By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin October 10, 2012 at 1:00AM
A friend tipped me to an auction taking place this Friday that film buffs should know about. It’s the collection of MGM’s longtime animal wrangler and trainer, Voley Phifer, and many of the pieces in it are unique. (How about a marionette of Robert Donat from Goodbye, Mr. Chips?) A veteran of circuses and vaudeville, Phifer worked on many important films and helped ballyhoo MGM on the road over the years. He also had a long relationship with the two creatures most closely associated with the studio: Leo the Lion and Cheetah from the Tarzan movies.
To quote the promotional materials from Preston Opportunities of Georgia, which is staging the auction, Volney Phifer “was a man with a lifetime of extreme adventure. Sent by the studio to Africa in 1930 to be the wildlife expert for the groundbreaking film, Trader Horn. A remote set where the local wildlife could, and did, take the lives of crew members. Taking up residence with the entire production on the Arctic Circle for the 1931 film Eskimo. Constructing a sprawling Chinese farmland in Chatsworth, California for the 1937 film The Good Earth. Oh, and all the while domesticating a water buffalo to be one of the film's stars.
“The stories he could have told about his daily routines on Gone With the Wind as chief animal wrangler, whenever he handed the reins to Clark Gable. The intensive training he and Cheetah must have gone through preparing for every single Tarzan film. And who wouldn't want to have been there for the daily ritual on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Volney was MGM's go-to man for literally any production that involved an animal, on set or on a publicity tour, throughout the Golden Era of Hollywood.”
It’s well worth your time to explore the auction house website HERE and see some of the colorful memorabilia that’s being sold this Friday. Be sure to click on various links at the bottom of the page to see Volney’s scrapbooks, posters, marionettes, and some of the advertising signage he used on his various promotional tours for films as diverse as Sequoia and Ziegfeld Girl. I would love to see some of this material find a proper home—perhaps the museum being planned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Just a thought…