A Forward Look Back Part 1
(Beginnings of U.S Motion Picture Preservation)
The tendency is to subscribe to the notion that film preservation just happened, much like an invention, when in reality it was much more an evolutionary process. The inherent dangers of Nitrate Film stock were known very early to the industry as a whole, but it was not generally a major concern. This was an industry predicated on short-term mass entertainment, with no reason to believe there would be a need for long time storage of these materials. The Motion Picture Industry was less than a decade old when the preservation issue was first broached. As detailed in Tony Slide’s pioneering look at US Film Preservation, the December 1906 issue of Views and Film index contained an editorial on the need for film preservation which contained a telling phrase ‘Are manufacturers aware they are making history?i Terry Ramsaye wrote in an editorial titled ‘Lest We Forget’ in Photoplay magazine in 1923 . In part it reads ‘ Nowhere and at no time has there been an effort to specially preserve these things , to hold them together for their sentimental and intrinsic values to the motion picture and its public.’ We were still a decade away from consistent efforts in preservation.
The deterioration of Nitrate film stock was of course a known evil in the industry. Productions such as D.W.Griffith’s ‘The Avenging Conscience’ were totally unusable in as little as 10 years after its release. By the beginning of the Silent Feature Period in the mid teens, production of release prints had become more tightly controlled. So now, by the time a print had completed its two year run it was in pretty poor condition. There were prevalent conditions such as torn sprocket holes, excess film cement on splices, water spots and scratches on the emulsion were the norm. Since the cost of storage was escalating all the time, and in most cases close to 90 per cent of a film value had been written off by the end of the first year, it was the generally accepted practice to destroy the older prints and salvage whatever you could from the Silver content.
Initially, Storage conditions time tended to be little more than primitive. In most cases the deciding factor was space and cost. In many case these films were stored on the east coast, in damp and dark building with no controls on temperature and humidity. It was not uncommon for there to be a 20 degree variance in internal and external temperature at storage facilities. As we all know, one of the inherent properties of nitrate is its low flashpoint. This is only exacerbated as the film begins to age, and this level in reduced even more. Many of the early fires in film exchanges occurred during the summer. This caused the destruction of numerous original source materials, with some being the only extant materials. Therefore, it is obvious that one of the early driving forces in the development of early Film Preservation Policies came about as a result of some serious film fires at storage facilities. One of the most devastating of these events occurs on September 7, 1909 when the Ferguson Building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania erupted into fire and an explosion as a result of the accidental ignition of Nitrate film. This fire and explosion not only resulted in the destruction of many valuable reels of film, but also caused serious injuries to approximately 30 people.
As a result of this catastrophe the national Board of Fire Underwriters requested that the Explosives Division of the United States Geological Survey conduct a survey into the causes of this fire. As a result of this investigation the NBFU in 1910 issues what was the first practical guidelines for storage and handling of Nitrocellulose Motion Picture Film. Unfortunately, this did not stem the tide of Nitrate Fires, and the problem only increased. On January 13, 1913 the Thanhouser studio of New Rochelle New York caught fire and burned. Thanhouser Cameraman A.N. Davis described the scene in a letter to fellow cameraman Carl Louis Gregory. “The studio was flat on the ground half and hour after it started, one great mass of black smoke and flames, a torrent of fire for a short time and it was all over. It is said that the smoke was seen from New York City. Had it happened in the night with a wind, the whole section of the city would have gone, as there was no water pressure, mains too small.”
On June 13, 1914 the Lubin plant in Philadelphia suffered an explosion and serious fire . The results again were catastrophic and were reported in Moving Picture World. ‘The explosion came about 10 o’clock in the morning without the slightest warning … Bricks and mortar were thrown in every direction and a string of two story houses on the same street were badly damaged, some of them practically destroyed.” General Manager of Lubin attempted to put it into perspective. “Our loss on films will be at least $500,000 and on the vault building about $5,000 more. The only explanation we can give for the explosion and fire is that sun, coming through one of the windows so heated one of the tin cylinders holding a film that it exploded, setting the others off.
Due to the with ongoing problem with Nitrate fires, a series of test sponsored by the National Board of Fire Underwriters and related to vault design and storage was undertaken. One of the more startling findings was that in one particular test in 1915 a test film container was constructed and packed with 1900 pounds of nitrocellulose film. This vault contained no sprinkler protection, but did include the recommended venting. The film was ignited and quickly emitted what was described as a blow torch” flame through the vent. This flame was estimated to be a full 8 feet in diameter and extended out 70 feet in length, while burning in this stated for a full 90 seconds. As a result of this and similar tests, guidelines for the storage of motion picture film were revised in 1919 with new and improved standards being adopted.
One of the most proactive organizations concerned with handling, storage, and preservation of motion picture film was the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. Founded in October 1916, this organization was a clearing house of information on all technical aspects of the Motion Picture Industry. The earliest days of this organization were spent trying to develop uniform standard for the industry. As time went on and many of the recommendations of the SMPE were adopted universally, they started to delve into other avenues of the industry.
The October 1920 issue of the Transactions of the S.M.P.E deals with storage for the first time. Mention is made of early film fires, and the work of the National Fire Protection Association. An interesting and recurring point in all of these studies first appears here. ‘For the most part, such fires as occurred were caused through carelessness and the neglect of precautionary measures and a general lack of understanding as to the proper methods of handling and safeguarding the film. A major factor in extending the life of motion picture film was the proper care and handling of Motion Picture Negatives. ‘In view of the enormous increase in the production of motion pictures during the past few years and of the great financial investments represented in the negatives which it is desirable to preserve in the best physical condition for future use, it is necessary that the utmost care be exercised in processing, printing, and storage of such negatives. Concern was also expressed in the work of the Motion Picture Lab. It was known early, chances of long term survival of film was only as good as the original lab work. ‘On the other hand, insufficient fixing and failure to wash the film thoroughly so as to remove all traces of hypo will greatly accelerate this change and may result in yellow discoloration of the gelatine coating. The importance therefore, of extreme care in fixing and washing will be realized, and as a further precaution, after the ordinary fixing bath, re-fixing in fresh hypo, followed by thorough washing with a final rinsing in distilled water, is recommended.
The importance of the preservation of Motion Pictures could reach our consciousness in many ways. Sometimes events conspired to bring it to the forefront. ‘When Mr. Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America suggested recently to President Coolidge that the Government of the United States should make efforts toward the preservation of motion picture films possessing historical value, he brought to public attention a need that has been increasingly realized by those who believe in the value of a visual record of the great events of our nation and in the world.’ These words were written by Fred Perkins, head of the Office of Motion Pictures for the Department of Agriculture. In gaining a historical perspective with regards to Film Preservation, someone such as Perkins was without a doubt at the forefront of this issue. He goes on to write that many historical events have been filmed, such as the Inauguration of McKinley, scenes of Armistice Day, the Funeral of the Unknown Soldier, and many others. What was distressing to him was that the whereabouts of some of these films could be ascertained, and we can’t hope to preserve them, if we can’t find them. He then gave a personal example:
‘ The need was illustrated less than a month ago in the motion picture laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Washington office of the Panama Canal asked us to prepare for inspection and projection some old films that had been found lying in a closet in the Capitol building. We found that the films included ten thousand feet of original negative showing the construction work of the Panama Canal. Decomposition resulting from lack of care had ruined two thousand feet of the negative and doubtless would have ruined all of it had not somebody stumbled upon this valuable record ."
Perkins made mention of how During World War I the signal Corps had shot over 1,800,000 feet of negative, many of these scenes being of historic events. It was important to note wrote Perkins that valuable negatives were in other custody, specifically mentioned was the Aeronautical branch of the Navy, the Army Air Force, and the National Museum of the Smithsonian to name a few. It was noticed that some Theatrical films had immense historical value. He next made a point of speaking to the current storage practices of these films, noting that the care given them varied wildly. Some were kept under best conditions known at this time, others were however not so lucky, and were given little, if any care in storage. Perkins felt that there should be a central depository, not only responsible for preservation of films, but also tasked with the responsibility for obtaining a film record of future important events. He then spoke of the plans for the new National Archives.
‘The Plan as proposed to President Coolidge by Mr. Hays called for incorporating in the projected new Archives Building in Washington at least twenty film storage vaults with a total capacity of 20,000,000 feet of film. It is assumed that adequate laboratory equipment to care for the films thus stored is contemplated. Such equipment will be necessary, and there must be trained personnel to operate it.
Part 2 upcoming soon focuses on a few specific preservation projects.
I am sure I speak for all of us taking part in this blogathon, If you are able please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation. we would be most appreciative. A link is attached for your convenience.