| Tonight's session is devoted primarily to a topic that aroused a great deal of discussion at our first meeting -- that of film preservation. Admittedly there isn't a great deal that we can do, either as individuals or as societies, towards saving the great mass of film that is constantly in danger of destruction. But even one film saved is worth the effort; and the more we understand of the problems involved, the more constructive can be our individual and collective efforts.
We're concerned tonight primarily with the early films - the one and two reelers of the pre-1915 period. For the most part, any films past that date constitute little problems in terms of decisions. Research material exists: reviews, stills, pressbooks. Even if a film isn't known, there are ways of checking up on it. In any event, since it has become apparent that silent films have value for television, most of the major companies have been taking much better care of existing negatives and fine grains, and Paramount in particular has been busy making up new prints. Even if there is no ultimate commercial use made of this material, the necessary safety precautions have been taken.
But pre-1915 -- that's another matter. There is little commercial value in this material, although Biograph's "Movie Museum" series did utilise a good deal of it in 176 15-minute shows. And there is so much of it -- literally thousands upon thousands of reels -- mainly in negative form -- negative which is often extremely difficult to print on today's machines, and is always costly. Luckily, lab work was so good in the early days that a lot of the 1905 negatives are in far better shape than material from the 20's and 30's. But that only provides a temporary breathing space: in time it all has to decompose, and much of it already has.
Since a lot of the pros and cons of this problem will come out in discussion tonight, I'll do no more here than just identify the various films we're showing, and the reasons.
First, "The Treasure That Was Lost" - an MGM "Passing Parade" which deals, superficially but interestingly, with the problem of preserving film.
Then some examples of films that have been lost (subject to other printing material turning up of course) because they were tackled too late: Some interesting footage of Houdini, in a specially staged bout with Paris police, shot around 1912. The interior scenes, with his escape act, are all hypoed; the exteriors, shot on another occasion and presumably given better washing at the lab, are still fine -- but due to contact with the "diseased"' sections, their demise is imminent too. We're following this with NELLIE THE PRETTY TYPEWRITER GIRL, an early Edison which illustrates many of the problems of deciding how to select which films to preserve, and which not. Like most of the old negatives, it was stored completely out of sequence. Even to one familiar with reading negative on a small viewer, it presents a problem. With so much eaten away by hypo and the scenes re-arranged anyway, it was impossible to make sense of it. The deciding factors: the use of split-screen, and some fine shots of NY's Wall Street area. This print was made up before it vanished completely. It is thus at least available for study. Is it worth the expense involved? Couldn't the money have been better employed on another film? With so many thousands of reels available for printing, the mere argument that "anything there's only one of" should be preserved is neither practical nor economical. With the print in screenable shape, it's no great problem to fit the jigsaw together -- many of the prints shown at the Huff Society have been so reconstructed. However, we're leaving this film exactly as it was in order to show you one of the everyday problems.
Also in this section of the program we'll be showing you some sections of a Mack Sennett comedy, The Dog Catcher's Love, with Slim Summerville. This one was not only hypoed, but so shrunken that at times a steady printing was impossible.
Leaving the "diseased" film behind us, we'll move on to a couple of the interesting films that have been saved and that were well worth saving. Won Through Merit is indistinguished as a film, like most Edison subjects, but it is a fascinating record of certain Civil Service procedure of the day, and has some fine documentary shots of Washington. Worth saving for other reasons is Griffith's The Burglar's Dilemma -- but here the saving was only partial, and little more than half the film could be salvaged. However, the glimpses are interesting.
Next: the films that are not worth saving. There'll be hot and angry words about this I'm sure, but save your anger until you've seen the films. Bison's The Empty Water Keg is typical of scores of early westerns - empty, obvious, devoid of technique. We're not ridiculing the film or the efforts of its makers. It undoubtedly had a place in film history. Representative samples of films like this should be preserved; but only as samples. Until such time as some benevolent body provides unlimited funds for the preservation of all film, printing up material like this is a luxury. The Empty Water Keg is one of the Huff Society's prime "goofs" in its limited contributions towards film preservation. A Bandit, a Keystone-Sennett with Arbuckle, is another film quite unworthy of special consideration. No one wants to go out of his way to hide, let alone destroy, the silent era's mistakes; but there is no reason to perpetuate them solely in the name of film "history". It's interesting too, that some of the worst subjects are in the best condition -- for the simple reason that they were so bad that the negatives had but little use. Of course, today it's a temptation to print up a good condition negative rather than a troublesome and shrunken one -- but it's a temptation that should be resisted.
To wind up on a happier note: only last week we learned that the negative of one of the early Edison talkies, Five Bachelors, was decomposing. Luckily it had been copied just in time -- and we'll show this really rare little item tonight. And for a final dramatic contrast -- Tom Ince's fine Civil War drama of 1913, Silent Heroes, printed up from the original negative in 1956 -- and in fine shape -- followed by some scenes made from that same negative, only a year later.
The moral: if you have any decomposing (or any) nitrate stored at home, get it into the hands of someone who can examine it and preserve it. You'll not only be serving film history, but you'll be saving yourself from a sticky end in all probability. Only a couple of weeks ago, some nitrate stored in a private house in Detroit blew up -- killing two children in the process.