Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Universal Fire

"Nothing has ever been preserved – at best, it is being preserved."
--Ray Edmundson, UNESCO's Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles, 2004.

You probably heard about the fire that broke out at Universal Studios at the end of last month. You may have heard that several firefighters suffered "minor injuries" while extinguishing the blaze, but otherwise no-one was hurt, thankfully. You may also have heard the initial reports that the fire destroyed a video libary. You may have breathed a sigh of relief when learning that it was not an archive containing the only copies of the materials in Universal's film library.

Indeed, it appears that the negatives of Universal's film holdings are safe, stored in a location far from the site of the conflagration. Presumably in a vault better protected from the possibility of fire damage coming from a source outside the building. Unfortunately, a great many archival film prints, including a sizable proportion of those prints sent by the studio to repertory theatres, cinematheques and film festivals all over the world for public exhibition, were consumed in the fire. They may have been "duplicates" of the original negatives, but that doesn't mean they won't be missed.

Film preservation does not begin and end with the safeguarding of original materials. It's part of a cycle that includes the presentation of films to the public, preferably in a manner as close as possible to that which filmmakers intended their work to be seen. At the beginning of this article I quoted a document considered to be something of a mission statement for film archivists. Here's another pertinent quote from that document:

Preservation is necessary to ensure permanent accessibility; yet preservation is not an end in itself. Without the objective of access it has no point.
With that in mind another quote, from Universal President Ron Meyer, that "Nothing is lost forever" may at first glance seem like a minimization of the damage. If a vital link in the preservation chain for undervalued masterpieces like 1937's Make Way For Tomorrow (one rumored destroyed print) and 1971's Taking Off (another rumor) has been severed, can these films truly be considered "preserved"? Since these particular titles have never been commercially available on home video, only those who remember seeing them projected in 35mm in a cinema (or perhaps shown on a stray television broadcast,) will ever really know what has been lost. (Thankfully, another so-called "filthy five" treasure from the studio's early-seventies "Youth Division", the Last Movie, was screened in Frisco in a great print from the Academy Archive on June 4th.)

For the time being, I'm optimistically hoping that Meyer's quote is not a belittling of the damage to the audience's connection to our collective aesthetic and cultural history, but an indication of intention to restore the damage and make the destroyed films available for circulation as soon as possible. It's possible for Universal to strike new 35mm prints of lost titles, at what the New York Times is reporting as approximately $5,000 a pop. The question is, how much effort in this direction will be made in 2008, as the number of 35mm film projectors in commercial operation around the world is starting to decline? As Lincoln Spector has succintly put it, "economic realities control what does and does not get replaced."

I suspect it will take some time for Universal to complete its inventory of what precisely was lost and what survives in a condition to be screened. (Some titles rumored to be damaged or unavailable may simply be lost in the chaos of the rescue- we can hope, at any rate.) In the meantime, at least one Frisco Bay screening has been severely affected: last Thursday's presentation of King Kong Escapes at the monthly Thrillville event at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theatre was facilitated by DVD. On October 23, Thrillville was set to play a double bill of Curse of the Werewolf and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, both titles currently in Universal's holdings. While Curse of the Werewolf has been removed from the program, the exhibition print of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was thankfully not in the vault during the fire, and will be shown that evening. Another Universal horror classic, Creature From the Black Lagoon, was also spared from the flames and will play the Cerrito (in 3-D) on an unspecified date in late October.

Other Frisco venues are affected as well. Michael Guillén, while reporting the 35mm prints to be shown at the Frameline festival that opens at the Castro this Thursday, noted that the Wachowskis' lesbian thriller Bound, scheduled as part of a tribute to departing programmer Michael Lumpkin, was among the titles affected by the fire, and may indeed be projected digitally at the Castro next Tuesday if a new print is not able to be struck in time.

Luckily, other previously-announced Castro bookings are not affected. The Silent Film Festival presentation of the Man Who Laughs, which in 1928 was Universal's attempt to recreate the gothic horror success of the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, is safe. As the festival's artistic director Stephen Salmons notes near the beginning of a recent podcast interview, a beautiful print is held by the Library of Congress and is the one that will play July 12th. The print of Jaws set to play the Castro July 19th was not harmed. I'm told that nothing on the current or upcoming Pacific Film Archive calendar was affected by the fire, either.

I'm not sure about the Stanford Theatre, which has many Universal titles programmed on its current summer calendar, particularly its Jimmy Stewart centennial selections. Last week I CalTrained down to Palo Alto to see my two favorites of the Anthony Mann westerns starring Stewart, Bend of the River and the Far Country. I had never seen either on the big screen before, and I found it a magnificent double-bill. The Academy-ratio compositions are ideal for the films' isolating mountain settings, and for Mann's (and screenwriter Borden Chase's) illustrations of the short-sightedness of unfettered capitalism. Seeing the pair one after another helped me better recognize each film's distinctive qualities as well. And they were shown on fine if not perfect 35mm prints. Perhaps these were spared from the fire, or perhaps they were sourced from a private collector, or even quickly restruck in time for the screenings. If anyone has the influence and the deep pockets to make sure the show will go on it's surely David Packard, and I'm reminded again of just how lucky I am to live within a reasonable distance of this one-of-a-kind theatre. However, I've since heard that the weekend's screenings of Universal's Charade at the venue featured a subpar print, and it has me wondering about the Stanford program guide's promise of "an original Technicolor print with original magnetic stereophonic sound" for its June 26-27 screening of another Mann-Stewart collaboration the Glenn Miller Story. Another such collaboration, the Naked Spur, recently was shown on DVD at UCLA, presumably because of the fire. Will a new print be struck, or another print source located in time for its Stanford booking August 7-8?

Striking new 35mm prints can be costly, but so can be screening from non-studio prints. As I understand it, even when a venue is able to locate an alternate source to project from, whether a DVD or a collector's print, it's required to pay the rightsholder for the privilege of showing their intellectual property, on top of whatever fees a collector may charge for the loan of their alternate print. As a result, I have a feeling that many programmers around the country are going to shy away from placing fire-affected Universal titles on upcoming schedules, when possible. Unless, of course, the studio itself agrees to front the cost of replacing their prints. Again, we can hope.

Finally, you may be aware that Universal is the rightsholder to many great Paramount titles, from Hitchcock to Preston Sturges, to the Marx Brothers to Josef Von Sternberg's Marlene Dietrich films. Many of these Paramount holdings are rumored to be among those lost. But, to end this article on an up note, it appears that the great Paramount musical directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Maurice Chevalier, Love Me Tonight was saved. Why? Because it had been shipped to a repertory venue (Chicago's Music Box) eager to present it to a sure-to-be-delighted audience. Just another reason to support your local cinematheque.


  1. I don't know if the print of Make Way For Tomorrow I saw Saturday night came from Universal (I think I remember a MOMA title at the beginning) - but I know that 2-3 of the films in the Harvard Film Archive's Leo McCarey series came from them, and thus were safe because of it - Ruggles of Red Gap definitely - at least one other print, either Going My Way or Make Way for Tomorrow - was definitely theirs... Otherwise - the comments at the shows reflect what you say: that circulating prints were lost, not archive prints; that quite a few titles were in fact in circulation at the time; plus some suggestion that fewer prints were lost than had been thought - I hope that wasn't just wishful thinking...

  2. That's very relieving news, weepingsam! I also learned since posting this that Taking Off is supposed to play at New York's MOMA this week, and with no indication of anything different on the website, I'm optimistic that a 35mm print exists of that title, too.

    This post seems to indicate that the Scarlet Empress, a Countess From Hong Kong and Privilege were lost to the fire, but again, it could be that they're simply temporarily misplaced. I'm crossing my fingers that the impact of this fire is not as severe as feared.

  3. CHARADE is a PD film. Perhaps they screened a 'no charge' 16mm print or even a DVD?

  4. Good suggestions, Royce. My source called it a "print" and is definitely knowledgeable enough to recognize the difference between a film and DVD projection. It's possible it was 16mm; I know the Stanford has shown lapsed-copyright films in 16mm in the past (I saw a 16mm print of the Sin of Harold Diddlebock there several years back). Perhaps that's the situation this time as well.

  5. Thank you for this very interesting summary of the fire and consequent impact on revival screenings. Here's hoping Universal will replace the lost inventory with new prints, though I have my doubts they will.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, John. And for the reminder to visit your own blog, which I had not visited in a while. Your Jimmy **ahem** I mean James Stewart centennial piece comes just at the right time, after last week's Anthony Mann twofer and the screening of the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance I attended in San Rafael last night. And your Warner Brothers cartoon appreciation and the resulting comments section are incredibly informative.

  7. Your kind comments much appreciated, Brian. How I envy you living amongst all those fantastic festivals and revivals! Just added your link at my site --- hope that's OK. You've got a handsome page here, and I learn lots every time I stop in.

  8. Of course! One of these days I'm going to reconstruct my own links section; the only reason I haven't before now is that it turns out to be much more laborious in "New" blogger than it was in the old version, at least for someone with my limited html skills.

    Here is a link to another article that talks about fallout from the fire.

  9. I can confirm that Harvard Film Archive showed a 35mm print of "Make Way for Tomorrow". It had been en route from another venue, and/or from the vault, when the fire took place.

  10. Thanks for stopping by with the heartening confirmation! Love your blog, too. Day of the Outlaw and Quick Billy, the subjects of your last two posts, are high on my list of favorite films.

  11. Swank is listed as the print source for BOUND.