Amazing Tales from the Archives, 2008

Featuring the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation

Musical Accompaniment Michael Mortilla on grand piano

Essay by Robert Byrne

On July 9, 1937, a storage building rented by the Fox Film Corporation in Little Ferry, New Jersey exploded, shooting flames higher than 100 feet into the air. The fire destroyed 42 individual vaults containing the majority of the silent films produced by Fox. Following the fire, 57 truckloads of burnt nitrate were removed from the site and salvaged for their silver content, each can of nitrate valued at about five cents.

From its earliest days, commercial cinema relied upon film stock based on cellulose nitrate. Favored for its durability and the beauty of its black and white tones, it also was notorious for its flammability and chemical instability. Nitrate has a chemical composition similar to that of gun cotton, a common ingredient in explosives. Once ignited, it burns rapidly with a flame almost impossible to extinguish. As late as the 1940s, reports of projection booth fires were not uncommon, posing dangers to projectionists and audiences alike.
Experts estimate that 10-25% of movies produced during the silent era have survived in a complete form. Modern vintages fare only slightly better. Only 50% of all films released prior to 1950, when the use of nitrate film stock was discontinued, are believed to still exist. While vault fires like the one at Fox are singular, devastating losses, the primary culprits in film loss are neglect and decay. Unless stored properly, nitrate film stock becomes chemically unstable, resulting in nitrate decomposition. The film emulsion will soften, blister and bubble, ultimately decaying into a handful of fine red powder.

Studio business practices are as much to blame for this loss as the instability of the medium. In the first half-century of cinema, studios had little financial incentive to retain films, let alone preserve them, after their initial circulation. The maintenance of film vaults and collections was seen as a considerable expense to studios, and the films were not perceived as valuable assets to protect. Silent era movies, which instantly became both technically and commercially obsolete with the advent of sound, suffered the greatest loss. At best, films were shelved and forgotten, left to rot and decompose. In the worst cases, films were purposely destroyed to reduce storage costs and eliminate fire hazard, with the attendant “benefit” of providing recyclable silver content from the discarded footage.

Film distribution methods during the silent era also contributed to the destruction of movies. Studios and producers often sold film prints outright to exhibitors and distributors, who would exhibit them as long as they could turn a profit. The number of exhibition prints manufactured depended on the budget and profit potential for a film. Once these films had outlived their exhibition life, the prints were often abandoned or discarded. Prints were scattered among exhibition outlets, which were left to deal with them at the end of the line. Occasionally, some of these prints surface in places as varied as storage sheds, bedrooms, attics and even underneath swimming pools. In 2003, a nitrate print of the lost film Beyond the Rocks (1922), starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, was discovered in the home of a recently deceased Dutch collector, and restored by Haghefilm Conservation and the Nederlands Filmmuseum. The San Francisco Silent Festival presented the West Coast premiere of the restoration on November 13, 2005.

The tragic loss of our common film heritage has been gaining recognition in recent decades. UNESCO The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, issued a resolution in 1980 declaring that “moving images are an expression of the cultural identity of peoples, and because of their educational, cultural, artistic, scientific and historical value, form an integral part of a nation’s cultural heritage.” In 1996, Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act, establishing the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation and allocating federal funds for preservation of “orphan films” films out of copyright or that have no clearly defined owner.

Despite this progress, there is an immense amount of work yet to do. Historian Anthony Slide estimates that “…there still remains more than 100 million feet of nitrate film of American origin awaiting preservation, in American and foreign archives, vaults of producers and distributors, and in the hands of private collectors.” Film preservation and maintenance, the process involved in the rehabilitation and the duplication of deteriorating films, is a complex and expensive process, and funding to perform this work, particularly on films that do not feature well-known stars or directors, is extremely limited.

In today’s world of digital media, duplicating film on film might seem anachronistic. Yet as fragile as the medium is, it is much more durable and lasting than current digital alternatives. From the standpoint of image quality alone, current digital reproduction results in an image significantly lower in resolution than the original celluloid. In addition, the lifespan of current digital equipment and formats is measured in years, rather than decades. A properly stored film printed on modern stock can last 100 years and more, while retaining far higher fidelity than a digitized copy. In contrast, over the past 20 years video formats have changed multiple times, leaving behind obsolete equipment and inaccessible media. So while digital reproduction is an obvious choice for home viewing and possibly for public exhibition, it is not the solution for preservation.

Technology is not the most significant barrier to saving film – it is money. In 1993, The Library of Congress reported that “the defining problem for public archive preservation programs is funding.” Fifteen years later, this is still the case. Every day archivists make life and death decisions about which titles will survive and which will disappear forever. There simply isn’t money to save them all. For every Beyond the Rocks that is miraculously discovered and saved, thousands of other titles are literally turning to dust. Amazing Tales from the Archives, returning for its third year, highlights the heroic efforts of achivists to preserve our cinematic heritage. This year’s program focuses on Haghefilm Conservation, the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House, and some of the films restored by students through the Haghefilm Fellowship. Thanks to all of the dedicated archivists, today’s audiences may enjoy the beauty, variety and artistry of films from the earliest days of the movies – films from an era when it first became possible to capture time and store it in a can.