Friday, December 12, 2014

Cinema's Lost and Found

Over at ToonZone, Daikun posted that Empty Socks, a long-lost short from Walt Disney's early cartoon series for Universal starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, has just been found, sans about half a minute, in two poorly labeled reels in Norway. Now, I hate to be cliche, but when I first caught wind of this news, this was the first thought on my mind:
Now, in my opinion, I can't think of anything more frustrating than the idea that a film or TV show or, hell, ANYTHING has been lost to the ravages of the time. It doesn't matter whether it's a flawless classic or a total piece of trash. The fact is that it fucking existed, and it pisses me off when I can't sate my curiosity by watching what many consider to be a milestone, such as Bray Studio's The Debut of Thomas Cat, believed to be the first cartoon made entirely in color.

Thankfully, a number of films thought to have been lost have been found in private archives, including the aforementioned Oswald short. For instance, we all know about London After Midnight, a still lost film everyone's talked about, and which I won't discuss much further because M. Bison already filled my overdone quota for the article.
Instead, I'll turn my attention to another film, one long believed to have been taken by the same fire that decimated you-know-what, the early Three Stooges short Hello Pop!. Just last year, a print was found in Australia, restored, and shown in public. A DVD was put out via the Warner Archive just three months back.

Going back to Disney, while a number of Oswald shorts and several installments of Walt's previous series, the Alice Comedies, are still lost, pretty much every cartoon put out by his very first studio, Laugh-O-Grams, exists today, including shorts thought lost, and thanks to the internet, will continue to the exist until the sun expands and fries our asses, and that won't be for another 5 billion years.

Unfortunately, cases like Hello Pop!Empty Socks, and the Laugh-O-Grams shorts are the exception rather than the rule. The website Silent Era, a great resource for silent films, estimates that a whopping 85-90% of silent era movies are gone forever. So why the hell are there so few films from this era still around? Because apparently, people back then were assholes who didn't give two shits about film preservation back then.

Okay, I'm sorry if I sounded like an ignorant dick with that last sentence, but can you blame me? I've been spoiled by living in a society where film preservation isn't just common, it's a must. Back in the early days of cinema, film was considered a disposable medium. If anything, the film preservation nuts today probably would've been considered lunatic hoarders by the standards of people living in the very early 20th century. This was well before home-based entertainment like television and home video were even thought about, so attempting to save a film for future generations was considered impractical for all intents and purposes.

That said, the other major obstacle in film preservation really has little to do with people not giving a damn. Really, film stock at the time was volatile as all get-out, no thanks to the nitrate compounds that made it up. It was very easy for it to decompose into useless, disgusting jelly, or maybe fall apart, turning into worthless dust. There was really no way to stop it from undergoing this sad process. All one could do was delay the inevitable through very specific storage conditions which archivists had little patience for. On top of that, the shit was more flammable than a Ford Pinto. Dark vaults with temperatures that can exceed 100°F in the summer are already insufferable for humans, but with nitrate film, it's a fireball waiting to happen. Such fires were what decimated the filmography of Argentine animation pioneer Quirino Cristiani, including what's believed to be the first feature-length animated film in the world, El Apóstol.

So all in all, film loss fucking sucks, but it's a cold fact of life that a lot of films will probably never be seen again. Despite this, we still find long-lost films on occasion (Hell, the late Mickey Rooney's first film was also found earlier this year), and you never know who will finally spill the beans on what priceless, long-unseen film they've been keeping to themselves for decades.

As for me, I'll over at my bed, praying to any famous and not-so-famous religious figure I can think of that some will please, PLEASE find a copy of El Apóstol! And if anyone happens to read this with a copy of the film, for the love of all those Gods and Goddesses, DON'T hesitate to chime in!

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