Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Survival of Films Often Depends Upon Who Distributed Them - the Film Preservation Blogathon

When studying the survival rate of silent films, a curious pattern begins to emerge: success often equals failure, while failure often equals success. The “success” in this equation refers to the ability of a motion picture studio to weather all the changes, obstacles and competition thrown its way during the fledgling decades of the 1910’s and 1920’s, to survive into the 1930’s and beyond. “Failure” refers to the chances that films made by that same studio may or may not still exist.

Simply put, movie studios that continued to exist as an entity—and thus hold onto the copyrights of their films and the prints and master materials—often did not value their back catalog until it was too late. Universal Pictures—which was founded 100 years ago in 1910 by Carl Laemmle as the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP)—dumped most of its silent films in the ocean. The majority of Universal silent features that survive today exist only because film collectors saved 16mm Universal “Show at Home” prints of those films. Paramount similarly disposed of many of their silents, and Fox lost virtually all of theirs in a 1937 New Jersey fire.

By contrast, film companies that went out of business during that same period often had their bones picked by scavenging opportunists, who reissued their films to theaters and downsized them to smaller gauges such as 16mm, 9.5mm and 28mm for home and non-theatrical use.  Though nitrate 35mm prints from major and minor studios, surviving and not-surviving companies, have been known to turn up (particularly in “end of the distribution line” outposts, where prints that were supposed to be returned to the distributor languished)—the bulk of the films released in non-theatrical gauges were produced by entities that no longer existed.

The silent films produced by Mack Sennett bear witness to this pattern. From 1912 to 1917, Sennett produced nearly 650 Keystone Comedies, distributed by the Mutual and Triangle organizations. All three of the companies in this equation—Keystone, Mutual and Triangle—had ceased to exist as functioning organizations by 1920. Many Keystone Comedies were reissued in the late 1910’s by companies such as W.H. Productions, Tower Productions and Keystone-Eagle Films. Many more Keystones reissues followed in the 1920’s and beyond (particularly those featuring Charlie Chaplin), and many of the films were subsequently issued in home gauges—with no one around to enforce their copyrights.

Actually, Mack Sennett and his bosses at the New York Motion Picture Company did not even begin copyrighting their films until late 1914 (in response to the bootlegging activities of film pirates). Ironically, when Sennett did begin copyrighting his films, he also submitted paper prints to the Library of Congress—even though this copyright requirement had ended in 1912. As a result, thanks to these paper prints, nearly every 1915 Keystone-Mutual survives today. Because of these prints, and the films that were reissued without legal challenge, around 300 Keystones survive today in one form or another.

Contrast this with the films Mack Sennett produced during the years 1917 to 1921 for his next distributor, Paramount Pictures—an entity which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in about two years. During this period, Sennett made 78 two-reelers for Paramount, which were sold back to Paramount at the end of Sennett’s contract. Most of them were likely later dumped into the sea by Paramount with its other silents. Paramount still owned the copyright, but if it couldn’t be bothered to preserve “more prestigious” feature films produced by the company itself, it certainly wasn’t going to doing anything with “lowly” two-reel comedies from an outside producer.

As a result, Mack Sennett’s Paramount era is his period with the worst survival rate. Maybe slightly more than a dozen of these 78 films survive today, many only in partial increments. Charles Tarbox is to be credited with saving a number of these (most of which came from a small handful of Sennett-Paramounts that were reissued in 1923) and releasing them in 16mm and 8mm through his company Film Classic Exchange. Others survive in film archives, though not all have been preserved. For instance, a nitrate 35mm print of the second reel (the first reel is not known to exist) of UP IN ALF’S PLACE—a wild 1919 comedy featuring Charlie Murray, James Finlayson, Kalla Pasha and Ben Turpin, which sends up cloak and dagger secret societies and Bolsheviks—exists at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, but is still awaiting a transfer to safety film.

Sennett followed his Paramount tenure by distributing through First National, a company that later merged with Warner Brothers. Unlike Paramount, Warner Brothers was active enough with the Sennett material to reissue footage from Sennett’s 17 two-reelers and several features owned by the company in a series of Vitaphone two-reelers in the 1940’s. These Vitaphone reissues constitute much of the extant material from this 1921-22 Sennett period (in addition to a few complete prints, mostly again courtesy Charles Tarbox).

From 1923 to 1929, Sennett distributed his final silent two-reelers through the Pathé Exchange—one of several companies that were an offshoot of the original French organization founded by Charles Pathé. Though the American Pathé company ceased to be an operating entity by the early 1930’s (excepting its newsreel brand, had been sold off as a separate entity), most of Mack Sennett’s Pathé comedies were issued for home and non-theatrical use under such labels as Pathé Baby, Pathéx and Pathéscope (many of them in 9.5mm)—whether in complete prints or excerpts. This has resulted in a survival rate of about 70% of Sennett’s 210 two-reelers for the company.

Pathé was also the distributor for Sennett’s chief rival Hal Roach, from 1915 to 1927, and the similarly good survival rate of Roach’s comedies from this period is owed to Pathé’s reissues and home releases. However, once Roach switched his distribution to the more powerful (and successful) M-G-M in 1927, survival rates of Roach silents drop. One of the major “holy grails” of lost silent comedy is the 1927 Hal Roach two-reeler HATS OFF—the only film starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that is not known to survive. Pointedly, the film was released by M-G-M. Though a 1940’s catalog for a 16mm rental library lists HATS OFF among the available films, one can’t help but speculate that—had the film been distributed only a few months earlier by Pathé rather than M-G-M—HATS OFF might have a much stronger chance for survival (given Pathé’s more active role in home and non-theatrical distribution, and the resulting better chance for a stray print to be discovered).

Though comedic short subjects are often treated as second-class citizens to feature films in the battle for preservation, their unrelenting popularity with general audiences over the years—and the fact that many were produced by independent studios, through distribution channels that no longer exist—has resulted in their surviving at least in “home” gauges, if not 35mm.

But even Charlie Chaplin—the best known film performer of his generation—has at least one missing film in his oeuvre. The 1914 Keystone comedy HER FRIEND THE BANDIT still has not resurfaced in any form, though it was known to have been reissued several times (until such titles as MABEL’S FLIRTATION and THE THIEF CATCHER). For those intrepid explorers who are bravely and nobly embarking on the trail of lost films, I offer a possible clue. In 1978, one of the largest troves of nitrate films ever discovered were unearthed in the foundation of a swimming pool in Dawson City, Yukon. With this in mind, take a look at this August 25, 1916 announcement of a showing of HER FRIEND THE BANDIT—a full two years after its 1914 release—in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Might this print—which was being exhibited a full year after Keystone was no longer working with the film’s distributor, Mutual—have wound up in another pile of landfill buried beneath frozen tunda? Maybe not, but we can dream.

However, you don’t need to take a pick and shovel to Alaska (or the Yukon) to preserve our film heritage. You can do a lot more by contributing money to save the films that already exist—like that orphan reel of UP IN ALF’S PLACE—but haven’t yet been preserved due to a lack of funding. Do your part now by making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation. You can read more articles related to this week's Film Preservation Blogathon by visiting Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.


  1. Brent: Thanks for the interesting concept. I never consciously thought about how the success of the production company has an inverse relationship to the survival of its films.

  2. A fascinating argument. Let's hope in the future both successes and failures can keep their treasures going.......

  3. Check it out…"A THIEF CATCHER" was discovered earlier this year by Film Historian/Preservationist Paul E. Gierucki, current head of restorations for CineMuseum LLC., and will be shown as part of a Chaplin Rarities Program at SLAPSTICON 2010 on July 17th at 8:00 pm at the Spectrum Theater in Rosslyn, Va.

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