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Film Treasures Pulled From the Vault

Movies: The results of a major preservation effort are being made available to the public in showings on Turner Classic Movies.

November 02, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of "orphan" films have found a home this month on Turner Classic Movies. Forty-seven films from the "Treasures From American Film Archives" project will have their TV premiere on the cable network beginning Sunday. The films--silent-era features, newsreels, animation, documentaries, the avant-garde and home movies--are presented by the National Film Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by Congress during the '90s to save America's film heritage. The films in the series were preserved by 18 of America's archives.

(Last year, Image Entertainment released "Treasures From American Film Archives" on DVD.)

Annette Melville, head of the foundation, will host the festival, which continues every Sunday on TCM through November. "The 'Treasures' project was one of our first efforts with the archival community," she says. "The archives wanted to do something special for the year 2000, so we applied to the [National Endowment for the Arts] for a special millennium grant and the Pew Charitable Trust."

Some of these films, she says, were preserved with that grant money; others represent a decade of work by the archives.

"The idea is to show the variety and diversity of filmmaking over the last 100 years. The archival community never had an opportunity before to work together to release films to the public on video. It is an incredibly expensive proposition. We had economy of scale by working together, [and] by this grant support, we were able to do what the nonprofit world normally cannot do."

These movies are called orphan films, says Charles Hopkins, senior motion picture archivist at UCLA Film and Television Archive, because "the major studios no longer have any interest in them. Therefore, there is no financial incentive to preserve them."

Besides UCLA, the Academy Film Archive, Alaska Film Archives, George Eastman House, Japanese American National Museum, the Library of Congress, Minnesota Historical Society, National Center for Jewish Film, Pacific Film Archive and the New York Public Library are among the institutions participating in the project.

Festival highlights include the first feature-length version of "Snow White," from 1916. Also from 1916 is the William S. Hart western "Hell's Hinges." The programs include footage from Orson Welles' 1936 stage production of "Voodoo Macbeth."

As part of the "Treasures" festival, TCM will air on Sunday the restored Yiddish drama "Tevye," which became the basis for "Fiddler on the Roof."

"The National Society of Jewish Film at Brandeis University told me that this is the first Yiddish-language feature to be shown on national TV," Melville says. "They are completely psyched."

UCLA has three of its preserved films in the "Treasures" program: a 1911 comedy, "His Crowning Glory," with John Bunny and Flora Finch; a 1916 animated short, "I'm Insured"; and the earliest surviving two-color Technicolor feature, 1922's "The Toll of the Sea."

The archivists had a particular problem with "The Toll of the Sea." "We had the original camera negative, which had survived in Technicolor," Hopkins says. "But the problem was that the very end of the film had been lost. What we did was quite ingenious."

They managed to find an original two-color Technicolor camera still in working condition. "We took it down to the ocean and on modern motion picture stock, we shot a scene of the waves breaking on the shore at sunset, which we used for the final shot of the film. Then we reconstructed a title card that kind of wrapped up the story to explain what was missing. However, we do that very seldom. More typically, reconstructions involve assembling bits and pieces."

The Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul has a medium-size collection of films, according to Bonnie Wilson, curator of sound and visual collections. One of its films, "Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther," will get its TV debut during the festival.

"Cologne," which depicts a German American community in 1939, is an amateur film. "It's a bit above a home movie because [filmmaker] Raymond Dowidat wrote little inter-titles like it was a diary and shot it like a little tour through his town of Cologne, Minn. We always considered it one of our little gems."

Thanks to funds from the National Film Preservation Foundation, "Cologne" was preserved. "We got a new negative and a new print," Wilson says. "That is the standard operating procedure that [every archive] should do, but it costs thousands of dollars, and we don't have that in our normal budget. So [the grant] allowed us to do this film."

Melville hopes the TCM showings will mobilize viewers to "support their local archives and help them in their efforts to document their community."

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"Treasures From American Film Archives" can be Sundays at 6 p.m on Turner Classic Movies throughout November.

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