Readers in the United States know which big event is in the works this weekend: the fiftieth Super Bowl. But did you know that the big game also can tell us something about film preservation?
Before we start, I should throw all hope of common ground out the window, burn a few bridges and mention that I don’t like American football. (Gasp!) It’s unsavory, it’s unhealthy, it’s patronizing and it’s boring. Enjoy it by all means if that’s your thing but I am one of those people who watches the game for the commercials. However, the upcoming Super Bowl has opened up an interesting topic for silent movie fans and anyone interested in film preservation.
An enormous percentage of silent films are lost forever. Some rotted, some burned and some were intentionally junked. Some silent films are in pieces all over the world but no one has the time or money to reassemble them. Many wonderful films have been rescued and released to the general public but they are the exception. A simple, sad fact: Most silent films are lost and most that survive are sitting in archives, unavailable to anyone but archivists, researchers and a few fortunate film festival patrons.
Now don’t think I am insulting archivists; it’s a challenging profession and silent movie fans should appreciate their hard work. That being said, money and time are limited and there is only so much that can be accomplished given the general apathy toward film preservation. (For this reason, I discourage the use of phrases like “held hostage” to refer to unreleased movies in archives. It’s needlessly combative and we’re all supposed to be on the same side. Remember, you can catch more flies with honey…)
What does all this have to do with the NFL? Well, I’ll tell you. The first Super Bowl (the American football championship game) was played in 1967 to a general ho-hum reaction. It’s a ratings juggernaut today but no one gave a fig about it then. In fact, so few figs were given that no complete tape of the game was saved. A few fragments were preserved but rumor had it that the master copy was taped over with soap operas.
This dearth of figs parallels the sad fate of many silent films. Very few people realized their cultural significance before it was too late to save them. In several cases, films were only preserved and re-released thanks to the hard work of their original stars and directors. For example, Cecil B. DeMille kept a private archive of most of his movies and Blanche Sweet personally led an effort to recover a print of her legendary version of Anna Christie.
With the Super Bowl now the biggest sporting event in the United States and millions and millions of dollars churning around the big game, it soon became clear that failing to preserve the original was a huge mistake. With the fiftieth edition of the championship game approaching quickly, the value of Super Bowl I footage grew particularly obvious. Restoration was a must! And, of course, no film preservation story would be complete without a remarkable discovery of lost footage in an attic and subsequent copyright tangles. See all the parallels to silent film preservation?
Today, the NFL will be airing a restored version of the very first Super Bowl. It was cobbled together out of footage from various sources but is said to be remarkably complete. Sound familiar? That’s the story of so many silent films. I know the “miraculous rediscovery in a private collection” narrative gets all the press but the painstaking reassembly of fragments really deserves more attention and acclaim.
This story is significant because it’s a way of introducing the importance of film preservation to people who may not realize its cultural contribution. A lost silent film being pasted back together? That may meet with a “meh” from a lot of people but compare it to the first Super Bowl and you just might find folks ready to listen. The restoration of this historic game is proof positive that almost anything is possible with enough demand and cold, hard cash.
Who knows? It may even get people interested enough to watch a restored or recovered silent film. (I’ll post a brief list of recommended releases at the end of the article.)
How to help
I know I keep harping on this but the best way an individual viewer can support film preservation, restoration and release is to buy home media releases of restored films. In the United States, Kino Lorber, Flicker Alley, Milestone, Warner Archive and the Criterion Collection have all stepped up to the plate and are releasing restored, reconstructed and rediscovered films regularly.
I know a lot of movies are “on YouTube” but voting with your wallet is a way to show there is a demand for these films. After all, if everyone illegally downloaded the new Star Wars movie instead of going to the theater, it wouldn’t matter how much critics and audiences loved it, there still wouldn’t be a sequel. No dough, no show. That’s what happens when you live in a capitalist economy.
(And before we start a tedious tangent again, yes, I do realize that piracy saved Nosferatu but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to pirate the new restoration of, say, The Phantom of the Opera. No one is going to burn all the Phantom Blu-rays and DVDs so don’t be playing cute little rhetorical games with this. Swapping collector copies or out-of-print titles privately is not the same thing as ripping a commercial, in-print disc to save a few bucks. If you want to pirate, at least have the decency to admit it. It’s not my job to absolve you, skippy.)
If you want a more direct method of contribution, you can always give to archives and restoration programs. The National Film Preservation Foundation, which has made many of their preservation projects available for streaming on their website. I am also particularly fond of the National Center for Jewish Film, which makes their holdings available to the public through numerous screenings and DVD releases.
I’m sure my readers will have their own favorite archives and restoration programs so be sure to share!
Recommended viewing for a film preservation party
Whether you want to watch these after the game or just skip the game altogether, here are a few interesting films that were rediscovered, reconstructed or otherwise saved from obscurity:
This is one of those “and we found it in a collector’s attic!” stories. The legendary onscreen pairing of Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson was thought lost after its initial release before showing up in the Netherlands and its recovery made the news worldwide.
Part of this ocean epic survived but many of its ship scenes had been snipped out so they could be pasted into later sound films. This vandalism was finally corrected and The Sea Hawk was reconstructed, aired on TCM and finally saw DVD release.
This is a set of wonderful goodies, three discs packed with archival rarities from 1896-1944. From early experiments in sound film to Melies knock-offs from Spain, this is just a sample of the wonders that rarely get a DVD release on their own. Sit back, relax and be amazed.