We're All Film Preservationists
The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy On Films have been hosting a Film Preservation Blogathon this week. I didn’t promise to join in for simple doubt I could contribute anything worthwhile. So many others know infinitely more on this subject than I ever will. Articles about restoration lose me once they get technical. I look upon those who rescue films like oracles. Where do they get such smarts to make crumbling nitrate sparkle again? The one time I visited a working lab was after finding a 16mm home movie reel Basil Rathbone had taken on The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Technicians there were going to make new prints and a preservation negative. The place was filled with jobs they’d done for major studios. I learned to appreciate more that day just how much detailed labor goes into salvaging fragile celluloid. Not that I hadn’t handled nitrate before. That was the format old-time collectors traded when I began searching out 35mm in the early seventies. I was as foolish handling it as they were reckless. Years-long fearless Moon Mullins let me have Isle Of Lost Ships and I hauled that 1929 nitrate around in the trunk of my car for several weeks … during August. Just too lazy to bother taking it out. By all rights, I should have been blown to molecules. You could argue this was just the finish I had coming for such colossal stupidity. Some of my finds wound up with the AFI. A few boxes were mailed to Tom Dunahoo at Thunderbird Films. I don’t recall if I declared them for dangerous nitrate content, but the fact no mail planes imploded during mid-flight suggests I did. My parent’s house was neither brick nor fireproof, but I used to run nitrate upstairs as if it were. Yes, I had all sorts of aptitude and qualifications to advance the cause of film preservation. So what’s made me any better equipped to lecture on it now?
Just as classmates gave up recreational drugs, I was able to rid myself of nitrate’s incubus. Let others more conscientious address it. Still there was the dream of coming across a lost treasure. Haven’t we all imagined a London After Midnight tucked under someone’s flea market table? Suppose you found that uncut Magnificent Ambersons during shore day on a South American cruise. 16mm collecting has turned up several thought lost. I knew someone who located Shadows Of Chinatown, a Bela Lugosi serial out of pocket for decades. Forum participants speculate that Laurel and Hardy’s Hats Off was indeed rented on that format back in the forties. Is it just a matter of time before someone unearths this thought-gone two-reeler? My closest to glory story took place in October 1977 when Georgia collector Clyde Carroll, among greats in the hobby, read me a list that included The Man Who Lived Again. That title being mentioned among dozens of B westerns gave me immediate pause. Wait a second, Clyde. Did you say The Man Who Lived Again? Well, yes he did. Uh, the 1936 one with Boris Karloff? Yep again. My blood near congealed on hearing that. Hadn’t Bill Everson recently (1974) written that The Man Who Lived Again (aka The Man Who Changed His Mind … aka Dr. Maniac) was never likely to be appreciated as it deserved since the lack of really good or complete printing materials preclude the possibility of a reissue or television sale? Clyde didn’t care about that stuff. He preferred cowboys and serials. Could we maybe trade for the Karloff then? The deal was consummated upon my relinquishing a pile of Tim McCoy and Charles Starrett lobby cards. The Man Who Lived Again had its share of time’s ravage and an abrupt end, some of which knocks I tried repairing. Still this was collecting’s apex for me. I felt like quite the preservationist just for those modest mends and keeping my treasure cool and dry (though I couldn’t arrest vinegar syndrome eventually setting in).
The thing is, all of us are preservationists for spending what we do on DVD’s. What good then, is a restoration unless people have access to it? Paramount’s Fu Manchu group was saved over ten years ago, but can’t be distributed beyond archival walls. Same for the two-color Technicolor Follow Thru, which was based on a stage musical by songwriters Da Sylva, Brown, and Henderson. Paramount’s agreement with them called for rights to revert to the team after a specified period. Clearing them now would be (too) cumbersome and expensive. I read with interest Eddie Muller’s recounting of Cry Danger’s rescue and its triumphant reception at the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, but there’s the bugaboo he reveals of pre-print elements belonging to Warner Bros. vs. overall rights in the film claimed by Paramount. How do we get a DVD release out of that pudding? TCM runs Cry Danger from time to time. Will they at least get a new transfer from this latest archival pass? Warners has derived practical benefit from preservation efforts made on behalf of their library. Early Vitaphone features like Noah’s Ark, When A Man Loves, and Weary River were lovingly restored, unveiled at festivals, then placed on TCM rotation for home viewers to enjoy. Many of these have lately been released through their Archive program, with the promise of more to come.
With technology advancing at its present pace, everything old will have to be made new again. Present digital delivery looks more and more like analog cassettes we long ago discarded. High-Definition is the future and I wonder how many out of vaults will make the trip. I’m told it’s expensive remastering titles for HD. Warners has done that already for Casablanca and The Wizard Of Oz, but will they ever pull the trigger for Case Of The Curious Bride and The Mask Of Dimitrios? Some cable services already offer TCM in HD, but most of what that network plays remains standard definition. The restoration task that lies ahead, just to bring thousands of titles up to minimal broadcast standard for televisions selling today, is monumental. Will companies invest so much in movies few are left to care about? Once TCM goes to all-HD programming policy, and that’s bound to be soon, what becomes of deep vaulties we treasure? HD Net Movies scheduled Adam’s Rib and The Bad and The Beautiful for this month and next, so there’s two prepared for HD broadcast, but what of thousands more Warner owns? The truest hero of preservation now might be the genius who invents a way of generating high-definition masters for very little money. Unless someone manages that forthwith, our days of enjoying all but an arbitrarily chosen Hot 100 might be numbered.
Lest I strike a bummer note, let me add that things overall have never been better, with more to watch than hours in our days. High profile restorations are a frequent and happy occurrence. Just this week they were streaming an outdoor run of Metropolis live from Germany. I was afraid to try and get in on that for fear my computer would fry (why wasn’t I so cautious with nitrate?). After eighty years, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece is nearly complete again. I think it’s safe to say no one saw this coming, but then who imagined they’d find Bardelys The Magnificent or Beyond The Rocks? MGM’s 1926 Bardelys deal called for that company to destroy all prints and negatives after general release, per arrangement with author Rafael Sabatini, yet somehow a single print survived. Beyond The Rocks was a film its star, Gloria Swanson, searched in vain for. We can thank a private collector for hoarding that precious one. Focusing on these lessens the pain of so many more that remain lost. I don’t even like to look at stills for movies I can never see, and there’s nothing so depressing as a flip through 20’s newspapers where most everything they’re advertising is gone to us now (read the above ads and weep). So much thanks is due to preservationists who make their finished work available on DVD. Last year there was Becoming Charley Chase from producer David Kalat and VCI Entertainment, a wonderful Lost Serials Collection from The Serial Squadron, and just everything Flicker Alley does (including Bardelys and a wonderful Douglas Fairbanks set). Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone output is being painstakingly restored by the BFI, and these will be offered up on DVD before long. The best any of the rest of us can do toward encouraging more such projects is to support these and ones forthcoming.
Part of this Blogathon’s mission is to encourage donations to The National Film Preservation Foundation, which the hosts describe as an independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support. As the NFPF is affiliated with The Library Of Congress, I’m wondering if enough contributions might bring them around to restoring that complete print of The Greatest Story Ever Told they’re rumored to have. Now there’s a project we can all get behind!