As part of the procedure of registering the films for copyright protection, Hal Roach Studios and its distributor had to send in to the Library of Congress a pair of brand new 35mm release prints, which they did together with a standard letter that asked the copyright office to “send back one or both prints.” Meaning in 1927 the LOC was at liberty to retain at least one pristine new 35mm print each of titles like HATS OFF and BATTLE OF THE CENTURY for its “permanent” national collection. But did they hold onto one of the two copies so submitted? No. The prints were returned to M-G-M as Roach’s distributor, went into general circulation, and eventually disappeared.
How so? During the cycle of exhibition for these and other films such as TWO TARS or TOWED IN A HOLE, the excessively worn or discard prints became the initial casualties and were either cannibalized by editors or junked. Then there were isolated shipping losses or other accidents. Nitrate fires in movie theatres were not uncommon. Back in the regional exchange offices, as demand for a particular subject subsided, the numbers would be winnowed out further pursuant to so-called “certificates of destruction,” and additional damaged projection prints would be stripped for the valuable silver they held. Later, upon consolidating holdings in warehouse vaults, even more surplus copies would be doomed to silver salvage.
So as a hazard of storing large quantities of flammable films over many years, holdings would be streamlined again and again. It made sense because short of a reissue there was little demand for movies long out of release, plus storage space was finite and cost money. Then there might be floods or thefts or other unintentional losses.
Remaining elements were regarded as depreciated balance sheet assets left to preserve themselves, by themselves. Hal Roach himself – and this is meant as no criticism of him – never gave a moment’s thought to conserving his old movies, as he was totally absorbed in creating new ones. But so was almost everyone else at the studio, on both sides of the camera. The film library backlog was the department of the studio’s New York representative, Herb Gelbspan, and he would never spend any money on preservation without a back-up deal (meaning the licensee paid) to finance it. And there never was one.
All the while, the merged number of prints and pre-print material just sat there, quietly, inside darkened vaults, subject to indifference and the ravages of time. Some resided on the lot in Culver City. More were stored in depots like Bekins and Bonded back East. And in film labs like Fox, Pathe, M-G-M, Consolidated, Du-Art, Deluxe, Guffanti, Movie-Lab, and Mercury Laboratory in New York (where the 35mm negative for HATS OFF was sent by M-G-M in 1945 before turning to powder, or at least taking a powder). All this, just in the United States alone.
In 1943, producer George Hirliman’s Film Classics contracted with Roach to re-release much of the studio’s post-1928 product. The company was obliged by its agreement to remove the roaring lion-head logo and all of the M-G-M trademarks from the Roach comedies, however, and in so doing replaced or defaced most of the creative and artistic original main and interior production credits title cards. And they often did so the fastest, cheapest way possible by splicing their own lesser replacement footage into the best surviving 35mm negatives, resorting to the use of less attractive reissue titles which also introduced careless, inexcusable misspellings and mistakes. Plus, they did so using inferior, cheap film stock which in some cases decomposed more quickly and contaminated the attached original footage as well. Worst of all, the imaginative, original-design presentation titles sequences were thoughtlessly tossed, and thus their “twins” often managed to survive only on corresponding work prints and/or lavenders. These elements were more expensive to employ (because an extra printing step was required) and luckily, they usually remained untouched by cavalier reissue licensees with no conscience about abusing the primary film elements.
Film Classics was also guilty of re-editing the pictures, a notable example having been Laurel & Hardy’s PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (1932). Sometimes they added music where it did not belong, such as taking the titles music track from BUSY BODIES (1933) and marrying it with the titles action sequence from MEN O’ WAR (1929), incorrectly re-titled as MAN O’ WAR. The trouble being, the sound effect of a buzz saw, which had some meaning in a film like BUSY BODIES set in a carpentry shop, was completely out of place in a short such as MEN O’ WAR about two amorous seamen on leave. Yet this muddy-looking version, like so many others which Film Classics tampered with, have remained in circulation for more than half-a-century because subsequent licensees inheriting such pre-print material have been too cheap to do their job properly and manufacture their own new printing negatives in which they would restore the original titles.
Thus began the refrain of tampering with, and really plundering the original elements, which were also often over-printed until the negs simply wore out. Roach could have insisted upon licensees like Film Classics investing in and manufacturing their own duplicating elements, and making any required editorial modifications on those, instead of on the principal Hal Roach Studios master elements. But the studio was not guided accordingly. Why? Because with every new deal, in every new medium, Roach executives believed it was also likely the last deal they could ever hope for. Those old negatives would never be needed again, the staff thought. Would they?
Film Classics’ license expired in 1951. Robert Savini’s Astor Pictures was one of several distributors who picked up theatrical reissue rights in succession. Concerned only with short term box-office returns, like so many others, the laboratory abuse of negatives continued.
Then along came television. Silent comedies generally enjoyed a brief comeback. A high percentage of the physical elements (but not the rights) for the Roach-Pathe silents, however, had previously passed into the hands of penurious producer Morris Kleinerman and perished in a fire. Kleinerman, known among the old guard of film collectors as “The Master Duper,” got them easily. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s almost no one wanted what was regarded as this kind of surplus, obsolete material. After Mack Sennett went bankrupt in 1933, e.g., his entire physical inventory of prints and negatives was liquidated dirt-cheap in an auction for the total consideration of $875! No copyright consideration was involved (most of the long forgotten Sennett and Roach shorts distributed by Pathe would wind up victims of lapsed copyright protection anyway). The collection of Sennett elements was likely redeemed for silver salvage.
But then TV did rekindle interest in the surviving old silent slapstick comedies of producers like Roach and Sennett, particularly because these properties, presumed to be copyright-free, were inexpensive to exploit. So those pictures that had not already dissolved into dust, or melded into bricks, were summarily duped, looped, cropped, chopped, trimmed, slimmed, sliced and diced to a fare-thee-well. And in each re-packaging, much more than just the original Art-Deco title designs were mutilated. What happened in series such as COMEDY CAPERS and MISCHIEF MAKERS calls to mind Lubitsch’s line as spoken by “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” in TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), how what early TV syndicators did to silent comedies was like what the Nazis “are now doing to Poland and France.” Over 80% of all the silent films ever made anywhere were then already lost anyway. Many of the silent Charley Chase, Our Gang and even some of the Laurel & Hardy comedies are by now past the point when they can be properly restored and preserved. Let’s not even go there.
On the sound side, the many successive licensees and sub-licensees in the new medium of television were also given lab access letters to reprint (and essentially rape and ruin) the Film Classics negatives, which in some cases were the altered camera negatives! There was never any stipulation as to licensees being required to manufacture their own new printing materials to fulfill 16mm TV syndication sales around the country.
Did they have any incentive to invest in new negatives? No. Therefore no backup work was ever done, no restoration, no preservation, just fill the 35mm to 16mm print-down orders using the best negatives Gelbspan would allow TV syndicators to print from. With a tangled array of domestic licenses granted to Governor TV Attractions and Regal Television (divisions of Moe Kerman’s Favorite Films Corp.), Inter-State Television (a division of Monogram Pictures), Alec Campbell’s Prime TV, National Telepix, Walter Reade-Sterling, and many others, the film library was kicked around through more unsure hands than the park grounds football used in Our Gang’s PIGSKIN PALOOKA (1937).
And this was just in the United States. The original negatives had also been widely re-packaged, reissued, re-printed and over-printed for theatrical and television distribution all over the world. Generally, they took a beating.
Not that Mr. Gelbspan was exclusively or entirely to blame in this regard. Throughout Hollywood when a library sale was made it often came as a surprise. As indicated, the usual thought was, with every new deal, in every new medium, “This agreement represents found money; it’s the last contract we’re ever likely to make with these obsolete films. After this, the old negatives will never be needed again. Just patch them together to go through the lab’s contact printers one last time.”
On deal after deal, studio executives kept saying these things, and they allowed indifferent licensees to take such servicing shortcuts until the movie plants didn’t have their negs and masters any more.
Herb Gelbspan used to tell the absolutely incredible story of how the studio took desperate measures each year to dodge a personal property tax that the state of California imposed on film negatives. Every March 1, during the period when a physical inventory needed to be conducted, Hal Roach Studios would empty the Culver City film vaults, and load all those precious nitrate negatives into tractor-trailer-trucks. Then, perhaps retaining the “Laurel & Hardy Transfer Co.,” the trucks were driven out of town and all the way across the state line into Nevada, where they would be parked by the side of the road. For days on end. All those dreams, all the blood, sweat and tears invested in that unique source material, parked there in the hot desert sun with no shelter, as a tax shelter!
Had he heard it, wouldn’t a disbelieving Oliver Hardy have demanded, “Tell me that plan, again.”
Driving back and forth, risking explosions and fires in the event of a traffic accident, one thing that happened was that all the heat inside those trucks speeding along highways caused the adhesive labels and leaders to fall off the reels and cans.
Through the years, whoever tried to re-label many of these film cans would optimistically call any positive image they found inside a “master,” when often it was only a battered release print. Or a stock shot. Or test footage. Or maybe an Italian track neg. Was Ben Turpin performing this task? To this day there has never been a rigorous physical inventory conducted for the purpose of adequately identifying all the studio holdings. So even now, opening old Roach film canisters offers surprises – some happy, some not.