FILM PRESERVATION ANOTHER FINE MESS

“WHY DON'T YOU DO SOMETHING  TO HELP ME?”

By Richard W. Bann

 
 
Part 4
Part 1  | Part 2  |  Part 3  | Photos & Captions
 

Our side, however, is open to criticism as well. Rich Correll, who managed Harold Lloyd’s film library when Lloyd was still alive and is now a director (he created HANNAH MONTANA for Disney), has been complaining to me for years about the way HOG WILD (1930) looks in the comprehensive Universal 21-disc DVD boxed set we licensed in 2004. Correll spent $44,000 of his own money to preserve one of his father’s films, the Amos ’n’ Andy RKO-Radio (in more ways than one) feature film, CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK (1930). He did not care for how that work was done either, and started all over at another film laboratory. So he is clearly one who holds restoration and preservation efforts to a high standard. But part of the rebuttal I made was that the lab which successfully performed the work on CHECK AND DOUBLE CHECK happened to be Film Tech, where preservation work was performed exactly the same way we did it for HOG WILD. Because Film Tech did both jobs. It is true nonetheless both subjects can still profit from a digital cleanup, which can be performed at any point in the process of revitalizing how a film looks and sounds on screen.
 
The more important point is that so now if UCLA wishes to undertake its own new institutional (as opposed to corporate) preservation effort, what Rich Correll says frequently is something I agree with. Namely, that this is Laurel & Hardy we are talking about. Many of us believe they are the greatest comedy team, who made the greatest comedies of all time, and we owe them and their legacy no less than the best effort we can make to preserve their work as best as is humanly and inhumanly possible – even if the memorable ending of HOG WILD was shot on campus at USC, and not at its cross-town collegiate rival, UCLA.
 
On HOG WILD I further explained to Rich Correll that we worked from the camera negative, meaning the very film that was inside the camera recording the action as performed right there that day by Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and the assembled cast. This gave us truly remarkable picture quality and stunning definition, density, and contrast. But in using the absolute lowest possible generation element, we gladly accepted a tradeoff in terms of the accumulated wear that the material reflected insofar as imbedded dirt, digs, scratches, abrasions and other now inherent anomalies. And in electing to employ diffusion rather than a wet gate process, we were able to retain optimum sharpness and detail and also insure that the image remained rock steady. With this working methodology, an electronic polish cleanup can still be performed at any time.  
 
Obviously, film preservation is made-to-order, custom work, performed with loving care as a function of whatever state the film elements are in. For instance, another issue we faced with respect to HOG WILD was that during the 1940s, Film Classics had replaced the original Roach and M-G-M title designs. They spliced on instead their own stock Film Classics plaque titles (in which they also mistakenly gave cinematography credit to Jack Stevens instead of his more distinguished brother, George). The studio cutting print, or work print, along with the 35mm lavender, would still have had the original titles section, but these elements were gone by the time we performed our preservation work at Film Tech in 1993.


 
What happened to them? In 1975, when Bill Lindholm, renowned film preservationist David Shepard and I were working at Blackhawk Films, HOG WILD was a popular subject with customers and our 16mm fine grain and printing negatives wore out. Herb Gelbspan arranged to have the 35mm work print sent out to us so we could re-master our material. From the unedited optical reduction negative, I made a 16mm print for myself, but on the preprint material we manufactured for Blackhawk to use, the original titles were all replaced. After which we returned the original work print as instructed to Hal Roach Studios storage. That 35mm material has never surfaced again. Lost. Then seven years ago, I did not offer our CCA licensee, Universal, access to my 16mm print of HOG WILD with its original titles intact, only because owing to miscommunication they never asked. But I have now given it over to Vivendi for the purpose of restoring the original titles in the forthcoming Laurel & Hardy DVD boxed set of sound short subjects and feature films to be distributed in America.     


 
So there is some of the history, the state of the film library, and a sample of the issues we face going forward. What does the future hold? A multi-year major preservation effort by the UCLA Film & Television Archive to supplement the work product now stored in Munich.
 
Why UCLA?
 
When, after about fifteen years, we finished our Eastern Hemisphere preservation program, Hallmark, which at the time was paying to store the nitrate in Los Angeles, incredibly saw no further need for this original material. Destroying it all for silver salvage was one option. Even now, in an age supposedly enlightened about film preservation, that calamity was barely averted. As another option, they offered everything to me, personally. As much as I felt a proprietary interest in the Hal Roach library, as a moral imperative I easily reasoned that a far more worthy custodian would obviously be the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and with the aid of associate curator Rob Stone (then at UCLA, now with the LOC), we steered the collection there, where it resides now.
 
Incidentally, while the collection was in LOC’s custody, some of the negatives were printed onto 35mm safety stock as one-light or only partially-timed masters, but not on polyester-based safety stock. And years passed before the answer prints were checked, if ever. To what extent projection prints have been struck and shared with audiences anywhere is unknown.
 
During the 1980s, film archivist Jim Harwood cared for this material, and remembers, “I had to junk one of the reels of the original negative of Laurel & Hardy’s FROM SOUP TO NUTS (1928) due to heavy deterioration. It was a very painful thing to do, but the film was crumbling to powder.”
 
There are other tales, worse, which simply cannot be told.
 
When I visited the Library of Congress in 1983, the indispensable David Parker of the curatorial staff explained that “The Roach collection, although highly valued by me, personally, is the most intractable library and the worst mess we have, a real Chinese puzzle. Someone actually registered a complaint with the union over being assigned to work on the Roach collection.”
 
The civil service administrators, too, had decided by then that they wished to be out of the nitrate film storage business. Unfortunately during this period movies held a low priority at the Library of Congress, with Beethoven’s handwritten manuscripts and original etchings by Rembrandt taking precedence over the slapstick antics of Charley Chase or Harry Langdon.   
 
So UCLA now has the best surviving nitrate and is soliciting tax-deductible donations large and small from anyone and everyone all over the world. If devotees wish to give something back and to feel as though they have made a contribution to propagating the spirit and genius of Laurel & Hardy insofar as insuring the films will survive in as many archives as possible and continue to entertain as many future generations as possible, here is the opportunity they have been waiting for. The films are already beautifully preserved and stored in Munich, but corporate interests serve a different purpose than an institutional film archive at a leading American university which is perhaps more interested in the cultural value of classic comedies.
 
In summation, in other words, the more preservation, the better. Thanks to what the UCLA Film & Television Archive director Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak terms “a major lead gift” by archivist Jeff Joseph, the work can now begin. Donations in any amount are welcome. Oliver Hardy himself showed everyone what to do in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL (1936) when he reached into his pocket and voiced his appreciation, “Just offering a gift here, a small stipend.”
 
If through this program, 35mm exhibition prints from UCLA preservation efforts are made available for new audiences throughout America to enjoy, the Laurel & Hardy films will at last be shown again the way they were intended to be seen by their creators – restored, uncut, uninterrupted, on a theatre screen, in the dark, in front of a live audience. Where they come to life, where the love shows, where the magic happens, and where future generations yet unborn will be grateful beyond words, that we, all together, did this work, and just in time. Now is the time.
 
Here is the link to UCLA’s new website which explains how you can be involved in the grassroots international fundraising effort:
www.cinema.ucla.edu.
 
In the words of the lovely Crane twins, concluding their recitation of the opening original credits for ANOTHER FINE MESS, “We thank you.”

Photos & Captions