I have the best job. For the past five years, I’ve worked as a film archivist for a number of institutions – George Eastman House, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the Royal Private Film and Photography archive in Bangkok, Thailand, and most recently at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington, New Zealand on behalf of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). I’ve been able to take advantage of my background as a film historian as well as draw heavily on the archiving skills I gained at George Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation– all while working on nitrate film and keeping a toe or two in the academic world. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better situation when I started in the field.
One of my most recent projects involves The White Shadow (1924), a 6-reel British feature film directed by Graham Cutts that includes some of the earliest on-screen work by Alfred Hitchcock. The film was recovered as part of an international collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive and the five major nitrate-holding U.S. archives – George Eastman House, The Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film and Television Archive – to return, preserve and make available U.S.-produced films that no longer exist in US archives. The project was initiated and is coordinated by the National Film Preservation Foundation, a grant-giving organization which has provided funding to institutions in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to preserve rare films in their collections.
The condition of the print (seen above) was shrunken, brittle and showing signs of advanced decomposition.
Through the project we’ve identified and repatriated films such as:
- Maytime (with an early performance by “It Girl” Clara Bow)
- Won in a Cupboard (the earliest known film directed by comedienne Mabel Norman)
- The Sergeant (the first known fictional film shot in Yosemite)
- Upstream (directed by John Ford)
- The Love Charm (a previously unknown early Technicolor short) and
- Pathe News: Virginian Types (featuring stencil-colored images of the residents of Old Rag Mountain, soon after it was announced that they would be evicted from their land to make way for the creation of Shenandoah National Park, and 10 years before being photographed by Arthur Rothstein as the forced-relocation was finally taking place.)
These two last films will become part of the George Eastman House nitrate collection and be preserved with funding from the NFPF. Click here to see videos of some of the newly-preserved films and a partial list of titles returning to the U.S.
So how did THE WHITE SHADOW, a British production, end up becoming part of this U.S.-film focused project? One of the goals of the project has been to inspect and identify when possible all of the items in the American section of the archive’s international nitrate collection. Given that intertitles in the film bear the name of Selznick (an American distribution company who also apparently handled the international distribution) and that the film stars Betty Compson, a famous American actress, the film had been classified (not unreasonably) as likely being an American production. Thanks to a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF was able to provide the man-power to inspect films in more detail and provide concrete identifications where possible.
Missing its opening credits (not unusual with films of this year), The White Shadow was originally inventoried as “Twin Sisters” (a placeholder title taken from the cans the films arrived in), I was able to identify the first two reels of the film based on the distributor, cast – the film stars not only Compson, but also British actor Clive Brook – information gleaned from the film stock itself (such as the date of the stock’s production that is printed on the film’s edges), and piecing together the story, then using internet resources and the archive’s reference library to confirm the film’s true identity. A week later I inspected a reel titled only “Unidentified American Drama,” and by matching the cast, sets and storyline, identified it as the title’s third reel.
With support from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the Academy Film Archive, the film has been preserved by the New Zealand Film Archive and Park Road Post-Production in Wellington. Given the condition of the print – shrunken, brittle and showing signs of advanced decomposition – the work proved difficult. Now printed on 35mm polyester film stock, new prints and duplicate negatives will be housed at the Academy Film Archive and the NZFA. The BFI will also receive a print to supplement their on-going Hitchcock preservation project. The preserved film now includes new opening credits and a coda that summarizes the missing reels, taken from a synopsis filed with the Library of Congress as part of the title’s copyright entry.
The $64,000 question is of course where are those three missing reels? There are a number of possibilities: We are 99.9% certain that the reels are not in the NZFA’s nitrate vault – though there are other as-yet unidentified reels from the same depositor in the collection, none match The White Shadow. The other three reels could have been lost or misplaced before the collector (New Zealand projectionist Jack Murtagh) acquired the film, the reels – printed on nitrate stock, which is particularly prone to decomposing when stored in warm or humid conditions – could have broken down sometime in the last 88 years, or perhaps they are, right now, sitting in another collector’s attic or basement, waiting to be discovered and reunited with the reels know to currently exist – it’s impossible to know.
The now-familiar gasp from the audience as the existing footage suddenly ends at what is possibly the film’s most dramatic scene never fails to drive home the need for conserving and preserving what titles we do have – be it ones with a famous name attached (which does make that constant problem of funding a bit easier to overcome), or equally culturally significant but long-forgotten documentaries or works by small production companies orphaned after the studio closed – and re-energizes my drive to keep looking for cinema’s lost history.
As I said, I have (what is for me) the best job in the world – after all, who knows what else is out there, just waiting to return to the screen?