Archivists and other preservationists are driven. They ache for what has been lost, and they take extraordinary pains to ensure that what now exists is saved for the future. They understand both the power of art and its terrible fragility.
Starting Wednesday, Glendale's historic Alex Theatre will host a five-day tribute to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which is dedicated to keeping our cinematic heritage alive. Five classic movies will be screened, beginning with Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels" and closing Aug. 8 with John Ford's "The Quiet Man." All were preserved and, in most cases, restored by the UCLA archive.
Called "Film Treasures," the event is co-chaired by Randy Carter, a member of the Alex board of directors, and Max Howard, a producer at DreamWorks and passionate preservationist. In Carter's view, a program of movie classics was a natural for the Alex.
"Here we have a classic theater," says Carter, assistant director of the CBS comedy "Becker." "We should be on the map in the film preservation world."
Like the screenings sponsored by the Alex Film Society, the tribute was planned to have broad appeal. All the movies are ones that ordinary filmgoers, not just buffs, can love. Carter and his colleagues eschewed films about "changing the tire along the side of the road in 1918" in favor of such likely crowd pleasers as George Cukor's "Holiday," with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Gregory La Cava's screwball comedy "My Man Godfrey."
UCLA Preservation Officer Robert Gitt was personally involved in the preservation of all the films except "The Sea Hawk," the silent swashbuckler that was the biggest grosser of 1924.
Gitt, who lives in Studio City, will speak about film preservation Wednesday at the screening of "Hell's Angels" (1930).
"In its way, it's a classic film," says Gitt of what he describes as "one of the great aviation spectacles of all time."
As Gitt points out, Hughes was a handsome, young, not notably eccentric man of 22 when he began shooting the movie in 1926. Started as a silent and finished as a talkie, at a cost of more than $4 million, the film includes still remarkable dogfights staged by 100 stunt fliers in World War I-vintage planes.
In addition, Gitt says, "it has an early two-color color sequence with Jean Harlow." Shot in an early form of Technicolor, the eight-minute sequence features red and green and the hues that can be made from those colors.
"Actually, it doesn't look too bad for most purposes," Gitt says of the color sequence, despite the absence of purple, yellow and blue.
Featuring the only known footage of Harlow in color, "Hell's Angels" was the movie that made the blond bombshell a star.
In restoring the film, Gitt went through boxes and boxes of material saved by Hughes' film company, then acquired by Universal.
But Gitt's big breakthrough was the discovery of a partial projection print that included the color sequence and other scenes printed on tinted film base that were not in the Hughes material. As a result, Gitt learned that a blue tint had originally been used for moonlight, red for flames and lavender for sunrise.
An interesting footnote to the film: Many of the non-action scenes were directed by James Whale, the legendary director of "Frankenstein" and subject of the 1998 biopic "Gods and Monsters." Gitt observes: "It is curious that the dramatic scenes that Whale directed for 'Hell's Angels' have dated so badly, while the two lengthy flying sequences directed by Howard Hughes from the cockpit of his own plane are as fresh and exciting today as they must have been for audiences in 1930."
"The Sea Hawk" is another film that "has a lot of nice tinting in it," says Gitt. Conductor, composer and film historian Robert Israel will speak at its screening Aug. 7, along with film historian Rudy Behlmer. Israel, who found some of the movie's missing scenes, will also conduct the 22-piece orchestra accompanying the Frank Lloyd film.
A revolution in movie preservation occurred around 1951, when highly flammable, quick-to-deteriorate nitrate film stock was replaced by so-called safety film made of acetate.
"We used to think, when I first got into the business, that safety film meant all our problems were solved," Gitt recalls.
But even safety film doesn't last forever, film archivists learned to their horror.
"It gets the vinegar syndrome," Gitt explains. "It smells like salad dressing. It begins to warp, it becomes moist and limp and eventually it crystallizes," leaving behind a chalky, powdery mess. Preservationists now put their cautious faith in film made of polyester.
New technologies are revolutionizing film restoration. A now-established technique called wet printing allowed the restorers of "My Man Godfrey" (1936) to make a gorgeous print of the film even though the original negative was very worn and scratched.
Unfortunately, Gitt says, the original picture negative of "Holiday" (1938) seems to have been lost. As a result, Gitt was able to preserve "Holiday" but not restore it to its original brilliance.
"'Holiday' looks OK, but it doesn't shine and sparkle the way 'My Man Godfrey' does," he says, quickly adding that it probably looks better than you have ever seen it before.
To the extent that the archive can, it preserves all the original material it works with, anticipating the day when new technologies will allow feats of restoration not yet possible.
"We're trying to cover all the bases," says Gitt, uttering what could be the archivist's creed.
The Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Information: Call (800) 414-ALEX or check www.alextheatre.org.
Spotlight runs each Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at email@example.com.