Film Preservation - Saving America's Movies

Fifty percent of all movies made before 1950 are lost forever. Frantic preservation efforts are underway to save the rest before they turn to nitrate dust.

Motion Picture projectors, the ones used in theaters, used to come equipped with fire rollers. Fire rollers were long steel bearings that pinched the film tightly before and after it left the gate. At the gate a powerful light from a carbon arc lamp shined through the film, through a lens, and onto the screen. There was a great deal of heat at the gate and, if the film jammed there during a break, or there was a malfunction of the equipment, the film was likely to catch fire.

Today, modern film simply melts from the heat. But before 1950, motion picture film was printed on a cellulose nitrate base. Nitrate was esthetically ideal to use because of the beautiful, gleaming images it produced. But it was volatile material. Once ignited, it would burn with such ferocity that not even water could douse it. Aside from fire rollers (which actually offered little protection), theater projection booths were completely fireproofed. Yet tragic fires did occur and lives were lost. If a nitrate fire reached other reels of film, there would be a holocaust.

But oh, those beautiful, gleaming images!

Today, film preservationists still deal with nitrate film and tend to handle it like sticks of dynamite. Fire hazards aside, nitrate film has other disturbing qualities that frustrate those who try to preserve our movie heritage. Nitrate film reacts with air and creates nitric acid, which eats film. What is left is brown dust. Nitrate is also highly susceptible to temperature changes and shrinks easily. Sometimes when a film preservation society receives a can of nitrate film, they open it only to find that the nitrate has completely decomposed. And if nitrate film can be likened to a stick of dynamite, then nitrate dust is nitroglycerine.

Considering the fact that all motion pictures before 1950 were originally filmed and printed on nitrate film, there is no wonder that less than half of the films made before that date still exist. And those that do are sometimes in such poor condition that huge amounts of money have to be paid for their restoration.

Surprisingly, though, a great many of the very earliest films DO exist. Thanks to a glitch in the copyright process, movies could not be copyrighted, but photographic prints could be. Early producers like Thomas Edison and Biograph made contact prints, the same width and length of their films, and submitted them to the Library of Congress for copyright. Today, the paper print collection at the Library of Congress numbers 3,000 of the earliest films including landmarks like Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) and "The Life Of An American Fireman" (1902), and the earliest example of American animation, "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" (1906).

Restoration technicians at the Library of Congress have been transferring the images on these paper prints to modern film negatives for the past 30 years. In addition to the important films mentioned, paper prints have also preserved a part of our nation's history. Many of the earliest filmmakers produced "actuality films," which were short films designed to be exhibited in peep show parlors or nickelodeons. These were records of current events such as the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the Spanish-American War, and the funeral procession of the assassinated President William McKinley. Most of these have been preserved on paper prints and transferred to movie film.

Most silent films, not preserved on photographic paper, are lost. One reason was the attitude of film producers about the lasting value of their films. To them, movies were a product. New films were released and, at the end of their theatrical run, seldom reissued. As more films were produced, storage space for negatives and prints of former productions was needed for new work. So the old negatives were taken out and burned. The storage facilities, themselves, were not air conditioned which increased the problem.

Occasionally, positive prints of these early movies are discovered, but often tend to be in poor condition. Even if the nitrate base is in good shape, the prints are scratched and riddled with splices. Whole reels may be missing. Modern archivists attempt to make new negatives of what is left, but sometimes fight a losing battle. As of now, only ten percent of all films made before 1929 still exist. Luckily, most of the classics are still around in one form or the other -- "Birth of a Nation" (1915), "Intolerance" (1916), "˜The Covered Wagon" (1923), "King of Kings" (1927), and others. But "Camille" (1927) with Norma Talmadge, Lon Chaney's classic vampire film "London After Midnight" (1927), "The Divine Woman" (1928) an early American film with Greta Garbo, W.C. Fields' "That Royale Girl" (1925), and Walt Disney's first theatrical cartoon "Little Red Riding Hood" (1922) are missing and presumed lost forever.

Sound films fare little better. But here, only the original negatives are generally missing. Films like "Citizen Kane" (1941), "Singin' In The Rain" (1950), and "Stagecoach" (1939) exist only as positive prints. The negatives of "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), all the features of Shirley Temple and Will Rogers, "The Oxbow Incident," and Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1960) are gone. New prints are made from existing prints, but cannot hope to match the quality of the originals.

Color films are another tragedy of film deterioration. Here, the problem is not so much the decomposition of nitrate film as the fading of the original color dyes. For instance, all movies made on Eastmancolor stock (a cheap substitute for Technicolor) in the 1950s and 1960s are quickly turning to black and white and shades of red.

Saving as many movies as possible is the primary concern of film preservationists. In film societies all over the world, dedicated and skilled men and women are working feverishly to preserve films that are failing by the day. But there just isn't enough money available for an all-out effort.

Film preservation and restoration are not cheap. The recent restoring of the 1925 production of "The Lost World" by the George Eastman House, was said to cost over $80,000. According to American Movie Classics (AMC), a leader in the push for film restoration, it costs between $10,000 - $50,000 to preserve a black and white feature, and $30,000 - $300,000 to preserve one in color.

Preserving and restoring a film is a painstaking operation. The fastest way to preserve an older nitrate movie is to transfer it onto safety film. But if the original was a theatrical print, the image may be faded or, in the case of color film, the image may have an overall red tint.

Major studios have now jumped on the preservation bandwagon. Some of the biggest, like Paramount, have spent millions of dollars building storage and restoration facilities. Warner Brothers has started sifting through its post-1950's library, attempting to restore each film as it comes to them.

Digital technology has helped. Movies are transferred to video tapes and then electronically enhanced. The result is transferred back to 35mm film. Films like "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With The Wind," and "Rear Window" have been treated this way. But the operation is expensive and the best video transfer still cannot match the quality of the original print.

The Federal government has cut funding for film restoration to about half of what it provided 20 years ago. Every day, valuable film falls to dust, never to rise again. Unless more private money is forthcoming, many of America's films now in existence -- and at the moment, at least, savable -- will pass into extinction.

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