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!

Monday, July 11, 2011

B4 They Were Stars - Ginger Rogers

I thought it would be fun to look at famous stars, before they got that way.  Of course, most started out as extras or Bit Actors.  Ginger Rogers (1911 - 1995) was no exception. 

Ginger has 90 titles listed on IMDb.  Of that, 25 appear before her first pairing with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933).  It was that pairing that made her a real star, and since over 1/4 of her movies were released before that, it could be said she was a Bit Actress.  (Or am I stretching the point?!?)

In 1925 Ginger won a Charleston contest at the age of 14, and that was really her start in show business.  She toured for a short time with the dance show, and then went to Broadway.  Ginger started making movies in 1929.  Her first time on screen was in A Day of a Man of Affairs a short that no one remembers.

Two more shorts in 1930.  A Night in a Dormitory with Thelma White (1910 - 2005) who later appeared in Tell Your Children (1936) also known as Reefer Madness.  Then, Campus Sweethearts starring Rudy Vallee (1901 - 1986). 

In Young Man of Manhattan (1930) she co-stars as a flapper with Claudette Colbert (1903 - 1996).  Also in 1930 she was in The Sap from Syracuse with Jack Oakie (1903 - 1978).  These were already pretty big parts for Ginger...the problem was they were in pretty small movies.  Ginger made seven films in 1930.  That year she also worked with Charlie Ruggles, Frank Morgan, Ed Wynn and Ethel Merman

In 1931 she works with William Boyd (1895 - 1972) in Suicide Fleet, just two films before he became Hopalong Cassidy in 1935.  In the next few years she works with Joe E. Brown in two films, and with Joan Blondell, before their first Busby Berkeley film together.

Two great musicals are up next, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, both released in 1933.  Gold Diggers of 1933 started Ginger on her real climb to stardom.  The opening number is "We're in the Money" with Ginger taking the lead.  There is a closeup of her singing the song in pig-latin, and even though it is a distorted shot due to being too close for the lens, it endears Ginger to the audience.  She really didn't have a lead part in the film, but she was on her way none-the-less.

Ginger made six more films before Flying Down to Rio with Fred.  She had the lead in all of them, and got to work with more stars like Zasu Pitts, Lew Ayres (her husband from 1934 to 1940), Charley Grapewin, Joel McCrea and Jack Haley

After Flying, she was in ten films with Fred Astaire and could now be considered one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  She won just a single Oscar for her work, and it wasn't with Fred.  It was for Best Actress in Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940). 

Ginger's last film was Harlow in 1965 starring Carol Lynley (b. 1942) in the title role, and she continued acting on TV until 1987.  But she'll always be remembered as the girl who did everything Fred did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.