YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Movie Review

Entertaining 'Keepers' Stresses Necessity of Films


Producer Randy Gitsch and director Mark McLaughlin's "Keepers of the Frame" makes the strongest case yet for film preservation in its own medium, and it does so in a manner that is as entertaining as it is informative and comprehensive. Gitsch and McLaughlin and their interviewees stress the need to preserve as much film of every conceivable kind, from newsreels to home movies, as a record of life in the 20th century.

As most film lovers know, about 90% of silent movies are forever lost. They were shot on nitrate film, so unstable as to self-destruct, and be highly inflammable as well.

But "Keepers" reminds us that nearly half the sound films made before 1950, at which time safety film came into use, no longer exist as well. Even safety prints deteriorate, with the fading of color a special problem. (You may be surprised to learn that your videos may have only a seven- to 10-year life span; film ultimately has to be preserved on film.)


Only with the passage of time has it become widely accepted that film not only is an art form but that, in the words of preservation expert Ralph Sargent, there is "no more thorough documentation of who we are than the motion picture." In the beginning theatrical films and newsreels were seen only as ephemeral commercial products, not worth careful storage and often destroyed deliberately to extract the silver content from nitrate prints. (A number of films believed to be lost have turned up in Alaska and Canada, the end of distribution lines, where prints weren't worth returning to film exchanges.)

Instead of dwelling on these sad and enormous losses, the filmmakers celebrate the preservation movement's victories and its heroes. As we meet these individuals, the filmmakers keep up a constant flood of images, accompanied by the narration of the interview subjects. The footage is so fascinating--how about a close-up look at Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled car? Or the crash of the Hindenburg?--and so awesome in its range, that the images themselves make the case for their preservation even more than the impassioned words of the film's speakers.

Not surprisingly, many of the documentary's participants are local, including: film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who is especially effective in making the case that film preservation "should be the concern of everyone"; horror and sci-fi film historian and collector Forrest J. Ackerman; Dr. Mayme Clayton, founder of the Western States Black Research and Education Center; Jean Picker Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute; and UCLA Film and Television Archive preservation officer Robert Gitt, a major figure in the movement.

"Keepers of the Frame" is itself a work of preservation, for it may well be the only film record of the late Laurence Austin, proprietor of the Silent Movie, who speaks of the theater's founder John Hampton, a pioneer film collector. It also serves as the screen farewell of Roddy McDowall, who cherished films as much as he did those who made them.


"Keepers of the Frame" spotlights other unique individuals: Karen L. Ishizuka, senior curator of the Japanese American National Museum, whose concern for preserving a visual record of the Japanese American experience, especially the World War II internment period, has led her to encourage everyone to preserve their home movies; and John Harvey, who has preserved the only known print of "Cinerama Holiday" (1955) and has even created a triple-screen Cinerama theater in his own home.

Mark Cantor, a music film collector and historian, introduces us to "Soundies," which in the '40s were projected within "visual jukeboxes," in which one could see popular musicians in performance. Herb Jeffries, who speaks of the importance of screen heroes for African American children, is seen singing with Duke Ellington's Orchestra in a "soundie" and as the first black singing cowboy, in "The Bronze Buckaroo," a so-called "race" film produced especially for African American audiences.

"Keepers of the Frame" is an excellent consciousness-raising introduction to the film preservation movement. Even the already converted are certain to learn more than they would have ever imagined.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: Suitable for all ages.

'Keepers of the Frame'

A Fox Lorber and Winstar Productions presentation of a Mount Pilot production. Director/co-producer Mark McLaughlin. Producer Randy Gitsch. Executive producer Earl McLaughlin. Cinematographer Rich Lerner, David Emrich. Editor Roderick Kent. Music Steve Cornell. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

Los Angeles Times Articles