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Celluloid Sleuths

Most people don’t realize that a film and television archivist’s job involves far more than cataloging reels in some windowless room. In fact, archivists restore films, which takes equal parts patience (a new print of “Lost Horizons” was 20 years in the making), skill and detective work. Three of the country’s top archivists--David Shepard of the Film Preservation Associates, Dan Einstein, television archivist at UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, and Scott MacQueen, senior manager of library restoration for the Walt Disney Co.--discuss their craft.

Q: Got any good detective stories?

Shepard: The Chaplin Essanay comedies. They had been scattered as early as about 1920. I have a colleague and a good friend in Paris. While I was there--you couldn’t stage this in a bad play--this boy rides up on a bike, and on the handlebars was a basket full of film. He had been on his family’s farm in Normandy and had found these old films. We started going through them and we hit this original 1915 Essanay print of Chaplin’s “The Tramp.” It wasn’t in very good shape, but it contained material we never found anywhere else.

Einstein: Well, I only deal with television. The Astaire shows took around three years. “An Evening With Fred Astaire” was one of the first color videotape programs, and it hadn’t been seen in its original glory in ages. We located some tapes at Universal. The year before Fred Astaire died, his agent got a couple of other tapes. Mrs. Astaire provided us with some kinescopes that we didn’t use, but it helped us try to figure out what we needed to do.

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MacQueen: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” We located the original camera negative at the Museum of Modern Art. It was missing three reels. There was quite a bit of damage in the other seven reels. We also had a protection master from 1945 and we tested that--certain things we could do better, but some things we couldn’t improve. Further talking and prodding with our associates overseas uncovered another nitrate fine grain at the British Film Institute in London [that] could offer a higher generation of sound. We pulled in the nitrate copyright print from the Library of Congress. We rerecorded that. I had located, from a collector, a 1954 acetate release print of “Notorious.” It had the best sound of anything we could locate.

Q: What’s your dream project?

Shepard: The big hole in my body of work of films I really admire are French silent films.

Einstein: “The Mikado” on “The Bell Telephone Hour” in 1960 with Groucho Marx. I would love to find that tape.

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MacQueen: I would say as a body of work, [the Walt Disney Archives] are still missing a large number of “Alice in Cartoonland” shorts made in the 1920s. We probably have 30 shorts out of 56.


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