Prints of classic films lost in blaze

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Times Staff Writers

In addition to the ruined “King Kong” attraction and the burned New York street scapes, the Universal Studios Hollywood fire has claimed another casualty: perhaps hundreds of classic 35-millimeter film prints, the studio said Tuesday.

The prints were high-quality copies of decades-old movies, not original masters, which are stored in a Philadelphia vault, the studio said. But the loss of the copies in Universal’s scorched vault building, which the studio had not yet quantified, could affect several upcoming screenings of classic films at museums, festivals and repertory theaters.

“It’s a real shame. The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Bernardo Rondeau, the coordinator of film programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As part of July’s “The Discreet Charm of Charles Boyer” program, LACMA was scheduled to show the French-born actor’s 1941 film “Hold Back the Dawn.”


The print of that movie, which was originally released by Paramount but is part of Universal’s archival collection, was being transferred from New York’s Lincoln Center to the Los Angeles museum and may have been in the Universal vault when the predawn blaze broke out Sunday.

Making new film prints can cost $5,000 or more each and take months to produce.

The fire also claimed about 5% of Universal Music Group’s recordings, primarily big band and jazz recordings on the Decca label, and video copies of Universal movies and television shows. Universal Music Group is no longer part of the NBC conglomerate but rents storage space from the studio.

LACMA’s Rondeau said the museum was nearly finished preparing the schedule for its July 11-26 festival and still planned to include “Hold Back the Dawn” on the slate, hoping that the film was spared or that a substitute print could be located.

In an e-mail sent to several dozen film exhibitors Monday, Universal said the “fire destroyed nearly 100% of the archive prints kept here on the lot. Due to this we will be unable to honor any film bookings of prints that were set to ship from here. Over the next few weeks and months, we will be able to try and piece together what material we do have and if any prints exist elsewhere.”

Jan-Christopher Horak, the director of UCLA Film and Television Archive, said that in addition to the uncertainty surrounding “Hold Back the Dawn,” the status of several other classic film prints was murky but not as bad as once feared.

“Initially, with the flood of e-mails [asking for prints], the situation seemed more dire than it turned out to be,” Horak said. “Universal did find prints on some stuff.”


American Cinematheque, which operates the Egyptian Theatre and Aero Theatre, had booked prints of “Her Jungle Love” and “Aloma of the South Seas” (both Paramount films with Dorothy Lamour), and now Universal will not be able to provide the 35-millimeter prints, Horak said.

“It is upsetting,” said Horak, who once worked at Universal. “I feed bad for my colleagues at Universal. I was in that vault. It was filled with stuff. It’s going to take quite a while to assess what really was lost.”