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Nitrate, Negatives and Fire


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Thanks Liz, Very interesting and sad article at the same time. So many films have been lost and this is part of Hollywood /America film history Hopefully they preserve more and more films or in years to come film history will only date back to the 1960's. Thanks again for the info...


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It's one of those things that so many of us take for granted. That the films we have enjoyed for years are just sitting pristinely in vaults across the country just waiting to be shown when the reality is far different.


Negatives were melted down for their silver content during WW2 (Stagecoach and others), Negatives were lost in vault fires (Citizen Kane and others), beginning in the 1950s with the sales of various studios, each time a studio was sold the so called library of assets was one of the least cared about resulting in further destruction and neglect. The selling of various studios libraries to other studios entangled who has what for years.


It has only been in the last thirty plus years that preservation and restoration has become important. The number of films believed to be lost is staggering. Is it any wonder why restoration costs so much? And the sad fact is that money is so tight for preservation that each year more films are endangered because there isn't enough money to save them all at this point.


I suspect that is one reason why WB Home Video every few years puts out new editions of its blockbusters like "GWTW" and "The Wizard of Oz" because they are great sellers and that in turn, brings in more money to do more restorations.


As I said in a earier thread, just because a movie exists, doesn't mean that a print of that movie exists.

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Is it not also true (I read the Maltin article) that safety film is safe only so far as relatively non-flammable? I have heard that the breakdown rate of safety film sometimes exceeds nitrate.


As a chemist (I am), the subject piqued my interest...particularly the randomness of film destruction mentioned by L. Maltin. I am wondering, "what is the mechanism?". I think I will look into it further.


Thanks for the post.



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  • 1 year later...

> Amazing, that that vault is just up at Wright

> Patterson, about 10 miles form my home. I will have

> to remember to salute them whenever I drive by that

> exit...How does one get a job restoring old film?

> Sounds fascinating.

> Tracey



I was wondering that myself, actually. One of the few jobs I'd be tempted to take if the opportunity ever came up, regardless of pay!

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Isn't the reason that we no longer have the deleted visual sequences from classics like "The Wizard of Oz," "Ziegfeld Follies," "Gone With The Wind" and "The Pirate" is because of a major nitrate fire at Metro in the mid-50's?


Apparently the visual and audio elements were stored in separate locations which is why we have the sound from Garland's "Voodoo" sequence from "The Pirate" but not the picture.


I guess this would lead to another puzzling question, though, as to why the visuals from many other deleted production numbers (from "Easter Parade," "The Harvey Girls, "I Love Melvin" and "The Band Wagon") did survive...? Perhaps they were stored in different areas? Does anyone know?


While we're at it, does anyone know the actual date (as in year) of the MGM fire?

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With regard to a "MGM fire" I have a commentary for the 1957 movie "Portland Expose" by Assistant Director Lindsley Parsons Jr. (found on VCI Entertainment DVD, Forgotten Noir Vol. 1, KPF543) where Parsons mentioned that, during his later career he was with MGM-where one project he supervised was taking millions of feet of MGM films and outakes out into the desert where the film was burned in a massive bonfire. Parsons also mentioned that the changeover to color film made the MGM black and white stock footage library obsolete. Parsons mentioned that the stock film library was also destroyed in the same manner.

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There are accounts of two vault MGM vault fires.


One was in the 1957 but I can't find a lot of info on it.


The other one, the famous one, was in 1965. David Pierce wrote an article about it for Film History, volume 9, #1. The fire was sparked by gas from the nitrate reels in the vault. The fire sparked an explosion and at least one person was killed. In this fire were the negatives and/or prints of "London After Midnight", "The Divine Woman" and "A Blind Bargain", "Tower of Lies", "Married Flirts",the MGM Hanna Barbara animation and many more.


There is a wonderful book called "Nitrate Won't Wait" that details the history of nitrate film and includes details on the various vault fires.


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Here's some info on fires and negatives that I have been able to find that highlights what I have been saying:


1914: Lubin fire in Philadelphia destroys Oliver Hardy?s film debut as well as footage of McKinley?s ambulance leaving the Expo after he was shot. Also lost in this fire Hobart Bosworth?s version of ?The Sea Wolf?.


1914- Los Angeles: The lab shared by Keystone and Ince Films has a fire destroying films.


1915- Edison?s vault may have had a fire.


1924 Universal (East Coast)Vault Fire includes negatives to Universal films 1913-1924


1933 Warner Bros/First National Vault Fire destroys most of 1928-1930 Vitaphone talkies


1937- 20th Century-Fox (NJ)- Negatives for most of , if not all, pre-1935 Fox films destroyed. Big problem was that original negatives and fine grain masters were stored in the same vault.

?Cleopatra? starring Theda Bara is lost, so is "Way Down East" as well as films starring William Farnum, Harry Carey and Tom Mix are lost. Also companies such as Educational Pictures, World-Wide that Fox sub-distributed for are lost.


1940s- Museum of Modern Art suffers four major vault fires one which is said to have wiped out 2/3rds of the collection including Hans Richter?s hand painted color animation Rhythmus 25.


1943- Harold Lloyd?s personal vault has a fire. Losses include the Lonesome Luke series and the original camera negative of Safety Last!



c. 1950s- RKO has a major vault fire that results in the loss of Citizen Kane. Other RKO titles believed lost include Case of the Sgt, Grischa, Freckles, Laddie,Leathernecking, The Monkey?s Paw, West of the Pecos, White Shoulders, Hit the Deck (soundtrack only survives) and Runaround.


1959 the Cinematheque Francaise has a vault fire that destroys films including Von Stroheim?s ?The Honeymoon?.


1961: 20th Century Fox?s New Jersey vault has a fire where the explosion could be heard for three miles. Lost films include most of Theda Bara?s work.


1965: MGM has a vault explosion and fire that destroys the entire contents. Films include ?A Blind Bargain?, ?The Divine Woman? and ?London After Midnight?.


1967 National Film Board of Canada Vault Fire


1993- Henderson Film Lab Fire in London. Destroys the original negatives of Satyajit?s Ray?s Apu Trilogy as well as Ealing Studios Comedies.


Also at some point, George Eastman House had a vault fire that destroyed part of their collection.


Non fire destruction

1948: Universal decides to toss out all of its silent library that it still has vaulted. By this time only a few hundred titles remain from the 5,000 films the studio produced prior to converting to talkies. The films, as well as screen tests and trailers, are destroyed to recover their silver content.


Decomposition has destroyed many films.


Paramount produced some 1200 silents and by the late 1960s only about 250 survived.


Fox produced about 1200 silents and only about 120 are thought to still survive.


Warner Brothers silent library is just as depressing.


MGM silents from 1924-1929 seem to have had the best survival rate.


It is believed that less than 20 of 1917-1922 Goldwyn silents survive.


Frances Goldwyn ordered all of the post -1922 Goldwyn films destroyed (except the Winning of Barbara Worth because it starred Gary Cooper) because she believed they had no value. About that same amount of Metros pre-merge silents survive.


Roger Mayer went to work at MGM in the early 1960s and continued the preservation work begun by Louis Mayer of transferring their films to safety stock and insuring back up copies are being made. He can?t work fast enough to stave off decomposition.



Only about 24% of silents are said to still survive.

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I wish you'd put a warning on that post, Ms. Cutter. It's sickening to read, and each entry is like the twist of a knife. It makes one frantic to save all that's left. Studios should be training legions of volunteers to restore their works before they're completely lost. I'd be the first in line...

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I agree. It's not an easy or pretty read. But the loss of our cinematic heritage is something that we need to be aware of because it affects what we are able to view on TCM and are able to view on home video and dvd.


Great strides have been made in film preservation. The negative of "Stagecoach" was melted down for its silver content during WW2 and for most of my viewing life (40+years) the prints that were available for theatrical showings, classroom showings and even on VHS were hardly what one would call good. Luckily the story and the filmmaking is so good we overlooked all that and concentrated on the film.


But it is only in the last few years that they have been able to restore the film's picture to the grandeur that it is today and that's without the original negative.


Our cinematic history continues to deteriorate every day and film preservationists and archivists are in a race against time to save it. Factors such as corporate mergers, indifferent executives who have no clue about film history, the lack of funding, the consolidation of jobs and the idea that anyone, even the guy in the mailroom who knows nothing about film history, can handle the job of archiving ephemera and stills and know who the people in the photos are and what pieces are truly historic makes it harder than it should be.


And studios like 20th Century Fox who are in the midst of auctioning off their historic collection of contracts, ephemera and stills rather than donating the entire collection to a University Library's Special Collections or the Academy. Putting a collection like this in many private hands makes it harder for historians, writers and students to trace the evolution of Fox as a studio because the research material will not be available to them for study.


But we should always remember that there are people and companies out there doing heroic jobs that rarely get the spotlight shown on them but we owe them all a great debt for the job they are doing. They overcome obstacles from many different directions and work hard to save our cinematic heritage.

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  • 11 years later...
2 hours ago, hamradio said:

Goodness, 12 years old and still intact.  Thank Google. Talking about the subject on a couple of threads.



There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy.  24% remaining versus 10% remaining, and only over about a 10 year time period.  I find it hard to believe that both of those figures are correct.  * One of them probably isn't/wasn't.

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10 hours ago, MovieCollectorOH said:

There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy.  24% remaining versus 10% remaining, and only over about a 10 year time period.  I find it hard to believe that both of those figures are correct.  * One of them probably isn't/wasn't.

Think they discovered more are lost than originally thought.  What I've seen, can believe it.:(


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On 1/11/2018 at 11:48 PM, hamradio said:

Think they discovered more are lost than originally thought.  What I've seen, can believe it.:(


If I were to take both of those numbers literally, then that would mean about a 58% loss of unpreserved/unrestored silent film stock over a period of about 10 years.  *Recent doomed discoveries notwithstanding - but how much previously undiscovered unkept stock might they find.

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