Author Archives: conservator1

Coretta Scott King at Harvard

There is a film in the collection of the HFA that is a record of a speech Coretta Scott King gave at Harvard’s Sanders Theater in 1968, a week after the assassination of RFK, a few months after the assassination of MLK.

Although Harvard graduated its first black student in 1870, and had a sister institution, Radcliffe, you will find the audience is white, male.

The film is camera original, mag sound on film, 16mm Ektachrome.

From the HFA catalog:

Shot by WGBH-TV. Sticker on can says air date was 6/24/1968. Speech was on June 12.

Following Rev. King’s assassination, the 1968 Class Committee invited his widow, Coretta Scott King, to speak at Class Day and she accepted their invitation. On Wednesday, June 12, a week after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Mrs. King addressed the Class of 1968, their families, and friends with these words:

“As young people, as students, your lives have been greatly affected by the loss of these champions of freedom, of justice, of human dignity and peace… Your generation must speak out with righteous indignation against the forces which are seeking to destroy us…

… Historians of the future may record that the alliance of the civil rights movement with the student movement that began in the late 1950’s and matured into broad political and social action in the 60’s was the salvation of the nation.”

Click on the article below to read more and to watch the film.

Harvard scholars on life, death, legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Madeline Brandeis

The Harvard Film Archive is lucky to have several prints of the silent films of Madeline Brandeis.

Brandeis made films for children in the ‘teens and ‘twenties, and also wrote books. Some of the books, such as The Little Swiss Woodcarver, are companions to the films, and are illustrated with film stills. This comes in handy for this particular title, as our print is incomplete. Our copy of the book tells us what we missed.

Brandeis died tragically young, but she is not forgotten.

We recently digitized our prints of Brandeis’ films, available to watch here. We hope you enjoy them!

 

Play “Movie”!

“You were given a booklet when you came into the theater.”

Play Movie 2

In the late 1950s, theaters were looking for gimmicks to pry people away from their television sets and get them into cinema seats.  We’ve all heard of the resulting innovations of widescreen, 3D, and William Castle-style exploitation, but what about games on the big screen?

Today at the Conservation Center, we watched the first half of a two reel oddity, PLAY “MOVIE.”

In 1958, you could go to a special show at your local cinema that combined a film with a game.  Although we are not sure exactly how this played out, it appears a double feature would be regularly interrupted, presumably at the reel change (every 20 minutes) by a segment of the game.  Divided into ten parts, a sequin-clad woman on the big screen would pull a ball from a tumbler, and a quintessential 1950’s man would call out the number, a-la bingo or powerball.

Play Movie 3

This “scientifically calculated” process would end when there was a possible winner in the audience, bells would ring, “MOVIE” would flash onscreen, and the movie would return.  One would have to wait until the 10 parts had played out to bring winning cards to the lobby to claim a prize.

“Shout MOVIE when you’re a winner!”

Play Movie 1

This film is from the Little Art Cinema Collection at the Harvard Film Archive.

copyright entry for this game.

PLAY 'MOVIE' AT THE MOVIES. 
Play Movie, Inc. 
1 l/2 reels, sd,, b&w, 35 mm. 
© Play Movie, Inc.; 
17Feb58; MP8879.

Mysterious Scenes

Today at work I came across a collection of Hollywood production stills, many from unidentified films of the Golden Age of cinema. When you think of a production still, you probably think of one that highlights film stars, but these are the opposite. This collection doesn’t show any posed people at all, only posed rooms and furniture.

Like model homes or furniture showroom floors, these images are familiar and yet false.

Places waiting for their people.

Out of focus, behind-the-scenes workers, accidentally captured by the camera.

Lonely placards in empty rooms.

The airport waiting room never looks quite this empty in the movies.

Charlie Chan visits Egypt, only to find it as quiet as a tomb.

How unnatural the thatched roof looks next to the kleig light. From 1948’s KIDNAPPED!

A faceless man.

Allan Dwan’s team has made ready the set for the lawn party; where is Shirley Temple? The cherub is already drunk.

A great view of the top.

Another one

Are any of these folks actors?

I’d like to visit the floating museum, created by John Ford’s team for Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)

Perhaps from Charlie Chan in Rio (1941). Director Harry Lachman had an interesting career, from successful post-impressionist painter to B-movie director.

Double exposure, exposing a structure made to muffle the sound of the camera, plus some equipment someone has left to be tripped over.

artist Katherine Weems

Today I’m working on some films belonging to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. I was happily surprised to come across the home movies of Katherine Weems of Manchester, MA, whose papers are at Harvard and the Smithsonian. She attended the Boston Museum School, and she was a sculptor who is responsible for some of my favorite public art on Harvard’s campus.

The Harvard Bio Labs, which are near the Peabody Museum, have a courtyard I adore. It boasts not only a volleyball court, but also buildings adorned with animal engravings and some unparalleled metal doors decorated with giant bugs. The doors are guarded on either side by some life-sized rhinoceros, named Bessie and Victoria. I’m sorry I missed their 70th birthday party, and even sadder they didn’t celebrate an 80th birthday, but maybe I’ll make it to their 90th.

The Smithsonian has put online some film of the Rhinos’ early days.

Cinecolor

Today at the film conservation center I inspected a 35mm print of the no doubt tedious but beautiful LOVE ISLAND (Bud Pollard, 1952). It’s an original release, Cinecolor print from 1953.loveisland_leader

Cinecolor was a low-cost, two color (red/green) subtractive color process developed in the 1930s and used through the 1950s. It was much less expensive than Technicolor, which was also in wide use at that time. The development of Eastmancolor in the early 1950s eventually put both processes out of business, and left the world with a lot of faded pink prints. Archivists and projectionists curse its name daily.

Poverty Row film production companies such as Monogram were the main customers for Cinecolor. It was inexpensive, but the trade-off was that colors were not as brilliant as Technicolor. The deeper pocketed studios didn’t employ it.

The colors tended toward blue/brown in prints, so were most often used for Westerns. LOVE ISLAND, however, is a B-picture set on a Pacific island, and Eva Gabor’s skin was darkened to make her look like she was born there and not in Hungary! It was passed by the Maryland board of censors.loveisland_couple

loveisland_girl

 

 

 

loveislandcensortagloveisland_girl2

Kodachrome is the color of Home Movies

Today at work I looked at some anonymous home movies that are deteriorating, to decide if they’re worth keeping or not. Since every home movie is different, I had to watch them to gauge their worth – it’s impossible to tell quality from looking at them through a loupe on the bench.

Stack_of_home_movie_cans

This was a box of ten or so 8mm films from the 1940s-1950s, purchased by someone on ebay or something, and then they made their way here to the HFA. The cans have no information on them, although at some point someone, either here or there, put sticky notes on a few that say things like “1950s water skier, horseback riding, football arena, farm horse, snowlice (rabbit kill) spring (family), baseball game.” I don’t know about you, but aside from the “snowlice” (maybe it’s supposed to say “snow/ice”), I didn’t find this a particularly evocative description. Sounded rather dull.

I watched the first reel, which was OK. Beautiful Kodachrome, lovely 1950s rural scenes. People swimming in a lake, hanging out with animals on a farm, riding horses, etc.. It seemed like a family vacation reel. It was nice but nothing special. Then I watched a few more reels. I wasn’t expecting the whole box to be from the same family, but it is. The content is repetitive – spring baby animals and flowering trees, summer at the lake, swimming, bringing home dead animals from hunting, then it is winter and there is ice fishing and playing in the snow.

There are a lot of people in these films – many kids and adults. One kid manages to be the star, though. The house, with its made-for-Kodachrome red doors, was a lovely recurring scene. I couldn’t quite place it geographically – it looks like New England, perhaps Vermont, but could be some other northern spot where there is water and snow and hills and trees.

The mid-1950s Kodachrome film is a thing of beauty. It was a filmstock for all seasons, and this cameraperson knew it. It really showcases certain colors, transforming the natural world into art. Autumn leaves and blue skies, red doors and white snow, blue lakes and green fields. People in the films were dressed like they knew the magic of Kodachrome would preserve their visages for a century in red and black wool plaid jackets, blue cowboy shirts, and incredible bathing suits.

The more films I watched, the more I loved them. Yes, the same things were recorded over and over, but there was a touching intimacy to the films in addition to their colorful beauty. The family clearly loved animals, despite killing many black bears, bobcats, white rabbits, and a few things in between. They kept sheep and cows, dogs and cats, and tamed a deer and her baby (which led to a joke scene of a hunter being stalked by a deer). In one snowy scene, a young boy is walking in front of the house with something white stuck to his chest. Is it the baby we saw in the last scene?  He’s not holding the white thing, though; it’s just clinging to him somehow. The camera moves closer, and we see it is a giant white cat, which then licks the boy’s face as the film runs out. My eyes welled up. In another charming sequence, it’s lambing season, and baby lambs are jumping around all over the green pasture. Then the camera cuts to a baby crawling in the grass, dressed in white, looking like a little lamb.

It’s easy to love a well-shot film. Most scenes were correctly exposed, and the addition of a finger occasionally making its way into the frame only adds drama to the proceedings – who is holding the camera now? Who usually holds it? Sometimes the film is left to run as the arm holding the camera drops, filming a topsy-turvy world, most dramatically so during a toboggan run sequence, sadly underexposed.

To try to explain these films (this film?) by merely listing what has been recorded, which is often how home movies are explained in catalogs, is like doing the same for a feature film. It does not do it justice, and it does little to make sense of it unless you’re opening a stock footage mine. I wish I could somehow add smells to the description – the aroma of lobster cooking outside, the crisp autumn air, the flowering trees, the horses – the film is that evocative. The films are silent, but the sound of the projector is hypnotic. I feel like this is my own family and I feel nostalgia for this life before I was born.

Kodachrome is dead. LONG LIVE KODACHROME!

boy with cat

Silence, please!

Depending on how you count, the first 40 years or so of motion pictures did not include recorded sound. As many have said before me, this doesn’t mean they were experienced in silence by the audience, but they did not have soundtracks, so we call them Silent Films.

Sound film went mainstream in 1929, and in short order all films made by the industry (I’m not including artists, students, and independent filmmakers here) arrived at the cinema with a soundtrack printed on the film right next to the picture.  This standard lasts to this day, although as we all know, there aren’t that many new 35mm prints making their way to cinemas.  Frowny face.

1 frame 4 Stereo Tracks Scope copy

 

With the popularization of television thirty years after the advent of sound,  fewer people went out to the movies, preferring to stay at home glued to the screen instead.  In search of content to keep them in their seats, TV programmers would regularly show old films, preferably those in the public domain.  The new “sophisticated” TV viewer simply didn’t appreciate silent films the way his or her parents did, and certainly watching a silent film at home alone is quite different from the contemporary audience’s experience.

In a bid for the younger TV viewer’s attention, producers created shorter, newly edited versions of silent films specifically for television.  These versions, often showing silent, 18 frames per second films at sound speed (the noticeably faster rate of 24 fps), with sound effects and a comic narration, took the place of their originals in the pop culture memory for decades.

Some series were better than others, of course. One such was The History of the Motion Picture, which boasted several serious film collectors/historians on the production side: Paul Killiam, Saul J. Turell, and William K. Everson.  These men took their silent comedy seriously.  The History of the Motion Picture was released to the educational market, and later Ernie Kovacs brought the series to TV (1960-1961) as Silents, Please! with a filmed introduction by himself.

In an episode of Silents Please!, a narrator would talk over the action, describing the story, the history of the film or series, give background information on the production and stars, etc.. We watched an episode from the HFA’s collection recently, canine hero and superstar Rin Tin Tin in TRACKED BY THE POLICE (1927).  It was a bit like watching an essay about the film, and since it both showed the film and talked about it at the same time, it was a real time-saver!  The narration didn’t pause, even when there wasn’t much to say, so there were times when it was too much, other times when it was interesting.  It included some dumb jokes, but was overall quite illuminating for someone who had no handle on silent films or Rin Tin Tin.

These film essays have gone way out of fashion. Their style is dated, their content may be good, but their reputation is not. They can be seen in retrospect as making fun of the silents, with their goofy jokes and fast running. In fact, they truly revived these films, turning many people on to silent cinema; the passion of the men behind them brought forth new cinephiles.

I believe silent films on television were the inspiration for most of the older film collectors who still walk among us.  We often find silent films, abridged, with soundtracks, or as released, in collections from men who bought and traded films for most of their lives.  These characters are mostly senior citizens now, and their collections are being broken up and sold or winding up en masse in film archives as they die off or move into smaller housing.

Today, silent films are seen less often on television, and certainly not in this educational manner. Perhaps the film is prefaced by Leonard Maltin or some other film fanatic speaking to its history, but the experience is neither that of the original theater-goer, nor that of the television viewer of the early 1960s.  Nostalgic when new, these TV silent film essays are doubly nostalgic now.

references:

TV by design

Paul Killiam productions

Silents Please

 

 

 

Extreme acetate decay!

Sometimes some really horribly decomposed film turns up at the conservation center.

These pictures are of some extreme cases of vinegar syndrome.  The films are from the 1920s, and are a diacetate safety base.

crystalizing on the reel extreme diacetate decay 2 decomposing diacetate film

 

These white crystals are a result of the plasticizer pulling away from the base. We will see if a lab is able to work on them for us – they are also very shrunken.  These films are, of course, unique, so we hope to be able to get something off them.

MA safety film logo one frame

This is the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety seal, OK-ing the film for non-theatrical projection, although these were made to be shown at the local cinema.

Star Wars

As the world waits impatiently for the new Star Wars film, we take a look at the old one.

IMG_1037

This is a Super 8 condensed version of Episode IV, made for the home market in the dark days before everyone had a VCR.  Instead of the entire film, you could watch the highlights at home.

IMG_1038

The condensed version is around 20 minutes long, and the storyline is sort of carried, but all we see are the action sequences.

We ran this for an elementary school group that visited a few years ago, and one kid was very excited by this movie – “Now I understand why everyone loves Star Wars!  I’m going to go home and watch them all right now!”

It really warms our hearts when our jobs as archivists make a difference.