I recently watched “These Amazing Shadows,” a 2011 documentary on the National Film Registry, the history of American cinema, and the work of preserving culturally, aesthetically, or historically significant films. I had previously known that 80% of all silent-era films and 50% of all pre-1950 films have been lost over time. Generally speaking, once a film finished its run in the theaters it was no longer considered valuable (although some films such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca were often re-released). Therefore, the studios would lock the films away in vaults to collect dust and deteriorate. It would be one thing if the films collecting dust in vaults had been made of more durable material, but unfortunately the fragile, highly flammable nitrate that most films were made of before 1950 requires specialized care. Basic neglect, vault fires, and even pests were these films’ worst enemies, so it is impressive that any of them survived to the present day.
The importance of preserving our film heritage cannot be overstated. While this may seem to be an obvious assertion when thinking about classic films, important documentaries, or historical or cultural touchstones, it is even true for lesser forms of film. After all, you can’t call a film “great” without have some schlock to compare it to. Furthermore, schlock can be very entertaining given the right circumstances and the right amount of wit.
An interesting example of a film that probably seemed unimportant at the time but has been preserved by the National Film Registry is known as “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck.” The film is a test film created by Theodore Case when he was developing the first process that could consistently match sound to film. The film is only a minute and a half and is pretty goofy (and available on YouTube).
Now, one would think that the studios would have jumped at the chance to add sound technology to film. In fact, studios were reluctant to add sound processes to their movies. For instance, no less a superstar as Charlie Chaplin absolutely hated the idea. Case effectively got the Studios to buy into his sound process by making goofy demonstration videos, so it is important to know how he got these people’s attention when he pitched them the idea. (Clarification: Case and Lee De Forest first demonstrated their sound-on-film process in 1923. The Gus Visser Film was made in 1925 and was not one of the 18 films that Case and De Forest used to demonstrate their process to the public at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on April 15, 1923. It is however, demonstrative of the type of Vaudeville performances that were shown that evening. DGM)
Anyway if you are interested in film preservation, here are some links:
The National Film Registry
(c) D.G. McCabe