Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Classic Film Restoration

Think about how many movies have been made since 1896 and the first public exhibition of motion pictures in New York City.  It must be hundreds of millions, at least.  Well, maybe not quite that many, but it would be impossible to screen everything ever filmed, for more than one reason.  Time constraint is a concern, but sadly, the great majority of movies have been lost.

It has been said that at least 80% of all the silent films ever made are gone forever.  That is a thought that makes any movie buff angry at the way these important negatives were treated by their creators.  But most of them were making a simple business decision.  Even Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were responsible.

Movies in the silent era were made, shown, and discarded.  The studio heads didn't think they would ever be needed again, once everyone had seen them.  The film stock was nitrate based, so it was flammable (Very flammable.  It would even burn underwater.), and it would deteriorate after a few years, turning into powder.  Because it was dangerous to keep in storage, requiring fire-proof buildings, it was much cheaper to get rid of it all.  One famous incident included using the old negatives as fuel for a new film that required a big fire scene.

Many films were lost in warehouse fires.  A fire destroyed most of the negatives of the Lubin Studios in 1914, the same year that Lubin had saved Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille from technical problems they had with the film The Squaw Man (1914).  MGM and Warner Brothers may never have been created if it were not for the technical advances of Lubin Manufacturing.  By 1917 Siegmund Lubin had to dissolve his business, party due to the fire, and also to World War I. 

In 1927, Talkies started coming out.  The change took several years because theaters had to invest in more equipment, as did the studios, but everyone could see that from The Jazz Singer on, movies would talk.  Again, the studios that still had negatives in storage for their silent films could see no reason to retain them.  Surely, nobody would ever want to see a silent film again.  Wrong!

Film restoration efforts began after television started to become popular.  But that was a full 50 years after those first motion pictures flickered in small theaters.  Much had already been lost forever.  Early restoration attempts were spotty at best, with new titles added to many films, complete with mistakes made in the transformation.  Much of this was for television screening, and the network heads couldn't see any reason for doing the restoration job right.  All they needed was a 16mm print made from the 35mm negative.  It would be expensive to do more, and it would probably never be needed after the first showing.  Wrong again!

In a similar mindset, the movie studios that sold their work to television saw this as a last chance to make a few dollars on old films.  Surely this would be the end of the need to keep these old negatives.  No attempt was made to properly store would be too expensive.  What wasn't duped for TV was left to turn to dust.  Not only wrong, but a tragedy as well.

I recently read an incredibly detailed account by Richard W. Bann about the restoration of the films of Hal Roach Studios.  Hal Roach made the films of Charley Chase, The Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy, Thelma Todd, and many others.  Bann is a film historian and writer, and was personally involved with the process.  You can find him on Facebook. 

The article is not for the faint of heart.  It is long and somewhat technical.  But it is important to give it a shot if you love old movies.  If you get through all four pages, you will learn some new terminology, and I am sure the article will bring back some memories.  Plus, it has some great pictures.

You can find a link to the article on the home page of the official Laurel and Hardy web site.

The web site is also a font of information about the best comedy team to ever grace the big screen.  The Sons of the Desert are championing the restoration of these films at UCLA Film & Television Archive.

If you love classic movies as much as I, please take a look at these links.  Spend some time there.  Donate some money if you can.  It is important to save these films for future generations, and as Dick Bann puts it, it is comforting to know that Laurel and Hardy will be around forever.  Our government is having some moderate to heavy financial trouble these days, so whatever we can do privately will help the project move along.  Thanks!


  1. Lots of excellent information and history, Allen. You are so right that - esp. in these difficult economic times - those of us who can should make an extra effort to support film restoration.

  2. Thanks, Eve. Please try to make it thru Dick Bann's article on the L&H web site. I have written to him for any comments he may want to add and I will keep you posted.

    As I mentioned in my post, the Lubin Studios had the big fire in 1914. Only a handful of his movies are left, and IMDb lists 2,401 films produced by Siegmund Lubin! Efforts are underway to see if anything can be found in Europe, where he also distributed films.


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