remarkable descriptions of history as it happened--a Zeppelin raid on London in World War 1, the Depression in America making the rich richer. As she describes them, these incidents are as evocative as any film, and the book is beautifully illustrated with excellent-quality portraits. Somebody should film it.

(Kevin Brownlow, author of The Parade's Gone By….)

Robert Sitton's remarkably well researched and evocatively written biography of Iris Barry's hitherto largely unknown position at the forefront of film appreciation is long overdue and most welcome. She led a fascinating private and public life and had an extremely complicated female odyssey in the world of her times, which she profoundly influenced through her writings and cultural actions. That influence still reverberates today.

(Peter Bogdanovich)

Sitton exhaustively traces Barry's career from aspiring poet to playwright, biographer and film critic.... Film students will enjoy this book.

(Kirkus Reviews)

The most fascinating characters tend to be the unsung heroes of their field, and there may be no greater example of this than Iris Barry.... This remarkable story is richly detailed... and is required reading for anyone interested in film, art, or museums.

(Library Journal (starred review))

Meticulously researched, lovingly written.... Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film is a must-read biography.


An excellent on Iris Barry's important work at [Museum of Modern Art.]

(Lillian Gish's Happy Life)

A very welcome and long overdue tribute to a fascinating figure.

(Henry K. Miller Sight & Sound 1900-01-00)

Robert Sitton's biography makes for lively reading.

(Philip Kemp Times Higher Education)

[A] compelling biography... gracefully written, always interesting, and well researched.... Anyone interested in film history, particularly in the history of film history and film preservation, will want to read this book. Iris Barry is a key figure, and she led a fascinating life.

(Louise Brooks Society Blog)

A terrific new biography.... Sitton brings to light an extraordinary story--or, rather, an extraordinary person, who has been languishing unjustly in the shadows.

(Richard Brody The New Yorker)

Sitton's elegant, accomplished book is the first to elucidate Barry's important work... This is an indispensable account of a woman who was not only a singular pioneering personality but also a diligent, cunning creator of institutions and ways of seeing that are now taken for granted.


A full-fledged biography of the woman who changed the course of American film culture.

(Leonard Maltin Indiewire)

[A] fascinating biography of the founder of the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library and the individual who helped institutionalize film studies.

(Thomas Gladysz The Huffington Post)

Sitton, a film historian, has done justice to a fascinating and important subject. Following extensive archival research, he's told a dramatic story and ended with an incisive summary of Barry's character and achievements.

(Jeffrey Meyers The New Criterion 1900-01-00)

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Format: Hardcover
A biography whose major characters include Ezra Pound, Nelson Rockefeller, and a Corsican olive smuggler isn't easy to classify. But it does make for a great read. In "Lady in the Dark", biographer Robert Sitton has brought to life Iris Barry, whose remarkable journey included these and many other disparate individuals and whose influence on films continues today. Barry's story resonates beautifully with our time, and not merely because she spent a lifetime ignoring the rules about what women were or were not supposed to do.

Daughter of a farmer and a fortune teller, she was an aspiring poet who mailed some of her teen-aged work to Ezra Pound. Impressed, Pound drew her into a literary circle that included T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. She later began living with a member of the group, Wyndham Lewis, a British artist whose casual cruelty toward her included forcing her to leave their flat most afternoons to make way for his assignations with other women. She found solace in movie theatres. And gradually, a new focus for her energies. Soon she was writing occasional articles about movies.

She aimed higher. Thanks to the first of her many velvety yet fearless assaults on upper class, male worlds, she got The Spectator, a stodgy pillar of the British establishment, to make her its first regular movie reviewer. Thus in 1923, she became the country's - and possibly the world's - first substantive film critic writing on deadline. In her new role, she championed half-forgotten films from the earliest days of cinema. She invented film categories and film terminology that are still in use today. She courageously endured the wrath of the British film industry by extolling American, French, German, and Soviet films that she found aesthetically superior to standard British fare.
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More About the Author

Robert Sitton was born in Selma, North Carolina and brought up in Washington, D.C., where his mother worked for the Federal Trade Commission. He was educated in Southern military schools in Fork Union, Virginia and Salemburg, N.C. His B.A. is from Wake Forest College, where he majored in Philosophy and Psychology. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Duke University in 1964. In the sixties he worked at the New York Times and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where he pursued his interest in film. In the early seventies he served as Drama and Literature Director at Pacifica Radio's KPFA in Berkeley, while teaching at the Center for Filmmaking Studies at U.C. Berkeley. In 1973 he moved to Portland, Oregon where as Director of the Northwest Film Study Center at the Portland Art Museum he developed a multi-faceted center for the study of film. Since 1981 he has been Adjunct Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Marylhurst University near Portland. At the same time he began research on the life and work of Iris Barry (1995-1969), pioneering film critic and founder of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art. In 2014 his book, "Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film" was published by Columbia University Press. He is an avid roller skater and in 2010 won the silver medal in figure skating for men over 65 at the United States championships.

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