Batmobiles, Bugs Bunny and James Dean’s jeans: a day inside the Warner Bros top-secret archive

·8-min read

There is an actual Batcave in Los Angeles, where all the old Batmen live. I can’t tell you where: I signed an NDA. But in the most unlikely neighbourhood, in the most obscure location, lies a giant warehouse where Warner Bros keeps a century’s worth of treasures, including the best vehicles from its Batman films going back to 1989.

On a tour of this warehouse, which Warner Bros calls, with a slightly villainous air, the “Corporate Archive”, I saw nine Batmobiles, in a row, gleaming. Each one is a functioning vehicle with an engine, not just an elaborate prop. The most expensive cost close to $1m. It has wing-shaped treads on the tires, so it leaves little bats in its wake.

But the Batmobiles aren’t the true prize. Behind a bland locked door, which few people have the clearance to access, is the DC Comics superhero room, full of mannequins wearing original Superman and Wonder Woman costumes. Within that room, in a bare, windowless enclosure, is the lair of Batmen past.

Related: New Lord of the Rings films in the works at Warner Bros

Four masked Batmen stand in the center, armoured penguins at their feet, with Batmen of multiple eras poised in a circle around them. On the far wall, row after row of Batmasks stare out, labeled with the names of the men who have worn them: George Clooney, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale.

The Batcave is “probably one of the most protected rooms on the planet”, a PR rep told me. In Hollywood, even an inanimate object can become a star.

Warner Bros, one of the original big five studios from Hollywood’s Golden Age, turns 100 on 4 April 2023, and as part of its centennial celebrations it’s letting reporters inside its secret treasure house. (You can search for the archive on Google: it’s not there.) Warner Bros has produced film or TV classics in every decade – from The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and 42nd Street, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the Looney Tunes and Friends. The corporate archive is where its most infamous props, costumes and set pieces go to die – or rather, to achieve eternal life, watched over in chilled rooms by a team of dedicated archivists.

The company was founded by the actual Warner brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack, Jewish immigrants from Poland who started screening early silent films, then made about 20 of their own, before moving to Hollywood to open one of the very first film studios. It was the Warner Brothers who embraced early audio recording technology and produced The Jazz Singer, a 1927 film with both music and dialogue, which ushered in the era of the “talkies”.

The secret archive, a vast space filled with row upon row of crates, boxes and neatly labeled garment bags, only hints at the decades of drama and battles between the studio and its most profitable stars. Humphrey Bogart struggled for years to break out of being cast in villain and supporting actor roles. George Feltenstein, the Warner Bros library historian, showed me Bogart’s signature on a felt cowboy hat commemorating the western that finally helped him get a lead role in The Maltese Falcon.

Bette Davis once fled to England in a failed attempt to get out of her Warner Bros contract. There are box after box of her shoes on the shelves, their heels slightly scuffed from use.

It’s spooky how many items in the archive were built for a specific person, making them the precise size of some of the most famous bodies in the world. And the bodies, especially in the early decades, were so small. Look at tiny James Dean! The tour group loomed over his petite mannequin; none of us could fit in his Rebel Without a Cause jeans.

The corporate archive is not a generic prop production warehouse, full of objects to reuse or rent out to other films, though Warner Bros has those, too. This is the elite selection for posterity. When a screener of a new Warner Bros film is available, the archivists get a copy, and they review it for future famous objects, deciding ahead of time what will stand out, what is likely to be the key intellectual property.

The pink Cadillac from the latest Elvis film. One of the robotic “sentinels” from the Matrix. Freddie Krueger’s hand.

“We have to be very selective about the items we do want to keep,” Jesus, one of the archivists, told me. (The Guardian is not publishing the last names of the archive workers to protect its top-secret status.)

To be in a physical space where absolutely everything you can see is iconic feels disorienting. Here is the billboard from Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, with the eyes of TJ Eckleburg. There is Bugs Bunny, looming out of a dark corner, brandishing a carrot. Here is a spaceship from Interstellar, and a corpse from Sweeney Todd.

I kept almost bumping into life-sized statues of Superman, an unsettling experience for a journalist whose name is Lois.

A few of the film studio’s monsters are delicate beasts, made of fragile foam and plastic, and they need extra temperature and humidity control.

This means that the Gremlins from the 1980s horror films live in a specially designed refrigerator alongside Tim Burton’s creatures from The Corpse Bride. The monsters’ eyes are open, staring, in the carefully chilled darkness.

“The Gremlins gave me nightmares so bad,” our photographer muttered as he inched his way inside the fridge. “It’s like how you work through trauma: exposure therapy.”

The archive has few clear organizational principles, which means that every era and genre are jumbled together. Here are the giant felt monsters from Where the Wild Things Are. There, a stack of Audrey Hepburn’s dresses.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for what goes where. Everything is noted as being in a shelf location and a rack location,” Feltenstein told me. “There’s always been a sense here to keep and to preserve. Because you never know when something will come in handy.”

Sometimes a grouping tells a story. In the Superhero room, Christopher Reeve’s 1970s Superman costume stands next to one of Henry Cavill’s from the 2010s. The 70s Superman costume is just stretchy fabric, with a cartoonish belt around the waist. By the 2010s, Superman’s suit came with built-in arm muscles and bulging veins, marking the ongoing inflationary pressures on American masculinity.

More often, the juxtapositions dance beyond the edge of sense. I wandered down one aisle, and stopped by a random shelf of boxes: Mortal Kombat, Mame, Mad Max. Nearby was a Seinfeld box, holding George Costanza’s sable hat.

Midway through my tour, overwhelmed, I opened the door to a vintage New York taxi cab and got inside. In some ways, it looked like a normal yellow taxi, a place I could take a breath. But then I looked down, the steering wheel had tiny letters on it, spelling Friends, and there were inside jokes about Chandler and Ross and Monica pasted all over the dashboard. Ross is addicted to which fruit? the speedometer asked. I felt that my brain might be starting to malfunction.

The archivists, who work in this strange atmosphere five days a week, helped me stay on track. There are about 10 of them, and their job is a busy one. The archive is constantly having objects added, or refurbished, or downgraded to a normal prop warehouse to save space.

Mike, one of the archivists, was working on the Mortal Kombat weapons, which had originally been manufactured in Australia and then shipped to the archive, and now needed to be sent back to Australia for the sequel. This was a headache: Australian authorities were not excited about weapons being imported into the country, even when they were made of rubber. (“Prohibited item in New South Wales,” someone had scrawled on a box.)

I asked the archivists what it took to get this kind of Hollywood job. Jesus had got his start schlepping and hauling props before moving into a more expert role. Mark, who has been here 20 years, had gotten a classic industry break: “There was somebody at Warner Bros who was golfing with someone else and they said, ‘I need somebody who’s a movie nerd and who knows animation,’ and they go, ‘I know just the person.’” Feltenstein, the library historian, joined the company in 1997, alongside the rights to a trove of classic MGM films.

As the archivists moved silently through the giant warehouse, it was easy to imagine this as the setting for a meta-movie about the film industry: an Oceans Eleven-style heist, maybe, or a horror film. “I do think at some point the mannequins come alive,” Jesus told me.

But I also found it very pleasant to bask in the aura of celebrity without having to deal with any actual human celebrities. Famous people are very stressful: they try to be nice, but they are always lugging around the enormous weight of their fame. It’s exhausting for everyone.

The archive was my favorite version of Los Angeles: not the bronzed superstar hangout, but the city of weirdos who make it all possible, who just want to play dress-up and make-believe on an industrial scale.

Movie stars may rise and fall, but in Hollywood, the nerds inherit the Earth, and every important object in a film will be put in a labeled box and kept forever.