When construction was started on a skating rink on the site of a long-filled-in swimming pool in Dawson, the historic old gold-rush town in the Yukon, workers struck another kind of lode--a whopping 550 reels of film preserved half a century beneath the permafrost.
It seems that Dawson had been the end of the line on the old movie circuits--and the local bank, which had been storing the film in its basement, early on ran out of space for so many cans. Among other treasures, the trove yielded Douglas Fairbanks’ long-lost “The Half Breed” (1916).
More recently, a couple remodeling their porch found two reels of film buried under it that turned out to be the Civil War drama “An Angel in Contention” (1914) with Lillian Gish. But in the couple months that it took for the American Film Institute to get hold of it, the nitrate had disintegrated so rapidly that now only seven frames exist.
These two incidents, related by AFI archivist Joe Empsucha, illustrate how film preservation has been a matter of chance. But that this is beginning to change is symbolized by the UCLA Film Archives’ presentation, starting Friday, of “Archival Treasures: Film, Television and Radio Preservation at UCLA.” The most ambitious series of restored films ever assembled, it’s a three-month array of more than 50 features, plus a selection of shorts and excerpts from silent serials and features.
There will be special programs focusing on newsreels, early experiments in color--e.g., “Lillian Russell in Kinemacolor"--and in sound, a tribute to Jack Oakie, TV before 1950 and an especially enticing offering, titled “Behind the Scenes in Hollywood, 1919-1949.” The opening program is tantalizing in itself, “The Animal Kingdom” (1932), which is also being presented in New York as part of a tribute to Myrna Loy, plus “The Royal Family of Broadway” (1930), starring Fredric March, Ina Claire, Henrietta Crossman and Mary Brian and co-directed by George Cukor and Cyril Gardner.
The range is breathtaking, stretching from such celebrated Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations as “The Scarlet Empress” and “Blonde Venus” to such an obscure John Wayne starrer for Republic as “Flame of the Barbary Coast” (1945).
The series coincides neatly with the first anniversary of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the AFI, which was founded by UCLA Film Archives Director Bob Rosen, now on leave from the university to establish the center, which has its key office at AFI’s Hollywood headquarters, where he was interviewed recently.
“Restoration creates events,” said Rosen, a tireless promoter in the cause of preservation who reviews films for KCRW-FM while teaching some film courses at UCLA. “Look at the response to ‘Napoleon,’ ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Becky Sharp.’
“Generally speaking, when you talk of archival activities, the image that used to come into mind is dust and dead storage. But what’s amazing about the past year is that restoration and preservation has become a very ‘sexy’ issue.
“This turning point is predicated on several reasons: First, preservation has become a popular issue no longer limited to film buffs and archivists; second, the popular response to restored films--just think, when LACMA announced that it would show the most completely restored version of a film as well-known as ‘Metropolis,’ people had to be turned away; third, Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has made film and TV preservation a priority; fourth, American archives are alive and kicking as evidenced by the new facilities at the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA’s expansion, symbolized by this series; and five, producers, who once may have viewed past product as dead storage, now realize its enormous value and think about preserving their own material.”
Rosen, originally a teacher of social history at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, sees a primary function of the center as “a non-competitive, non-duplicative, coordinating entity for all archives and all the archives of the producers.” One of the key undertakings of the center is the creation of its National Moving Image Data Bank, which will contain computerized information on the holdings of all its various participants.
“When you’re doing preservation, you’re traveling in the dark,” said Rosen. “Often you don’t know for sure whether anyone else has already done what you’re doing or whether he has better material and ought to be doing it instead of you. To ensure that scarce funds are used most efficiently, and to understand that the best possible preservation work is done through sharing information, is pivotal.
“We now administer the AFI-National Endowment grants program that each year gives approximately half-a-million dollars to the major archives primarily for nitrate preservation. This is not nearly enough money, but over the years the AFI and NEA has given out approximately $6 million with matching funds from institutions, which has resulting in saving 12,000 films. These grants are the backbone, but they have to be fleshed out. This requires significant private contributions and corporate support.”
With another office in Washington, D.C., the center has a staff of only about a dozen people, half of whom are cataloguers: “They’re working on the AFI Catalogue, which will be the definitive listing of all the films produced in the U.S. by decade,” Rosen explained. “The AFI completed the ‘20s and the ‘60s, and now we’re back on the track. All the information will also be fed into the data bank. There will be cast and credits, plot summaries and literary sources for each film.”
Right now, the cataloguers are working on the teens, a formidable task considering how little has survived and how little information there is on many of the films that actually have survived.
Next on his agenda is assembling a board of people powerful enough “to solve our problems” plus a TV special on preservation. Already involved with the center are writer-producer Fay Kanin, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who’s serving as its chairman for film, and Eddie Albert, who will do some TV spots as part of the center’s public outreach activity.