How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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aldiboronti
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How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by aldiboronti » Fri May 25, 2018 12:24 pm

I'm always amazed at the number of forgettable early talkies by minor studios that have survived while big films like Gold Diggers of Broadway and others have disappeared. Surely there would have been far more prints of the big ticket movies in circulation than Poverty Row films and one would think the odds favored the survival of the former and the disappearance of the latter. Yet all over the net I see movies from studios like Monogram, Tiffany, PRC, etc. How on earth did they make the cut when their big cousins didn't?

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Brooksie
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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by Brooksie » Fri May 25, 2018 1:49 pm

Early television was a big factor. Because the minor studios were initially more likely to sell the rights to their productions for broadcast, some of these poverty row films survived in the collections of television stations.

earlytalkiebuffRob
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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by earlytalkiebuffRob » Fri May 25, 2018 1:54 pm

...and when copyright expired and they became Public Domain (particularly when a studio folded), they could be copied or shared around with no legal problems, although there is obviously the factor of poor prints going the rounds...

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by sepiatone » Fri May 25, 2018 2:35 pm

one of the best questions ever on silents. Films have popped up[and continue to] in the darndest places. I would guess some people like Pickford and DeMille made a conscious effort to preserve their own work early on. William S. Hart's work is well represented. Forgotten stars like Elaine Hammerstein and Dorothy Dalton have a good deal of surviving material. But what of Theda Bara, a kind of recurring question? Lillian Gish survived to very old age so was a sort of spokesperson for the entire silent age and younger generations were interested in her work as she was still living. It's a mixed bag of why famous vs non-famous survive, ..companies go out of business, nitrate fires, junking as it is called.

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by 2 Reel » Fri May 25, 2018 4:44 pm

Serendipity, or God's will. Even those few that tried to keep prints and negatives clean and in cooled storage vaults sometimes found cans that had decomposed.

The irony is that so much current filmmaking is digitally created and stored, and those files are one power surge or earthquake away from being permanently lost, as are their red-headed munchkin cousins, the DVD and the MP4.
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Harold Aherne
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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by Harold Aherne » Fri May 25, 2018 6:51 pm

There's no predictable relationship between the popularity of a film and how well it's been preserved. If anything, the elements of well-loved films were often subjected to more handling (and mishandling) than those of programmers that had their day and went back to the vault for 20+ years.

Films from the bigger studios had one disadvantage in that their owners usually maintained stricter control over prints and required that they be returned (unless they were truly at the end of the distribution line). For independent or poverty-row films distributed through states' rights, it wasn't always possible to keep such a tight leash on prints, and some ended up in collectors' hands. Others made their way to archives or were copied to 16mm safety stock for TV runs (as early as the late 1930s!).

--HA

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by silentfilm » Fri May 25, 2018 7:51 pm

Obscure movies from small studios usually had small print runs, meaning that there were less chances of a print to survive. On the other hand, if the films were not popular, they were likely to have sat on a shelf and had a chance to survive in good condition. As Harold mentioned, smaller studios didn't require that the prints be returned, making it likely that a random theater employee could keep a copy.

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by Dave Pitts » Sat May 26, 2018 8:51 am

In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes collecting films by hanging out at film exchanges. When an exhibition season was over, the indie and state's rights films were either junked or sold for a few dollars to the small group of enthusiasts who had home projectors. Hence we have dozens and dozens of small-budget silents of all genres, and a good idea of the kind of films that small-town theaters showed. Fans of the five-reel western kept personal copies of a ton of these pictures. Studios learned the lesson of flammable film stock the hard way. Warners' vault fire (was it '33?) torched a whole chunk of their part-talkie and early talkie history. Fox's off-site vault fire (was it New Jersey in '34?) apparently sent most of Theda Bara up into the clouds, along with a ton of other Fox silents. Most features were not deemed likely candidates for re-release, and there was no consciousness of the archival mania we have today -- a studio exec in 1929 would never dream that the features of 1921, 1922, etc. would ever be screened again. I think their main value was in stock footage or the possibility of a remake. All of this is frustrating today, and it will forever box in our understanding of early film. I console myself by reflecting that I haven't yet run out of silents to watch -- just saw my 1101th silent feature and have about 40 in the house that I haven't gotten to.

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by earlytalkiebuffRob » Sat May 26, 2018 1:28 pm

2 Reel wrote:Serendipity, or God's will. Even those few that tried to keep prints and negatives clean and in cooled storage vaults sometimes found cans that had decomposed.

The irony is that so much current filmmaking is digitally created and stored, and those files are one power surge or earthquake away from being permanently lost, as are their red-headed munchkin cousins, the DVD and the MP4.
Some years back (pre-dvd / download, etc.) I said to a friend that it would be a good idea if films were transferred to video as a stop-gap until they could be preserved properly. He then said why not just do the video and not the rest of it! Rather short-sighted, but just shows the difference in attitudes...

Admittedly the vast majority of my film watching is via the television screen, but the last couple of cinema visits have been digital...

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by earlytalkiebuffRob » Sat May 26, 2018 1:30 pm

Dave Pitts wrote:In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes collecting films by hanging out at film exchanges. When an exhibition season was over, the indie and state's rights films were either junked or sold for a few dollars to the small group of enthusiasts who had home projectors. Hence we have dozens and dozens of small-budget silents of all genres, and a good idea of the kind of films that small-town theaters showed. Fans of the five-reel western kept personal copies of a ton of these pictures. Studios learned the lesson of flammable film stock the hard way. Warners' vault fire (was it '33?) torched a whole chunk of their part-talkie and early talkie history. Fox's off-site vault fire (was it New Jersey in '34?) apparently sent most of Theda Bara up into the clouds, along with a ton of other Fox silents. Most features were not deemed likely candidates for re-release, and there was no consciousness of the archival mania we have today -- a studio exec in 1929 would never dream that the features of 1921, 1922, etc. would ever be screened again. I think their main value was in stock footage or the possibility of a remake. All of this is frustrating today, and it will forever box in our understanding of early film. I console myself by reflecting that I haven't yet run out of silents to watch -- just saw my 1101th silent feature and have about 40 in the house that I haven't gotten to.
Yes, we will always grumble about how many are missing, but there is still a heck of a 'to watch' list, and getting bigger all the time! And that's not including the 'wait for a better copy' ones as well as repeat viewings...
Last edited by earlytalkiebuffRob on Tue May 29, 2018 2:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Jay Salsberg
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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by Jay Salsberg » Tue May 29, 2018 11:58 am

Brooksie wrote:Early television was a big factor. Because the minor studios were initially more likely to sell the rights to their productions for broadcast, some of these poverty row films survived in the collections of television stations.
As early as 1939, Chesterfield and Monogram films were being shown regularly on NYC television.

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by s.w.a.c. » Tue May 29, 2018 4:18 pm

Dave Pitts wrote:In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes collecting films by hanging out at film exchanges.
This makes sense, I once visited the Victoria Film Exchange in Saint John, N.B., and the shelves were full of obscurities (in 35mm!) that belonged to companies that no longer existed. A lot of drive-in fodder and even softcore material, from the looks of it. They had nowhere to return the prints to, but couldn't junk them either, for fear that they might be destroying someone else's property, if the rights were ever purchased or cleared up. The dissolution of Astral Films in Canada left a lot of titles in limbo, for example.

Sadly, the rep cinema I worked for at the time couldn't rent any of those titles, because of the unclear rights issues (we thought about a late night exploitation series, maybe even not announcing the titles until the last minute to get around those issues, but they wouldn't go for it).
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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by sepiatone » Tue May 29, 2018 4:37 pm

2 Reel wrote:Serendipity, or God's will. Even those few that tried to keep prints and negatives clean and in cooled storage vaults sometimes found cans that had decomposed.
kind of reminds one of the case of WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND(1924) a two-strip technicolor meticulously kept in a nitrate print by it's director Irving Willat. According to Wikipedia Mr. Willat, in the 1970s, opened his can containing the film and found it was reduced to dust. But isn't the nitrate supposed to give off a gas or aroma when decomp. starts? Willat seemed to specifically be saving this film because it was historically significant and was a happy experience that showcased his former wife Billie Dove

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanderer_of_the_Wasteland_(1924_film" target="_blank" target="_blank)

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Re: How can obscure movies survive when famous one don't?

Unread post by Danny Burk » Tue May 29, 2018 4:55 pm

In tightly sealed cans, the gases can't escape and so it hastens decomposition. Same, to a lesser extent I suppose, if film is wound very tightly on reels. It's better to keep them loosely wound to allow gases to escape.

"Aroma" is putting it gently. :)

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