WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

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earlytalkiebuffRob

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WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostWed Jul 22, 2015 2:54 pm

Some time back I read of the loss of the early Technicolor WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND having occurred around 1971 when director Irvin Willat discovered that his own copy had become unusable. Whereas I can understand his wanting a personal copy of the film, why did he not arrange for its preservation? And was the film still shown prior to that time? It just seems like folly to keep just the one print, and at home, too.
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Bob Birchard

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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostThu Jul 23, 2015 2:03 pm

earlytalkiebuffRob wrote:Some time back I read of the loss of the early Technicolor WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND having occurred around 1971 when director Irvin Willat discovered that his own copy had become unusable. Whereas I can understand his wanting a personal copy of the film, why did he not arrange for its preservation? And was the film still shown prior to that time? It just seems like folly to keep just the one print, and at home, too.


To beat up on Irvin Willat in 2015 for the loss of a film that occurred sometime in the 1960s, several years before I met Irvin in 1970, seems uncharitable at best, and displays a complete lack of knowledge of the state of film preservation at the time.

The big push to convert nitrate to safety film occurred in the late 1950s--not for purposes of preservation (although it did have some effect in that area)--but when rights holders converted their pre-1948 movies to 16mm for television release. At the time it was felt that 16mm would be sufficient protection for these "old movies."

Today, all the studios have first-rate preservation programs, back then, not so much. Only M-G-M made a concerted effort to preserve its library, and that was in part a matter of protecting company assets, but also because of all the studios only M-G-M still had its own film lab and they could use the preservation work to fill in during lab downtimes.

There was some interest in the silents--Robert Youngson, for example, cut up original negatives and fine grain protection masters to make his comedy compilations; and Paramount at least announced that it would make it silent library available to TV (partly out of embarrassment for selling off its talkies to MCA at what proved to be a much too low figure.

There was certainly some awareness of decomposition. Paramount, for example, would trash its entire studio print if a film showed even mild decamp, but it was assumed that the negatives and/or lavenders would be available should anyone want to make a new print--and for the most part (except for the occasional desire to look at a "vaultie" for its remake potential, or the rare "ask" from an archive) no one ever asked for prints of silents that were considered to be totally uncommercial.

By the early 1960s film labs were looking to rid their vaults and work schedules of any nitrate film, and stars who owned their films, like Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd, were encouraged to make dupe negatives from existing prints rather than to go back to the original negatives because the prints were already timed, and could be duped and printed "one light," thus avoiding the expense of making new answer prints, then fine grains, then dupe negatives and finally new answer prints.

By the late 1960s there was a more general awareness that nitrate was unstable and was prone to decomposition, but by 1968 there was not a single film lab in Los Angeles that would handle nitrate except for the non-union lab Foto-Kem. When Paramount, and later Fox, and still later Warner Bros. turned over their studio print libraries to UCLA in the late 1960s and early 1970s their goal was not to preserve their libraries, but to get a tax write-off for the donations and save themselves the insurance headaches of storing nitrate film.

Universal and Columbia deposited stuff with LOC, and the pre 1928 (and other oddball things in the Paramount vaults) were transferred to the Library of Congress as well.

But, as I say, there were no labs that would handle nitrate, so when the Library of Congress wanted to preserve the Paramount silents they now had, my friend Richard Simonton, Jr. took it upon himself to buy a Bell & Howell printer and do the work in order to raise money to pay for the vault space at the Film Exchange Building in Los Angeles where UCLA was storing the Paramount and Fox libraries. For the first several years, Richard paid for the vault space out of his own pocket. Richard's printer was set up in a garage at Bob Clampett's (yes, the cartoon director) property on Seward Street in Hollywood. I worked for Richard, sitting in the pitch black in that garage, making safety dupe negs from LOC's silent Paramount nitrate prints. These negatives, and later the nitrate prints, were then shipped to LOC.

Which gets us back to WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND. Even if Irvin had been aware of the decomp in his print before it was too far gone, there were no labs that would handle nitrate, none that could deal with a a two-color cemented bi-pack Technicolor print, and in any event Irvin owned no rights to the film. He was in simply no position to do anything about it.

WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND was not lost when Irvin's print decomposed, rather it was lost when Technicolor decided to no longer support two-color printing in the late 1930s. The lab informed the studios, offering final opportunities to make prints, and the opportunity to reclaim the 2-color negatives. In almost every instance the studios opted to allow Technicolor to destroy those negatives. Who would ever revisit films shot in a lost format that (as far as anyone knew) could never be reprinted in the future? The one outstanding example of a surviving 2-color up/down original negative surviving is FOLLOW THRU (1930), and this negative was reclaimed by Paramount simply because they no longer owned the rights and felt they could not authorize destruction without instructions from the actual rights holders.

So Irvin's print was just that, Irvin's personal print of one of his favorite movies. I doubt he was even aware that the original negative was long gone years before his print decomposed.

The big push for film preservation, the development of specialty preservation labs and the effort to uncover the best materials to work from really only got underway in a "big way" in the 1970s.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostThu Jul 23, 2015 3:51 pm

I had no intention of 'beating up' on Irvin Willat, and I do have some knowledge of film preservation problems in America, even though I did not realise that the donations to The University of Wisconsin were from less honourable reasons. In addition, I have read of British films being destroyed for fear of fire risk during WWII, so this problem was not simply an American one.

My query was simply why there didn't seem to be as much of an effort to preserve WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND as it surely deserved. As we nearly had a similar disaster re Buster Keaton's films, Willat's case is clearly not unique. If it had been a less historically significant film one might have understood it, but as one of the earliest Two-Color Technicolor films, and starring his one-time wife, I would have thought there would have been more effort in preserving the film, not just from Irvin Willat, but any friends, family and associates who knew of the film's precarious existence.

And I take your point about Technicolor's part-responsibility when the three-color process came along and the problem with laboratories being unable and unwilling to cope with unstable materials. My point was more on why this lone print was not kept somewhere under better conditions until there was a chance of copying it. I guess we were lucky over here with the BFI starting up in the 1930s (and indeed I think they were involved in the work on THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929), as opposed to the AFI coming into being in, I think, 1967.

If I sounded uncharitable, I apologise, as it was not intended. Perhaps I was just expressing myself badly, and in addition my knowledge of film preservation is purely that of a layman and enthusiast as opposed the the more technical aspects of which Bob Birchard is clearly much more aware. {I may elaborate later, but it's getting late!]
Last edited by earlytalkiebuffRob on Sun Apr 15, 2018 1:12 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostThu Jul 23, 2015 9:52 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:Today, all the studios have first-rate preservation programs, back then, not so much. Only M-G-M made a concerted effort to preserve its library, and that was in part a matter of protecting company assets, but also because of all the studios only M-G-M still had its own film lab and they could use the preservation work to fill in during lab downtimes.


Not just that, but MGM, while putting on an exterior of "a cost of millions," could pinch pennies like nobody you knew in places you couldn't see. So if there was a stock shot they could re-use, they'd keep it. That's why SO many things from the production of MGM films (such as WIZARD OF OZ) exist—there's no coincidence that they kept plenty of second-unit stuff squirreled away.

On a good note, it seems that it is turning out that more studios took Technicolor up on their offer of picking up those 2-color negs (in 1938) than was previously known, and they are still being discovered to this day.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostFri Jul 24, 2015 9:13 am

I think I can add some clarification to the preservation of the 2-color Technicolor sections of HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929.
After Turner Entertainment Co. took over the MGM library in 1986, I moved from working for the MGM film services department to Turner, and a position that evolved into VP of Film Preservation.
After a disastrous fire at the MGM Lab (I don't know the exact year), the city of Culver City ruled that no more than 35 pounds of nitrate film could be kept in one location in that city. This, of course, involved the MGM Lab. By the time Turner came along, almost all of the MGM nitrate elements had been copied to acetate safety film. Most of the surviving original negatives went to George Eastman House in Rochester NY. There were still some odds and ends, so MGM rented nitrate storage space in a couple of locations in the city of Los Angeles. One of these was the former Technicolor building in Hollywood, which had a large number of nitrate vaults.
One day a couple of us from Turner, along with Richard Dayton of YCM Laboratory went looking for what might be in those vaults. Much of it was original negatives of unused musical numbers from 3-strip MGM features. At one point, Richard came upon an oversized can which he thought might be a 2-color negative (consuming twice as much footage as the same running time of a conventional negative). It turned out that this was the original of the color sequences of HOLLYWOOD REVUE, including the "Singin' in the Rain" finale.
We engaged YCM Lab to do preservation work from this element. At this late date I am not sure if anybody else was involved. About the only person with much experience in Technicolor preservation at that time was Bob Gitt at the UCLA Film Archive, and he might have worked with YCM and Turner on this.
This is a bit off-subject regarding WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND, but I thought an interesting anecdote in 2-color preservation.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostFri Jul 24, 2015 10:20 am

Bob Birchard is basically correct, but it's not quite as dire as he remembers. We copied nitrate (with excellent results) for as long as I was at AFI (1968-73) at Consolidated Film Industries, in those days a better lab than FotoKem; also, the original two-color neg survived and was used by Goldwyn about that time to restore WHOOPEE. MGM also reclaimed the two-color negs on a couple of Iwerks cartoons that came to Blackhawk, and Steve Stanchfield is using them now to prepare his Blu-Ray edition of Willie Whopper. I never saw Mr. Willat's print of WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND but I did see quite a few other cemented two-color prints where the green had invariably faded completely, so it would have been impossible to recapture the color with the photo-mechanical techniques of 45 years ago.

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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostFri Jul 24, 2015 11:36 am

Richard P. May wrote:I think I can add some clarification to the preservation of the 2-color Technicolor sections of HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929.
After Turner Entertainment Co. took over the MGM library in 1986, I moved from working for the MGM film services department to Turner, and a position that evolved into VP of Film Preservation.
After a disastrous fire at the MGM Lab (I don't know the exact year), the city of Culver City ruled that no more than 35 pounds of nitrate film could be kept in one location in that city. This, of course, involved the MGM Lab. By the time Turner came along, almost all of the MGM nitrate elements had been copied to acetate safety film. Most of the surviving original negatives went to George Eastman House in Rochester NY. There were still some odds and ends, so MGM rented nitrate storage space in a couple of locations in the city of Los Angeles. One of these was the former Technicolor building in Hollywood, which had a large number of nitrate vaults.
One day a couple of us from Turner, along with Richard Dayton of YCM Laboratory went looking for what might be in those vaults. Much of it was original negatives of unused musical numbers from 3-strip MGM features. At one point, Richard came upon an oversized can which he thought might be a 2-color negative (consuming twice as much footage as the same running time of a conventional negative). It turned out that this was the original of the color sequences of HOLLYWOOD REVUE, including the "Singin' in the Rain" finale.
We engaged YCM Lab to do preservation work from this element. At this late date I am not sure if anybody else was involved. About the only person with much experience in Technicolor preservation at that time was Bob Gitt at the UCLA Film Archive, and he might have worked with YCM and Turner on this.
This is a bit off-subject regarding WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND, but I thought an interesting anecdote in 2-color preservation.


Perhaps off-subject, but very gratifying. The print of HOLLYWOOD REVUE I saw at London's NFT in 1980, ran for (I think) a little under two hours, and I seem to recall reading that the restoration work (from shrunken nitrate and discs) was undertaken in or just after 1960. That particular showing featured 'Romeo and Juliet', 'Orange Blossom Time' and 'Singin' in the Rain' (Finale + Reprise) in the Two-Color Technicolor as with the Warner Archive DVD release...
Last edited by earlytalkiebuffRob on Sun Apr 15, 2018 1:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostFri Jul 24, 2015 11:44 am

DShepFilm wrote:Bob Birchard is basically correct, but it's not quite as dire as he remembers. We copied nitrate (with excellent results) for as long as I was at AFI (1968-73) at Consolidated Film Industries, in those days a better lab than FotoKem; also, the original two-color neg survived and was used by Goldwyn about that time to restore WHOOPEE. MGM also reclaimed the two-color negs on a couple of Iwerks cartoons that came to Blackhawk, and Steve Stanchfield is using them now to prepare his Blu-Ray edition of Willie Whopper. I never saw Mr. Willat's print of WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND but I did see quite a few other cemented two-color prints where the green had invariably faded completely, so it would have been impossible to recapture the color with the photo-mechanical techniques of 45 years ago.

David Shepard


Without knowing when WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND began to fade and / or decompose, it's hard to know all of the problems involved in preserving and restoring a film such as this. I guess I was a little spoilt in seeing handsome prints of THE BLACK PIRATE (1926) and REDSKIN (1928) over thirty years ago, not to mention the astonishing re-emergence of TOLL OF THE SEA (1922) a few years later. The anthology 'The American Film Heritage' is a very useful, helpful and interesting book on this subject, and I intend to obtain 'The Dawn of Technicolor' when funds allow...
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostFri Jul 24, 2015 3:37 pm

DShepFilm wrote:Bob Birchard is basically correct, but it's not quite as dire as he remembers. We copied nitrate (with excellent results) for as long as I was at AFI (1968-73) at Consolidated Film Industries, in those days a better lab than FotoKem; also, the original two-color neg survived and was used by Goldwyn about that time to restore WHOOPEE. MGM also reclaimed the two-color negs on a couple of Iwerks cartoons that came to Blackhawk, and Steve Stanchfield is using them now to prepare his Blu-Ray edition of Willie Whopper. I never saw Mr. Willat's print of WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND but I did see quite a few other cemented two-color prints where the green had invariably faded completely, so it would have been impossible to recapture the color with the photo-mechanical techniques of 45 years ago.

David Shepard


There is no question that CFI was a better lab than Foto-Kem back in the late 1960s, But I was specifically thinking of CFI as one of the labs that would not handle nitrate. They must have made exceptions for AFI. The Reason Fox used Foto-Kem for their preservation work ca. 1969-1970 was because there was no other lab available to handle nitrate (although Foto-Kem's willingness to make a few extra 16mm prints may have been part of the appeal for the fellow who was in charge of Fox' preservation program at the time. Foto-Kem was later barred from doing the Fox work because they were non-union and the Film Technicians pressured Fox to pull the work. This led the union labs to rethinking their policies vis a vis nitrate.

Actually what Bill Ramsay found on WHOOPEE when he was at Goldwyn was not the original two-color up and down camera negative, but a nitrate B&W fine grain of the shortened reissue version. This has been the source of all prints we've seen since.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostFri Jul 24, 2015 3:49 pm

earlytalkiebuffRob wrote: Without knowing when WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND began to fade and / or decompose, it's hard to know all of the problems involved in preserving and restoring a film such as this. I guess I was a little spoilt in seeing handsome prints of THE BLACK PIRATE (1926) and REDSKIN (1928) over thirty years ago, not to mention the astonishing re-emergence of TOLL OF THE SEA (1922) a few years later. The anthology 'The American Film Heritage' is a very useful, helpful and interesting book on this subject, and I intend to obtain 'The Dawn of Technicolor' when funds allow...


REDSKIN came from the two-color IB studio print in the Paramount vaults that Paramount transferred to LOC.

THE BLACK PIRATE in color has been rumored to have been assembled from two-color negative outtakes. Not certain if this is true, but there are certainly other B&W examples of Fairbanks shooting numerous virtually identical takes, making a possible restoration of TBP from outtakes at least theoretically possible. It is more likely, however, that the foreign negative survived.

The original two-color camera negative on THE TOLL OF THE SEA (most of it, at least) was kept by Technicolor, but that film was a Technicolor production.

Perhaps Dick May can inform us what elements survived on THE VIKING (1929) and those couple of M-G-M 1928 Tech shorts that were preserved by MGM/Turner?
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostSat Jul 25, 2015 9:28 am

I can't be of much help on THE VIKING. When I got involved in the MGM library in 1986 almost everything in the library had been transferred to safety film. The color subjects, for the most part, were preserved with CRI negatives which were used extensively by the MGM Lab at that time. I first saw THE VIKING by screening the studio print, out of curiosity. I don't know what elements created it, but would guess a dupe negative from an existing nitrate print. This was not unusual when no pre-print elements survived.
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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostSat Jul 25, 2015 10:37 am

Yes, the existing U.S. version of THE BLACK PIRATE was rebuilt from unused alternate takes that survived as original negative at BFI because MoMA, which received them from Fairbanks in 1938, dispersed a lot of the Fairbanks collection among other archives in hope that more of it could be preserved than they could manage in those days. Harold Brown did the work on PIRATE, that was financed by a $25,000 gift from Fairbanks Jr., using a b&w print as his guide. Later, when Raymond Rohauer got a color internegative through Fairbanks Jr., he replaced (and often altered the text of) all the title cards, weirdly using a gold background (a color the two-color system could not achieve) so he had something to copyright. Years later, BFI went back to Brown's negative assembly and made a second attempt at a full color restoration, with much better results, but this version has not been distributed. When I produced Kino's first video version, I used Rohauer's 35mm negative but replaced all his ersatz titles from those in a nitrate b&w fine grain. It took about eight hours in telecine to try and balance the color for each reel of the film.

The original head/toe Technicolor negative of WHOOPEE survived as I personally wound through every foot of it on a light table. But I don't know if Goldwyn subsequently used it or some other element to restore the picture.

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Re: WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND (1924)

PostSun Apr 15, 2018 1:28 pm

DShepFilm wrote:Yes, the existing U.S. version of THE BLACK PIRATE was rebuilt from unused alternate takes that survived as original negative at BFI because MoMA, which received them from Fairbanks in 1938, dispersed a lot of the Fairbanks collection among other archives in hope that more of it could be preserved than they could manage in those days. Harold Brown did the work on PIRATE, that was financed by a $25,000 gift from Fairbanks Jr., using a b&w print as his guide. Later, when Raymond Rohauer got a color internegative through Fairbanks Jr., he replaced (and often altered the text of) all the title cards, weirdly using a gold background (a color the two-color system could not achieve) so he had something to copyright. Years later, BFI went back to Brown's negative assembly and made a second attempt at a full color restoration, with much better results, but this version has not been distributed. When I produced Kino's first video version, I used Rohauer's 35mm negative but replaced all his ersatz titles from those in a nitrate b&w fine grain. It took about eight hours in telecine to try and balance the color for each reel of the film.

The original head/toe Technicolor negative of WHOOPEE survived as I personally wound through every foot of it on a light table. But I don't know if Goldwyn subsequently used it or some other element to restore the picture.

David Shepard


When I saw THE BLACK PIRATE at London's NFT in the late 1970s I had no idea of this, and the film did not seem to betray the use of alternate takes. It was an awfully long time before I saw the film again (Kino) as the other copies available were either rather washed-out or in b/w, so it is hard to compare viewings.

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