The Case Of The Vanishing Records

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Even under optimum storage conditions, nitrate film of any age may unpredictably begin to disintegrate. First the silver image begins to undergo a brownish discoloration and serious fading. This is followed by stickiness of the emulsion leading to a partial softening of the film and the appearance of blisters. A pungent odor signals the next stage, when the entire film congeals into one solid mass. The film base then disintegrates into a brownish powder which has a very low ignition temperature and is highly explosive.

The International Federation of Film Archives has advised its members to inspect nitrate film regularly, whatever its vintage, and to transfer it to acetate at the first sign of discoloration and fading. The I.F.F.A. reports that millions of feet of artistically and historically irreplaceable nitrate film are disintegrating in the vaults of major studios at this moment. So little attention has been paid to the problem that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has discovered that it cannot mount a complete retrospective of Academy Award-winning movies.

In Washington, the newly organized American Film Institute is working feverishly with the Library of Congress to establish the National Film Collection, to be a comprehensive and permanent collection of American films, before it is too late. The library has been collecting films since the advent of cinematography, when the first films were deposited for copyright protection, but films are only a small part of the library’s concerns, and the congressional appropriations have never been adequate to collect and preserve more than a token number of those produced.

The American Film Institute’s Archive Division is now scouring the nation to locate deposits of nitrate film not yet in institutional hands, and is warning those institutions holding nitrate that they may have a potential explosive or that—in case they haven’t looked lately—they may be storing worthless blobs of gelatin and silver salts. To dramatize the situation the institute has drawn up a list of 250 important American films which it believes are either lost or in imminent danger of decay because they are still on nitrate. This “rescue list” includes works by D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and Erich von Stroheim, along with others featuring stars like John Barrymore, Laurel and Hardy, Douglas Fairbanks, and W. C. Fields. The institute also reports that there are no known prints of Cecil B. de Mule’s first film, The Squaw Man , one of the milestones of film making. And almost all the historic Edison films have disappeared.

Recently the film companies themselves have become interested in the preservation of their product. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Hollywood’s largest studio, is converting all of its remaining titles from nitrate to acetate; Universal, one of the oldest film companies, now keeps its negatives in special vaults in New Jersey and regularly inspects the ones still on nitrate for any signs of deterioration. When deterioration is spotted, the films are transferred to acetate. Whether or not all of the thousands of films which have been made are worth saving is open to question, but there can be no doubt that the loss has been a tragic one. Last winter the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of promotion photographs from lost films; among the films included in the exhibition were The Divine Woman (1928) starring Greta Garbo; The Devil’s Passkey (1920) directed by the great Von Stroheim; and One Glorious Day (1922), starring Will Rogers. It is clear, as Sam KuIa, the archivist of the American Film Institute, says, that “the disintegrating nitrate film has carried away a significant part of the American film heritage.”

The destruction wrought on the record of man by the instability of nitrate film has not been limited to motion pictures. When, in the eighteen nineties, still photographers began switching from the almost literally permanent glass-plate negatives to nitrate sheets, they were risking consigning their work to oblivion, for the new sheets had the same highly flammable, self-destructive base as the film used by movie makers.

“From its inception,” warns Thomas Barrow, assistant curator of Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which has one of the most important collections of still photographs and movies, “nitrate-base photographic film was dangerous. It is highly flammable, and eventual disintegration is inevitable.” A large part of the production of Lewis Hine, the famous chronicler of America’s twentieth-century technological society, has been lost because he worked with nitrate-based film. A pointed example of the impermanence of nitrate is the story of what happened to part of the work of the great turn-of-the-century Staten Island photographer Alice Austen. When her photographs were rediscovered in the 1940'$, all of her early work, which was on glass plates, was in perfect condition; many of the negatives that she had taken later, after switching to nitrate film, had become sticky sheets from which prints could not be made.