Silent films in the spotlight
A Save America’s Treasures grant will be used to treat 42 early American films recently returned from New Zealand
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 224, May 2011
Published online: 03 May 2011
SAN FRANCISCO. With experts estimating that only 20% of early American films produced in the first four decades of the movie industry survive in the US today, the discovery of a cache of early American silent films in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2009 was a major boon to US film historians. In 2010, 75 of these films, dating from 1898 to 1929, were repatriated under the guidance of the National Film Preservation Foundation, a San Francisco-based charitable affiliate of the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board. Now, thanks to a recent $203,000 federal grant from the Save America’s Treasures programme, 42 of these films, which include comedies, romances, westerns, cartoons and documentaries, will undergo much-needed preservation and restoration work.
“We assumed it was only a small number [of films],” said Annette Melville, the director of the foundation. “We were amazed to discover that they had almost 230,000 ft of film.” According to Melville, 90% of early films seen worldwide were produced in the US, and New Zealand was at the end of the film distribution line. Distributors often chose not to ship the films back after their commercial run, so many ended up in private collections abroad. The highly flammable nature of cellulose nitrate—the base of all early film stock—led to the roundup and placement of nitrate films into archives by the government.
Some films have already undergone treatment including “Upstream”, a 1927 comedy directed by John Ford. It was preserved in New Zealand under the supervision of Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “Finding a Ford feature is like finding a Raphael,” said Melville. Al Christie’s 1918 comedy “Why Husbands Flirt” was in relatively good shape, suffering only minor shrinkage. It also has been preserved and will debut in July at the Silent Film Festival in San Francisco. Melville said that the foundation applied for the Save America’s Treasures grant for films that they felt would be difficult to attract funding.
The best-known form of film deterioration is nitrate decay. “The discouraging thing about early films is that once the nitrate decay has started, it can’t be reversed,” said Melville. Decay begins with the fading of the image and brown discolouration of the emulsion (the formatting layer of the film), followed by a pungent odour and the bubbling of the emulsion. It ends with the film’s disintegration into a brownish powder. But there is hope for some films with nitrate decay as damaged sequences can be replaced, for example, if a film has repeating intertitles, or missing sequences can be reinstated and then copied onto a more stable type of film stock.
Two films set to undergo treatment are “Unseen Forces”, 1920, directed by Sidney Franklin and the “lost” 1923 feature “Maytime” which was silent movie starlet Clara Bow’s first Hollywood picture. The deterioration of the latter has reached a point where “blooms” are starting to eat away at the emulsion. As well as nitrate decay, “Unseen Forces” needs a thorough clean and suffers from other forms of damage including torn sprocket holes, tint fading, mould and mildew growth, and water damage.
The foundation is working with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film & Television Archive—the five major silent film archives in the US—to treat the films.
“Every film we preserve will be available to the public,” said Melville, adding: “We regard access as being so important that we want it to be the endpoint, rather than a by product.” After treatment, the films will be housed in the abovementioned archives and will be available for view on the foundation’s website. Copies will be sent to New Zealand.
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