Anthony Labbatte's Posts

Anthony L'Abbate is a preservation officer in the Motion Picture Department. Some of the films he has worked on are HUCKLEBERRY FINN; ROARING RAILS and FLOWER OF DOOM. He also created new English language titles for repatriated American silent films.

Nitrate Film: The Beginning

Posted by on Dec 28 2014 | Motion Pictures, Other

December 28 marks the anniversary of the first-ever public exhibition of motion picture film in 1895. The film, a continuing advancement of image capture, production, and technology, was made of nitrocellulose base, referred to colloquially as nitrate. Close in chemical composition to gunpowder, this film was known to be inflammable, but was not considered dangerous. Still, for portability and ease of use, open flames were the best way to project the flickering images, and on that first day the projector was set up in the middle of the room, in the midst of the audience, daring the patrons to decipher its magic. It wasn’t until the following year, and the first devastating fire, that nitrate began to garner its unique reputation.

It was a Saturday evening 119 years ago, in a basement room known as Salon Indien of the Grand Café, located at 14 Boulevard des Capuchins, Paris, that the first paying audience, of around 100, viewed projected moving images on a screen. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, exhibited ten short films, actualities and simple comedies, that each ran less than a minute. Versions of these films survive today, including, most famously, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory) and l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled).

 l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

The Lumières used their own version of the Cinématographe, an ingenious device that was not only the projector, but also the camera and printer of the film. Specious rumors abound about that first show and the audience’s reaction to it, including stories that women screamed and fainted, but as every good reporter knows (or at least every reporter who has seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
the Cinematographe

Like the film Thomas Edison was using for his peep show viewer the Kinetoscope, the Lumière film was 35mm in width and printed on a flexible nitrocellulose base. Unlike the Edison film, however, the Lumière film only had one set of circular perforations per frame. Edison’s film used four perforations on each side of the frame, the industry standard that exists to this day. The Lumière Cinématographe brought better clarity to the projected image by using an intermittent motion in the projector that had the film resting as much as it was motion, a feature that would be adopted by all future projectors and remains in use in the 21st century.

On May 4, 1897, a devastating fire broke out at the annual Charity Bazaar in Paris. The fire started in the section of the bazaar where film was being projected, and 180 people, mostly aristocrats, perished. Nitrate film got the reputation that it was a dangerous explosive, but the fire was actually the fault of the projectionist lighting a match while filling ether into the tank of illuminating fluid and not the fault of the nitrocellulose base film. From that day forward heavy restrictions were placed on how motion picture film could be handled, stored and transported, restrictions that are still in place to this day. The projector had to be placed within a fireproof booth, and since projected film was becoming a regular feature on Vaudeville programs, several theaters needed to be fitted with projection rooms.

For the next 55 years nitrate was the standard for producing commercial motion pictures. All silent titles universally recognized today, and the first 25 years of studio sound product, were created on nitrate film. Titles as enduring and varied as Cabiria, Greed, Sunrise, All Quiet on the Western Front, M, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Rules of the Game, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, and All About Eve were recorded and exhibited on nitrate stock.

As a film archive and a film museum, the George Eastman House is committed to conserving and exhibiting films as close to their original disposition as possible. This is why we have built vaults to hold and keep nitrate film from deteriorating over the years. This is why we have collected nitrate film since the beginning of the museum. This is why we maintain the Dryden Theatre and its projectors to standards that will allow us to project nitrate film and maintain safety for the audience.

Projectionist Darryl G. Jones getting ready for a nitrate screening at the Dryden Theatre.

Projectionist Darryl G. Jones getting ready for our nitrate screening at the Dryden Theatre.

This is why we train staff, and instruct students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, in the proper handling and projection of film objects. And this is the reason that we are embarking on The Nitrate Picture Show: A Festival of Film Conservation. We believe that film produced on nitrate should be seen on nitrate, and we are dedicating the weekend of May 1-3, 2015 to just this endeavor.

The legacy begun by two brothers in a basement in France 119 years ago this week continues at the George Eastman House in the present and in the future. If you would like to be a part, please visit

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HUCKLEBERRY FINN to be seen for the first time in nearly 90 years at the 360 / 365 George Eastman House Film Festival

Posted by on May 06 2010 | Motion Pictures, Other

Part One

Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is one of the most famous American novels of the 19th century. First published in 1884, the book has never been out of print. The character of Huck Finn has appeared in over 40 films starting with the 1917 version of TOM SAWYER, and was most notably played by Mickey Rooney and Eddie Hodges in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1939 and 1960 respectively). But the first film version of HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920), after its initial released, passed into film history and with the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920’s would be forgotten and almost lost forever.


Lobby Card for HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920)


William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922) who was under contract to Famous Players-Lasky (which would later take the name of its distribution company of Paramount Pictures) had directed TOM SAWYER (1917) starring Jack Pickford and THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER (1918). So Taylor was the logical choice to direct HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Lewis Sargent as Huck started his film career only a few years before with Fox Films, in ALADIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP. An actor with a lot of presence and charm, Sargent was a perfect Huck Finn. Wanting to be as faithful to the novel as possible, Taylor went on location to Mississippi to shoot the film. Upon its release in February of 1920, HUCKLEBERRY FINN was both a critical and commercial hit.


Less than two years after finishing HUCKLEBERRY FINN, William Desmond Taylor was dead. His body was discovered lying on the floor of his living room by his butler on the morning of February 2, 1922 with a bullet wound in the back. A major investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department followed, but to this day the murder remains unsolved. Like most people who worked in silent film his body of work is fragmentary at best. Taylor directed 64 films in the nine years he was working in Hollywood. As of this writing only 18 are known to exist. In Part Two of the blog on the 1920 HUCKLEBERRY FINN, I will talk about the current George Eastman House restoration of the film.

The restored HUCKLEBERRY FINN will have its premiere at The Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House on the evening of May 9th as part of The 360/365 George Eastman House Film Festival.

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Posted by on Apr 23 2010 | Motion Pictures, Other

A few weeks ago, the restored print of the 1924 film ROARING RAILS had its premiere at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York as part of the 30th Cinefest Film Festival. Viewing the finished film on the screen in a 1928 movie palace with live organ accompaniment by Dr. Philip C. Carli— and a very appreciative audience—  was a satisfying conclusion to a job that we had been working on for over a year.

The starting point of our restoration was the nitrate print repatriated from Holland, which had Dutch intertitles. Since no known script exists, we had 2006 Selznick School graduate Elisa Mutsaers, a resident of The Hague, do the translation of the titles for us. After creating the new English language titles, new color prints (which replicate the tints in the nitrate print) were made at the Haghefilm laboratories in Amsterdam. Any time new preservation materials are made, we look at them on flatbed viewers down in the Motion Picture Department for quality control. We then ran ROARING RAILS at a preservation screening in the Dryden Theatre for the Selznick School students. We never play any music when watching a silent film at preservation screenings, which sometimes makes for a dull screening.

Scenes from the 1924 film ROARING RAILS, starring Harry Carey

Finally  seeing it at Cinefest with music and an audience really brought it to life. Many people at the screening commented on how good it looked and what a fun film it was. I’m glad I was able to be there and be part of a special afternoon.

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