Film preservation in Dawson City

by Robert Lovenheim

Film strip showing the effects of nitrate decomposition to the image. (Source: Cinecon Classic Film Festival,
Film strip showing the effects of nitrate decomposition to the image. (Source: Cinecon Classic Film Festival,

In 1978 a startling discovery elated the small world of film preservationists, restorers, and scholars. A trove of long lost original nitrate copies of silent movies was uncovered at a construction site in Dawson City, Alaska. Among them were long lost films starring Pearl White, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lon Chaney. The permafrost had preserved them for 50 years after they had been tossed into an empty, abandoned swimming pool and covered with fill dirt.

How did these cinema treasures get to Dawson City? The story says a lot about the path of film preservation. Dawson City, it turns out, is at the end of the movie theater print circuit. Prints are usually shipped from theater to theater in an unchanging pattern. A new print starts in a big city like Seattle. From there it might go to Spokane, and then to Bellingham; next on the list might be Fairbanks, then Nome and finally Dawson City.

By the time a print arrives in Dawson City it has been run through a couple dozen grinding projectors by gum chewing teenage projectionists. It has been broken, spliced, cut to insert trailers and re-spliced and re-broken. It has so many scratches the Dawson City audience probably thinks it is always raining in the lower 48.

When a print ends its run in Dawson City it’s not worth shipping back. At first, the local movie theater donated the prints to the library. But in 1929 the library decided they didn’t want a lot of highly flammable nitrate prints in their stacks. They heaved them into an abandoned swimming pool where they were used as fill trash.

Trash: that’s the secret of film preservation. The great find of 1978 happened because somebody was digging a new foundation and unearthed a movie burial ground. The permafrost layer in the fill dirt above the movies had preserved them as good as in a temperature-controlled vault. They were given to the Library of Congress and restored.

Many assumed-lost movies have been found this way. They turn up in Uncle George’s attic or in Grandma’s garage. Movie making has always been a seat-of-the-pants occupation balanced between tight budgets and the rush to make money. Studios rarely kept archive prints. It was just another expense nobody wanted to pay for.

And why bother? The film negative was stored in the lab vault under lock and key and temperature control.  That is, if the producer paid the rent and sprinkler pipes didn’t break and flood. Hollywood pros speak the name Roger Mayer with reverence.  He was in charge of the lab at MGM and one of the first people to realize the tremendous value of carefully preserved movies. He convinced the studio to let him reprint many old ones on modern film stock. Before celluloid replaced nitrate as the base on which moving pictures were photographed, even carefully stored movies could turn to dust.

Every film student knows the story of Robert Flaherty traversing the Arctic making his famous documentary, Nanook of the North. After a year of shooting, he gathered all the film in his cutting room to edit and lit a cigarette. Poof! In 30 seconds everything was gone (Flaherty went back a second time and reshot the film).

Once missing films are found, the science and art of film restoration takes over. The caisson where most of this happens is an underground labyrinth at the Eastman House of Photography, in Rochester, NY. (There’s no reason it is underground except George Eastman’s old mansion is on top of it). Technicians have special machines for cleaning, lubricating, and printing. Old images are not the only problem. Film shrinks over time and will not fit the sprocket gears of newer machines. Restorers are crafty folks who know secret tricks like wet gate printing and high resolution video manipulation. Sometimes they must restore one frame at a time. They are true alchemists.

The next time you see Marty Scorsese on TV standing at one of those black tie parties announcing a brand new print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, think of Dawson City, The Eastman House, and all those people who knew enough to read the labels on the cans before cleaning out Grandma’s garage.

(A big thank you goes out to for today’s guest post. You’ll find him over at Movie With Me where I – Bill – am an occasional contributor. Here is how Roberto describes himself at Movie With Me: “Resident Curmudgeon & Film Buff

“As a long time Hollywood producer, I love the internet because there are no rules, no gatekeepers, no stupid executives whose only skill is looking good in a suit. And I love film. The ones that are great, and the ones not-so-great that have moments of inspiration or brilliance. Making a movie is a roll of the dice. Once you have actors and tempers and weather you never know what will happen. The only thing you can be sure of is it will never turn out exactly the way you planned. I salute anyone who tries, and I try to sing the unsung because they too deserve a little glory for attempting the impossible. “

Many, many thanks!)

20 movies: Insomnia (2002)

You may have heard of a guy named Christopher Nolan.

He’s directed a few movies such as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and the currently in release, Inception.

He made his first really big splash with a movie called Memento (2000). Insomnia is a relatively lesser known movie he made. It’s the one he made after Memento.

Nolan is a director Hollywood must love. He has artistic stature because his films are creative and brilliantly constructed. Better still, for Hollywood, they are often big successes at the box office. What could be better?

Insomnia is a movie that is a bit lost in his body of work but one well worth seeing. It had some baggage when it came out: 1) it was the film that followed the brilliant Memento, 2) it was based on a Norwegian movie of the same name, thus suffering from comparisons, 3) it had the go-to guy for weariness, stress and/or crankiness, Al Pacino, an actor who suffers from being so good at portraying those kinds of characters the world often parodies them and thus obscure the quality of his performances.

But make no mistake, this is a really good movie and the performances are even better. Unfortunately, my review below doesn’t really do it justice. I wouldn’t call this a great movie; it’s a good one. However, amongst good movies it’s heads above the others.

Directed by Christopher Nolan

I’m at an advantage in that I’ve never seen the original, Erik Skjoldbjærg movie Insomnia. The truth is, I knew almost nothing about the Christopher Nolan film of Insomnia. I picked it up as a PV disc (previously viewed). Well, was I ever pleasantly surprised.

Of recent films, it’s one of the best to be released on DVD this year. It’s exciting, intriguing and intelligent. It’s shot beautifully, skilfully constructed, and gets great performances from its entire, well-chosen cast.

It’s very mysterious. While you know what the surface story is about, a murder and a cat-and-mouse game between the killer and a detective, you’re never quite sure what the undercurrents are about, not till the very end. And the movie is about those undercurrents.

While their department is undergoing an internal investigation back in L.A., two detectives are sent to Nightmute, Alaska, to help solve a murder case. While there, they set a trap for the killer.

He shows up but escapes in a heavy fog.

During the confusion of the chase in the fog, one detective (Al Pacino as Will Dormer) shoots and kills the other (Michael Donovan).

It appears to be an accident, but as the movie unfolds this becomes unclear.

Detective Dormer’s troubles then begin to snowball: the investigation in L.A., the investigation into the shooting of his partner, and a growing relationship with the killer, Robin Williams.

The killer appears to know some of Dormer’s secrets so he has a power position, which he uses. He plays with Dormer, trying to get the detective to help him deflect guilt in the murder he’s committed.

As all this is going on, Detective Dormer can’t sleep. He’s far north, and it’s in the late spring of the year, so it is daylight almost constantly. Struggle as he might, he can’t evade light; he can’t find sleep.

He starts unraveling and Pacino plays it dead on, showing us in his face the stress and anxiety the detective is experiencing.

The movie is about guilt. The light acts as a kind of spotlight in the film. No matter what Dormer does, he’s anxious he’s going to be found out.

Wonderfully constructed, played and executed, Insomnia is a very good movie.

Insomnia (the trailer)

John Wayne heads north – booze and brawls ensue

DVD cover for North to AlaskaDirected by Henry Hathaway

This movie, North to Alaska, is a difficult one to account for. I really like it a lot. But I can’t think of a single cinematic merit it has going for it. Essentially, if you don’t like John Wayne’s later movies, especially the comic ones, you won’t likely take to this film. In fact, you may take a strong dislike to it because it’s corny and wildly sentimental. But if you do like John Wayne …

From something I read somewhere on the Web (does it get more definitive or authoritative?), North to Alaska was one of the first, if not the first movie of John Wayne’s later career, the older Duke, as far as his comic films go. Later, there would be films like, Hatari!, Donovan’s Reef (his last with John Ford) and McLintock!.

In this movie, Wayne is teamed with Stuart Granger. They’re Sam (Wayne) and George (Granger), two guys who strike gold in Alaska. Both are elated, George so much so he sends Sam to Seattle to bring back his fiancé, Jennie. Unfortunately, in Seattle Sam discovers she’s already married. She wasn’t nearly as serious about the engagement as George was. Sam, determined not to see his friend disappointed, brings back a saloon dancer instead, Capucine (Michelle Bonet).

There are, of course, complications. For instance, Sam and Capucine fall in love, complicating Sam’s determination to take care of his friend. And there’s Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs), a scoundrel looking for ways of cheating Sam and George out of their claim.

In the middle of all this there is a good deal of brawling between the boys of the Alaskan town (including Sam and George), as well as romantic gamesmanship between Sam and Capucine.

In the end, it’s romantic fantasy – an Alaska that didn’t exist (except in the most broadly interpreted sense) and a feisty and unlikely romance. But realism wasn’t what they were going for. It’s intended as escapist entertainment. So you never see the reality of brawling like that or of drinking that way.

On that basis, it’s a fairly engaging film and pretty well succeeds at what it aims to do. It may come across as somewhat anachronistic to anyone who didn’t grow up with John Wayne movies. The sensibility is definitely not contemporary.

If this was the first of the later John Wayne comic films, it’s easy to see the template established: a bit of “battle of the sexes” romance, a lot of phony-baloney brawling and a good deal of drinking that appears to have only brief ill-effects, and only if the plot calls for it.

It’s fantasy but it’s fun. Movies like this are really about giving the audience the John Wayne they expect, in situations that underline the image, and doing it in a light-hearted way. In a way, it’s a bit like teasing a beloved friend or relative.

Yes, I think that’s what I’d say these movies are: light-hearted teasing of the John Wayne image that underscores just how beloved he was.

2½ stars out of 4.