Forty Years of Film Preservation: A Conversation with David Shepard

This week we’ll be screening So’s Your Old Man, one of the finest examples of the elegant craft that characterizes Paramount Pictures’ silent output. Along with Universal Studios, they’re celebrating their one-hundredth anniversary this year. These days that means reissuing library chestnuts on spiffy new Blu-ray editions, but this level of attention to corporate heritage is a rather recent development.

Archivists like to talk about ‘the bad old days,’ when films were disposable, purely commercial propositions. Destruction of film history was business as usual. It was old nitrate prints, after all, that provided the pyrotechnics when Selznick burned Atlanta all over again for Gone with the Wind. The only way to guarantee the survival of a film was to spirit it away to the Museum of Modern Art. Left to their own devices, old movies would probably wind up as targets for jeers on early TV programs like Fractured Flickers.

And yet the truth is a tad more complex. All the studios (and, to be fair, the archives as well) have mixed records of conservation and preservation, a fact that makes present-day restorations all the more difficult. The case of Paramount is illustrative. Their 1929-1949 library (with a handful of exceptions) had been sold to MCA, though the prints themselves stayed on the studio lot. Their silent library sat there too—they had the right to exploit those films anew, but the market for silent films was limited. The silent material was eventually donated to the Library of Congress through a deal brokered by a young American Film Institute employee named David Shepard.

Shepard should be a familiar name to any film student. If you’ve seen a silent movie on DVD with a Film Preservation Associates credit—whether it was issued through Image, Kino, or now Flicker Alley—then you’re acquainted with Shepard’s work. The breadth of projects he’s supervised—from Griffith and Gance to Keaton and Chaplin, but with nods to unjustly neglected films like Boris Barnet’s Outskirts, Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Parson’s Wife, George Loane Tucker’s Traffic in Souls, Maurice Tourneur’s The Wishing Ring, and Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration—is immense.  The massive box sets—Unseen Cinema, Chaplin at Keystone, Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema—speak for themselves.

I recently spoke with David about the Paramount silents, the trajectory of film preservation practices, and his contribution to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

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KW: What I wanted to start out with, at least, is So’s Your Old Man. Not that film particularly, but just your involvement with Paramount and all of those films…

DS: The Paramount gift was negotiated in 1968 when I was working for the American Film Institute. Paramount was represented by an attorney named Walter Josiah, a very nice man. They had a lot of prints at the studio—file prints. And they had a smaller number of original negatives—about three dozen—stored at Fort Lee.  They were happy to turn them all over to the Library of Congress.

Those two groups, the file prints from the studio and the negatives in New Jersey, were the heart of the Paramount collection. They also owned a small studio on Occidental Blvd. in Los Angeles that had been Bosworth and Paralta back in the teens. There was a vault of prints there. Most of those were incomplete. But physically like new and almost all films from 1915 through ’17. That collection came about because Robert Aldrich bought the studio and he wanted the films out.

Everything that Paramount turned over was in good shape because, unfortunately, the studio had a policy where if anything was wrong with even the leader or one reel of a film [i.e., nitrate decomposition], they would often junk the entire picture.

KW: Do you know how often they would be inspecting it?

DS: No, but the vaults were very good. They were on the studio lot. They were temperature-controlled. They were clean. And I would imagine that they went through everything at least once a year.

These studio prints were, for the most part, not much used. They weren’t work prints, but many of them were spliced shot-for-shot. There were some release prints, but I think they actually were mostly preview prints. After the editing was complete, and they were ready to try the film out in public, they would make a fresh print from each of the selected takes and conform it to the work print. So there would be nice, clean, new-looking prints for the previews. Those prints, for the most part, became the file prints.

KW: Makes sense. At the time they were turned over to the Library, were they in imminent danger of destruction? Was Paramount going to get rid of them had the Library not stepped in?

DS: They weren’t going to get rid of them, dump them all in the ocean, but they were junking reels. And as I said, usually when they junked the reel, they would junk the whole film. And so a fair number of films were lost just in the six months or so between the time they offered us the films and the time the documents were signed and the films were shipped.

KW: That’s staggering to think of.

DS: So it’s a good thing they were saved.

The Library set up its own laboratory—probably about 1971, and began to do the preservation work in-house. It was supervised by a man named Dick Armstrong, who was elderly and extremely conservative. For example, he did not believe in wet gate. They had an Oxbery optical printer and they did most of the copying that way. Because of the shrinkage in the original material, they could have done them step-register but, for some reason, he didn’t want to do that. The results were rather contrasty and included the dirt and digs and blemishes.

KW: At the time it was Library’s policy to do all the preservation in black and white, regardless of what the original was…

DS: That’s correct, because it was before Eastmancolor was dye-stable. With a color film, we occasionally made an Ektachrome reversal in 16mm. Those turned out not to be very stable either, but they were better than Eastmancolor. So, sometimes the color record would be preserved that way, but for the most part they didn’t go back and copy color until I had long left the AFI. Of course, as you know, it’s possible to create fairly convincing-looking tinted and toned prints from black and white negatives [using the color injection method, known as the Desmet Process in Europe].

KW: After they were turned over and preserved, did you get to see a fair amount of the collection?

David Shepard and Kyle Westphal, Castro Theatre Mezzanine, 2010. Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

DS: For some time after I stopped working in the AFI archive, I was managing the AFI theater. It was first at the National Gallery of Art auditorium, then we moved to a commercial theater in L’Enfant Plaza. Then finally AFI built its own little cinema in the Kennedy Center that opened just about a month or six weeks before I left. But I saw a lot of the collection. I had access to run anything I wanted to on a flatbed. I looked at a lot of the nitrates as we got them unpacked and organized.

Whenever we wanted to use one of the Paramount pictures for anything—we ran, for example, some of them at the 1969 New York Film Festival—we would ask Mr. Josiah and he always was very nice about it.

KW: Are there any particular unheralded Paramount silents that you’d like to draw attention to?

DS: Well, most of the ones I thought were good forty years ago have surfaced. They’ve been run here and there. One I thought was a big discovery was The Canadian, which was run last year at Pordenone; it was run at Cinecon just before that where the Pordenone people saw it. It’s a film very similar to The Wind. Directed by William Beaudine, which is not a name you would usually go to with the idea that you would find a high quality film.

KW: Or a distinctive one, really.

DS: Yes, but it’s a very fine film. There was the original print of The Wedding March with the color sequence, not that it was unknown, but no one had really seen it. I remember the analogy I used at the time. Like Borneo: everybody knows about it, nobody goes there. And so there was The Vanishing American, a real discovery. There was another Fields—Running Wild. And there was a third one—It’s the Old Army Game. Until then, no one thought of Fields as a silent performer, but they’re good films. Some very interesting things from the teens. The Cheat, which, of course, is also at Eastman House. And The Man on the Box. The Virginian. I’m very fond of films from the early teens.

KW: Those were the ones that were in the studio that Aldrich bought?

DS: They were in the studio. The negatives were generally of later films from about 1924 on.  There were also silent versions or mute versions of early talkies. There was a silent version of Monte Carlo. There were some foreign negatives. For example, foreign versions of some Harold Lloyd films, which Paramount had distributed but didn’t own. When the negatives came back, they vaulted them, they didn’t send them back to Mr. Lloyd.

KW: Generally what was the incentive for a studio like Paramount to keep these at the time, if they didn’t own them or weren’t interested in exploiting them?

DS: Well, they weren’t interested in allocating labor to go through them and throw them away. It’s simple. How much do you have around your place that would be gone if you felt like taking a day to clean it out? It’s easier to just let it sit.

KW: That was the case with most of the studios at that time, except MGM.

DS: MGM, of course, began to do preservation back about 1967 when they had excess laboratory capacity and they had a lot of nitrate films that hadn’t been copied. So MGM filled up its excess laboratory capacity, first with the sound features and then the silent features, of which there were many. Then the short subjects. One has to really admire MGM for that, because that’s when they were selling the ruby slippers to keep the doors open. I think that Roger Mayer, who was head of the lab, initiated that. Their work was not always the finest, but it was certainly good. They didn’t junk the nitrate. The head of the library at that time at MGM was a curmudgeonly man by the name of Morty Feinstein. But he managed to get along with Jim Card, who was equally curmudgeonly, and that’s how all that stuff came to Eastman House. Eastman agreed to take it so that MGM wouldn’t junk it.

KW: And was the desire to junk it out of fire concerns or was it just taking up space?

DS: Well, they did have a fire. A few years before, MGM lost two vaults. That’s when London After Midnight disappeared. They have gaps, they weren’t able to save everything. That’s when they became very aware that they had vaults, which were not air-conditioned, which went back to the twenties and teens when the studio was built. They thought they should probably get the lot out of there. And, as you know, Eastman House had a fire, too.

KW: Well, most every major archive had some fire or disaster …

DS: I don’t think the Library of Congress has, or UCLA, or the BFI.

KW: Of course there’s the famous Fox fire in ’37.

DS: Have you ever seen the footage of that?

KW: No, where is it available?

DS: Youtube. Some guy who lived in the neighborhood went out with a 16mm camera and some Kodachrome film and photographed those vaults burning. It’s quite jaw-dropping.

KW: It’s funny, of course, because Fox had really, at that time, taken the lead on the whole idea of having state-of-the-art vaults.

DS: Those vaults were almost new. But what they did was put the material for each film together, which was particularly bone-headed. In case of disaster, they would lose all of it. What’s left of the pre-1934 Fox is basically what they had in file prints in the studio, or, in some cases, in exchanges.

KW: Moving from the Paramount of the past to the Paramount of the present, when I went and saw Hugo, I stayed through the credits and saw Film Preservation Associates cited for a good number of the clips in that. Is there anything you can say about that experience?

DS: It was very simple. We were asked for them. I’ve known Marty Scorsese for a long time and I guess he sent his post-production team to me. Of course they were particularly looking for the Méliès films and we have all those out of Lobster in Paris. Film Preservation Associates and Lobster Films are really one company. We did the Méliès DVD set, which you’ve seen, probably, right?

KW: I have a copy.

DS: That’s nice. Thank you. I got about 93 or 94 of the films here and mastered those all in HD; all those tapes went to Paris. So all those films were handled from Paris. The ones that they wanted from me are for the scene where they look through a film history book and run across a reference to a film and it leaps into life for a second or two. I had those 35mm negatives stored at the Academy Film Archive and they told me what pieces and we sent those reels over to Technicolor and Tom Burton, who did all the scanning and grading on A Trip to the Moon. Technicolor scanned and graded those, they came back to the Archive, we got some money, and that was that.

KW: But you never would have thought when you were doing the HD scans of all the Méliès films that they would wind up in Digital 3D in theaters across the country, right?

DS: They didn’t turn many of the Méliès films into 3D, but yes, it’s great. Our Méliès DVD set is selling like hamburgers and people are rediscovering these films. Hugo, I think, by the way, is an absolutely beautiful film. I saw it twice in 3D and they sent me a DVD of it, so I have it here at home, too. I think that and The Artist have created more awareness of silent cinema than anything that’s come along in decades.

KW: Have you seen that manifest in ways other than they you’ve had to do another pressing on the Méliès set?

DS: There’s been a lot of press. Do you come to Cinefest every year?

KW: For the last three, yes.

DS: You look at the average age of that audience and the interest in silent films is going to die out pretty soon but for a few freaks like yourself unless something comes along to generate a new enthusiasm. Our DVDs have done that to some extent. I have a fairly wide phone correspondence with high school kids and younger college kids, who discover these films by getting DVDs from the library or I guess sometimes they buy them. They don’t have friends they can make sit and watch them. Or talk about them with. But I’m not hard to find, so they call me. There are people like this all over the country. And I think that Hugo and The Artist are probably going to fertilize a whole lot more minds about the power of silent films.

KW: And the amazing thing about Hugo to me isn’t so much that it’s about silent film, but that it’s actually about silent film preservation.

DS: In part at least, it’s about the magic of movies and the more you know about film, the richer it is. It has all these quotations from the movies we grew up with. You know, they play a song and you recognize it as the song that’s in Grand Illusion; there’s an acknowledgement in the screen credits to Jean Renoir. There’s a lot of stuff quoted from the René Clair Paris comedies. Scorsese really knows film history. We used to sit around a lot and talk about film history when we both lived in Southern California. He’s now been long in New York and I’ve long been in the North Woods. But he reads the reviews. He knows how deeply it touched people. Unfortunately, it’s also been a flop from a commercial point of view. You know, that means it’ll probably be a long time before someone gets to make another multi-million dollar paean to film history.

KW: I’ve recommended it to people and some of them love it. I’ve had people react in a very hostile, irrational way to it as well.

DS: If you look at the comments on the IMDB, they run that gamut. There was a story today I saw where some jerk in England is suing the theater because he went to go see The Artist and didn’t know it was a silent movie. I wouldn’t expect any of the current Republican candidates for president to like Hugo, but I think a lot of people will. As my simple but wise Aunt Irma used to say, there’s a cover for every pot.

I think Hugo’s going to go on a long time. The other thing that I think may make a real splash is this Blu-ray and DVD restoration of Wings, which Paramount is releasing. Obviously they didn’t do it for commercial purposes, they did it for publicity. But they recorded the original score with a fifty-piece orchestra up at Skywalker Sound and did a frame-by-frame digital cleanup of the picture. The reviews have started to come out and people love it. They say that the film is just absolutely great—which, of course, it is. It will be interesting to see whether the average age at Cinefest this year drops to about 70.

KW: We’re talking about things like Wings and of course that had a good deal of photochemical restoration from the Academy but most people are destined to see it in this Blu-ray.

DS: They didn’t use the Academy material. They did it all themselves.

KW: So a far cry from when they were just throwing away whole reels because the leader was starting to go?

DS: Well, that was forty years ago, but they obviously now have people who have some awareness of film. Probably a lot of the current administration went to film school and saw silent movies along the way. I wouldn’t say that it’s a boom. We haven’t seen sales grow to significantly more units with DVD than we used to get with Laserdisc and VHS. But at least we’re replacing the part of the audience that is dying out. We’re doing adventurous stuff. But I think it takes a certain amount of courage to do J’accuse and La roue. We’re working on Gribiche and La maison du mystère and Les nouveaux messieurs. We licensed a whole package of Albatros films from the Cinémathèque Française. And many of those films were never shown here in the United States, or at least were never revived after they were shown here only in cut versions in the 1920s. But I think there’s enough interest in silent cinema to sustain the release of them.

KW: I hope so.

DS: That’s a long way from just putting out The Birth of a Nation, Caligari, and Potemkin, which is where we were, say, twenty years ago.

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The Northwest Chicago Film Society will be screening So’s Your Old Man in a 35mm print from the Library of Congress at the Portage Theater on Wednesday, February 1 as part of our Classic Film Series. Please see our current calendar for more information. Special thanks to Rob Stone, Lynanne Schweighofer, Mike Mashon, and, of course, David Shepard.