Author Archives: conservator1

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Newly digitized Anne Charlotte Robertson titles

Here is an update on the Anne Robertson films that have been digitized and are available for loan.  We are working on making more available soon!

Five Year Diary reel 26 making Magazine Mouth FYD47thrift_two_frame FYD83mother_and_sister

These are generally available as DCP or files.  Some are available on DigiBeta for you oldschoolers.  As always, please contact the HFA’s Loan Officer for more information.

shorts:
Subways (1976) – 13 min.
Going to Work (1981) – 7 min.
Locomotion (1981) – 7 min.
Magazine Mouth (1983) – 7 min.
Depression Focus Please (1984) – 4 min.
Talking to Myself (1985) – 3 min.
Kafka Kamera (1985) – 3 min.
Apologies (1986/1990) – 17 min.
My Cat, My Garden, 9/11 (2001) – 6 min.

Five Year Diary newly digitized reels: Reel 3, Reel 26, Reel 40, Reel 47, Reel 83

FIVE YEAR DIARY (approx. 27 min per reel):
The Five Year Diary explores many aspects of soundtrack. Many reels have synch sound – mag stripe Super 8. Sometimes the soundtrack is spotty, other times it continues for the entire reel. Audio cassettes were used as well, either on their own or in conjunction with SOF (sound on film). Some tapes were used multiple times for many reels. A narration was usually performed live, and several reels have Anne’s audio narration, which she recorded in the 1990s for posterity and so her narrated film could travel without her.

Reel 1: The Beginning – Thanksgiving, November 3 – December 13, 1981
Vegetarianism, bingeing, Thanksgiving with parents. (ACR)
In the first reel of the Five Year Diary, we watch Anne grow up, consider food and fat, and don her yellow leotard in front of the camera for the first time. (LC)
SOF and audio cassette

Reel 2: Definitions of Fat and Thin, December 13 – 22, 1981
Anne consults the dictionary in this one – what is “fat?” what is “thin?” Inanimate objects are animated, and Anne experiences problems with her camera. (LC)
SOF and audio cassette

Reel 3: Christmas and New Year ’82, December 20-January 9, 1982
The first of many year-end holiday reels. Cooking, cleaning, pixilation. (LC)
SOF and audio cassette

Reel 9: April Fool / Happy Birthday 33, March 17 – March 27, 1982
Pixilation. Sleeping, cooking, resolving to quit smoking. (LC)
Audio cassette

Reel 22: A Short Affair (and) Going Crazy, August 23 – September 1, 1982
Anne finds a lover, loses him, mourns him, and has a nervous breakdown. (LC)
Audio cassette and narration

Reel 23: A Breakdown and After the Mental Hospital, September 1 – December 13, 1982
Anne’s nervous breakdown continues until she is hospitalized. One track was recorded during the mania; in the second track, Anne reflects, years later, on this troubled time. (LC)
Audio cassette and narration

Reel 26: First Semester Grad School, February 28 – May 20, 1983
Two years into the Diary, Anne began graduate school at Massachusetts College of Art. Reel 26 was shot silently; the soundtrack is an audio recording she made during a graduate review. She discusses her work with Super 8 auteur and professor Saul Levine and a second faculty member. Ideas brought up in the discussion were later implemented in Reel 22 and 23 and in the presentation of the work in general. (LC)
audio cassette

Reel 31: Niagara Falls, August 19 – 28, 1983
Anne takes a road trip to Niagara Falls trip with her family in this exceptionally beautiful Diary reel. (LC)
audio cassette and narration

Reel 40: Visiting Grandmother, My Insanity, & Wyoming, July 17 – August 26, 1984
Anne travels west with her camera to visit family. (LC)
SOF

Reel 47: I Thought the Film Would End, October 21 – November 2, 1986
The would-be penultimate Diary reel. Anne ruminates about the upcoming end of the Diary – and mourns it, of course. Familiar themes of Dr Who, drinking, comedy, and a nice trick-or-treat Halloween sequence. (LC)
“There is a tendency to film your life like it is scenes.” (ACR)
Sound on film.

Reel 80: Emily Died, May 14 – September 26, 1994
Anne’s niece Emily dies. Anne goes into a deep depression. (LC)
audio cassette and narration

Reel 81: Mourning Emily, September 27, 1994 – January 29, 1995
Anne mourns the death of her young niece, Emily. (LC)
audio cassette and narration

Reel 83: [Untitled, final finished reel] December 24, 1995 – March 19, 1997
It’s been 16 years, and finally the Diary ends, an unintended ending that visits familiar territory.
SOF

(ACR) = text by Anne Charlotte Robertson

(LC) = text by Liz Coffey

 

Soviet Collection wrap-up

A few folks have asked about the status of our processing for the Soviet Film Collection. We have wrapped up the main aspects of this massive processing project and the films are now safely in our cold storage vault. Stay tuned for updates on access and future screenings from this collection. In the meantime, we have a time lapse video record of the (often relentless seeming) process.  This video is courtesy of Soviet Film Collection project employee (and accomplished filmmaker/photographer/artist) Michael Hutcherson.

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Soviet Film Collection project staff celebrating the last day of the project with a Soviet Film themed cake. From left to right: Liz Coffey, Michael Hutcherson, Laurel Gildersleeve, Adrianne Jorge

 

Intern Report: The Bruce Ricker Collection

A new post from our fantastic Summer Intern, Derek Murphy!

Diving deep into a stranger’s records can be an intense experience. As the summer 2015 intern at the Harvard Film Conservation Center, I trawled through a career’s worth of documents from the life and work of Bruce Ricker. Ricker was primarily a jazz and blues documentary filmmaker. From his first pivot from law practice to filmmaking in 1974 until his death in 2011, he worked tirelessly to promote education about and appreciation for the music that moved him.

Last of the Blue Devils Japanese posterLast of the Blue Devils

 

The majority of the papers I organized originated from the production of Ricker’s films. His first feature documentary, The Last of the Blue Devils, saw him capturing and preserving some of the final performances the world ever saw from Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, and several other prominent musicians from the 1920’s Kansas City jazz scene. The film was treasured by jazz enthusiasts, eventually attracting the attention of Clint Eastwood.  A lifelong listener and performer of jazz music, Eastwood loved the film, and contacted Ricker out of the blue. The two met for dinner and began a friendship that led to the creation of several more films. Most notably, Ricker and Eastwood collaborated on one of Ricker’s most well-known films, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. The 1988 documentary featured rare and previously unreleased archival footage of some of Monk’s later performances before illness ended his career, and eventually his life. It also contained interviews with many of Monk’s creative collaborators and loved ones after his death.

eastwood and ricker

Ricker and Eastwood’s collaboration did not end there. The two worked together on the production of documentaries about Budd Boetticher, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mercer, and Dave Brubeck. Additionally, Ricker directed two documentaries about Eastwood.  Ricker started Rhapsody Films, through which distributed his and other noteworthy films about jazz and blues.  As I got a handle on Ricker’s papers I saw marketing materials, catalogs, notes, correspondence, and research related to the company.

The Harvard Film Archive prioritizes multimedia holdings over papers when processing materials, so when I came on board, Ricker’s papers had been only partially described, and had not yet been arranged. The goal of my internship was to describe the papers that hadn’t yet been looked at, and arrange the totality of them into series to help create a finding aid for the collection. On my first day, I was given four boxes of papers straight from Ricker’s filing cabinets, still in their original order. Over the course of several weeks, I dove into these papers. I kept a spreadsheet where I entered information about the folders and papers I encountered, to aid in their later arrangement. This was a great learning experience. It was very satisfying to make connections between papers I’d seen in completely different boxes, and come to realizations about their place in Ricker’s oeuvre.

I was not familiar with Ricker or his work when I began my internship, but by my last day I felt a strange closeness to him. Even though I’ll never meet him, I think that my work at the HFA has given me a strong sense of his personality. I am working on my own feature-length documentary right now, so as I looked over his notes and production documents, I got a good feel for his process, and I felt a certain kinship. I even picked up a few good tips from looking at his workflow! It’s a bit uncanny, getting to know a man through the incidental papers he left behind, but I’m thankful that I got the chance to.

My internship at the HFA was extremely instructive for me, and the time I spent there was completely worthwhile. I was able to pick up hands-on skills in working with both paper and film collections. It really grounded the theory I’ve been learning in my archives classes at Simmons College’s School of Library and Information Science. In addition to the expansion of my archives knowledge, I also learned the basics of physical film handling, something I’ve wanted to do for many years. Both of my supervisors were very generous with their time, willing to answer any questions I had. They were extremely skilled and they were happy to help me pick up some of those skills myself. And, most importantly, they were a ton of fun to hang out with!

-Derek Murphy

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