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Saving Orphan Films

January 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They’re called “Orphan Films,” old movies hidden away in archives all around the country, like this footage from 1946. That’s Goose Tatum on the right, the Harlem Globetrotter who also played baseball in the Negro Leagues. The orphan films include some features made outside Hollywood, like this one produced in Alaska in 1924. The films are often disintegrating, and are seldom available for viewing.

But the Alaska movie and the Goose Tatum baseball footage have been preserved, and can be seen now on DVD, Digital Video, thanks to the work of a San Francisco foundation created by Congress to help save America’s film heritage.

To see the DVD’s is to experience a century of motion picture history. There are very early films, like “Princess Nicotine,” which was made in 1909, and celebrated for its special effects. There’s Scott Bartlett’s “Off On,” a pioneering blend of video and film. And there’s “The Toll of the Sea,” the earliest surviving Technicolor movie, which was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archives.

Director Martin Scorsese is one of the leaders in the campaign to restore old films. At a recent fundraiser sponsored by American Movie Classics, Scorsese warned that 50% of American feature films made before 1950 have disintegrated.

MARTIN SCORSESE, Film Director: Film is history, and for every foot of film that’s lost, we lose another link to our culture, to the world around us, to each other, and to ourselves. (Applause )

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Scorsese is on the board of the National Film Preservation Foundation that produced the new DVD Set. The curator of the collection was film historian Scott Simmon. I spoke with him at the Pacific Film Archive of the University of California at Berkeley.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Martin Scorsese says that about 50% of the feature films, big films, have disintegrated. What about other films– the silent films, and all the kinds of films you’ve put on this set?

SCOTT SIMMON, Curator, Treasures from American Film Archives: It’s harder to say, because nobody really knows how many of those films were made to start with. But at one time there was a study at the Library of Congress a few years ago that of silent fiction films, about 85% no longer survive. So that’s the depressing way of looking at it. The optimistic way is to say that 15% do survive, and that the challenge is to save that 15%.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What’s important about a film like “Princess Nicotine,” or any of the other films in this set? Why save them?

SCOTT SIMMON: For some kinds of films, the justification is quite easy; for newsreels, if saving documents of American history are worth saving, then these newsreels are worth saving. For regional documentaries and amateur films, the justification is a little more difficult when… You can say, however, that these are films that are closer to how people actually lived, that it’s maybe the people’s film making.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s take a look at “Blacksmithing.” (Piano music playing )

SCOTT SIMMON: This is the first film ever show publicly, filmed in 1893.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who made it?

SCOTT SIMMON: This was made by Thomas Edison in his studios in New Jersey. In order to see the film, audience members lined up to watch it on a kinetiscope, which is Edison’s individual viewing device. The film itself was found in a kinetiscope machine in Michigan, I believe, in the 1980s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where?

SCOTT SIMMON: It was found in the Henry Ford Museum, if I’m remembering correctly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Somebody just left it in there?

SCOTT SIMMON: It had been in a kinetiscope machine all those years.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Wow. Let’s look at the Groucho film.

SCOTT SIMMON: Great. (Piano music playing ) This one’s a particularly… One that I’m fond of, because it’s Groucho Marx’s home movies. It was made about 1932. I like this because it’s both an intimate family drama and a little staged comedy. This is Harpo Marx.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the kids are going off to school.

SCOTT SIMMON: Yeah, so Groucho will come out smoking his cigar, but without his trademark mustache and glasses. And he plays this skinflint routine with his wife.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ( Laughs ) And off he goes.

SCOTT SIMMON: This was on a reel of film that came to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, with a huge collection of Groucho’s papers. So as with a lot of films, it’s a part of a larger collection.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Perhaps the most high-profile film in this set is John Huston’s “Battle of San Pietro.” And this is the director that made “The Maltese Falcon” and “Treasure of Sierra Madre.”

SCOTT SIMMON: John Huston, like a lot of Hollywood directors, joined the army to make government- sponsored films, and this one, he was originally assigned to document the liberation of Rome, which was supposed to be quite easy, and as it turned out, of course, it was quite difficult fighting Italy. So he was reassigned to make a film explaining to stateside Americans why it was so long and hard-fought. (Explosions ) ( machinegun fire )

SPOKESMAN: Artillery were deadly accurate. By reason of excellent enemy observation from Mount Lunga overlooking our advance…which continued another 200 to 400 yards. ( Explosions )

SCOTT SIMMON: There’s a real immediacy to the combat photography here, and this was a film that was quite controversial within the army when it was made, because it was considered, really, too harrowing.

SPOKESMAN: Many men gave their lives in attempts to reach pill boxes and throw hand grenades through the narrow gun openings. The third battalion was committed.

SCOTT SIMMON: One of the things you can see that Huston does which is like a Hollywood film is that there’s consistent screen direction. We always attack from left to right, the enemy attacks from right to left. So Huston flipped a lot of the shots.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he actually did reenactments, didn’t he?

SCOTT SIMMON: He did, yeah. He admits it in the end title, but he probably did a few more than he admits. (Explosion )

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Then there are very different kinds of films: “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example. Tell us a little bit about that.

SCOTT SIMMON: Well, one of the kinds of films that the archivists and I are particularly pleased to put on here are early avant-garde, independent films. Many of them don’t survive, or don’t survive in good quality copies. This one, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” is from the late silent period, 1928. This, of course, is based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story. We have put her living into the tomb, is the key plot point. It was made by two men in Rochester, New York, who were renowned for other things, not for film making. Together they made this film, which was quite stunning and professional. (Piano music playing ) (piano music playing ) This was saved by the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, from the original negatives, which is one of the reasons that it looks so great.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah. Is it really hard to preserve them?

SCOTT SIMMON: Well, preservation is taking rare and fragile film stock and copying it onto new stock, and then storing it in a way that it’ll survive, hopefully for generations to come– cool and dry conditions, basically. So depending on how deteriorated the film is to start with, it’s technically difficult, or maybe not so difficult. It just needs to be done before the film starts deteriorating.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, a work in progress: Marion Anderson.

SCOTT SIMMON: This is a film which moves beyond preservation. The UCLA Film and Television Archive is recreating a key moment in US Civil Rights history, which is– insofar as surviving material, makes it possible– the full concert film of African American contralto Marion Anderson’s Easter Sunday concert in 1939. She was denied permission to sing at Constitution hall by the DAR, And it became more of an incident when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR Over this, and so she arranged permission to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

MARION ANDERSON: (singing) My country ’tis of thee sweet land of liberty of thee we sing land where my father’s died land of the pilgrim’s pride from ev’ry mountainside let freedom ring.

SCOTT SIMMON: And those are just some of the pieces from the 11 hours on this “Treasures” DVD, Which hopefully answer your original question about why is this material worth saving. And I think if people see them, they will realize the importance of saving them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Scott Simmon, thanks for being with us.

SCOTT SIMMON: It was fun.

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