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NITRATE CAN’T WAIT: IS HOPALONG CASSIDY DISINTEGRATING?

[My longtime friend Dick Bann, with whom I wrote a book on Our Gang years ago, had no training as a film archivist, but spent a number of years working with the late David Shepard at Blackhawk Films and then supervised the restoration of the Hal Roach film library in Los Angeles—for which he deserves our everlasting thanks. He has also been involved in the William Boyd estate and its Hopalong Cassidy holdings for many years, which prompted this recent missive. I thank Dick for giving me permission to reprint it here.]

 

By Richard W. Bann

 

In a prolonged absence from home, I was happily occupied back East, ensconced within film vaults at a remote ranch built in 1783, way back when the U.S.A. was then but seven years old. During welcoming ceremonies, I was surprised to learn that the main ranch house came complete with slave quarters. My activities, however, were focused upon a converted dairy barn nearby. It had been adapted to serve as a state of the art film vault, with proper temperature and humidity controls.

The task was to conduct a decay audit of the highly flammable cellulose nitrate elements stored there comprising the complete library of 66 Hopalong Cassidy feature films produced 1935-48. These included 35mm original camera negatives, derivative work prints, fine grain duplicating masters, lavenders, dupe negs, studio file prints, and exhibition prints.

Surprisingly, incredibly, also extant in this massive collection are approximately a thousand small rolls of outtakes, alternate takes, stock shots and so-called “B-roll” footage. These begin with a crew member holding up an identifying camera slate, reflecting the director’s name, the cameraman’s name, and the production and scene numbers being shot. In addition, there would be a small piece of paper attached to each roll with a hand-written line describing that particular scene’s contents. For example: “Bill, Windy and Jimmy riding down steep hill.” Meaning this fine grain master positive footage would feature the original (and best) star trio of saddle aces William Boyd, George Hayes, and James Ellison performing equestrian action in an early series entry.

To appreciate how special such footage is, consider that not a single such roll of 35mm preprint material survived and now exists for any subject in the much larger Hal Roach library. Not one. Not even a foot of unused alternate takes or outtakes survives for any Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy or Charley Chase movie ever made (footage contained in the gag reel That’s That from1937 was used …in That’s That). All destroyed, all gone, all lost, long ago. And on purpose, either to reclaim the valuable silver or to save storage space and related charges. Or, because someone thought — and almost everyone did — that such footage was worthless and of no residual value. That was the prevailing attitude all across Hollywood, and still is, in too many quarters yet today. In any case, let that contrasting situation sink in for a minute or two, or more….

Trying to process all I saw and did, the task is made a bit difficult due to nitric acid burns sustained on my hands (the double gloves used were not strong enough protection). The most difficult part of this enormous task–heartbreaking, really–was periodically opening a can and in some rare cases finding that no recognizable film, as such, was left inside, and discovering instead only foul-smelling, rust-colored or brownish dust or powder (stage 5 deterioration). Or, in the alternative, another horror: seeing a shocking mass of what looked like nothing but gooey, liquid white cotton, or maybe a fused mass of what resembled frosted but rancid vanilla ice cream (stage 4 deterioration). See the photos. In neither case could anyone have guessed that these completely transposed elements had once been 35mm film treasures containing unique, shimmering, lustrous images, now decayed, and entirely, irretrievably gone.

Sometimes you would pick up one of these cans, and be horrified to discover that a few of the small rolls had decomposed into what looked like a clump of dirt, and had eaten through not only the bottom of the metal can, but the top of the can underneath. Holding these decayed treasures in my hands, underscored in a powerful way, the crying need for the interest, the funds, and the manpower to immediately preserve this material, clearly an important part of our cultural film heritage.

Such a painful experience, to say nothing of the noxious odor. And when cellulose nitrate is burned, the fumes are nothing less than lethal. What’s more, nitrate film fires cannot be extinguished with water; nitrate will burn under water. In some instances I cracked open a can of what might be a deteriorating, sort of physical proximity relic, such as a reel of “OCN,” or original camera negative. Meaning the very “Holy Grail” Dupont or Kodak 35mm raw stock nitrate film which had been loaded inside the camera only a few feet away from where the actors were performing their scenes. Other times I encountered stage 3 deterioration, the kind showing liquid discharge bubbling out on the sides of what was still a recognizable roll of albeit sticky film. This material was not yet entirely photographically worthless, but carried the lowest flashpoint ignition threshold temperature.

Nitrate film has the same chemical composition as gunpowder, and is capable of spontaneous combustion at higher temperatures. Such cases usually called for immediate immersion in a barrel of water on the way to hazmat incineration in compliance with fire code regulations, which we did adhere to. There was the temptation, however, to secretly stage a few experimental “nitrate fury” fires, though nothing like what we used to orchestrate once a week in the cleared-out parking lot at Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa, during the mid-1970’s (and how and why the police or the fire department there never once interposed any objection remains a mystery!).

It wore me down each day, making judge-and-jury “life or death” decisions on stage 3 nitrate decomp reels and rolls, and I did need to resort to some serious mood-altering beverages by sunset.

While the 66 theatrical Hopalong Cassidy features and 52 half-hour TV productions were all scanned for DVD release about 17 years ago, and will soon be seen again mastered from these same beautiful digital elements on both pay and free TV, none of this film–as in n-o-n-e of it–has been the beneficiary of proper photochemical film restoration and preservation in the same way that the Hal Roach library was, where fortunately we were able to spend millions provided by the copyright proprietor out of Munich in the Eastern Hemisphere for this purpose.

A Golden Couple; Grace Bradley and the love of her life, William Boyd

The worrying takeaway is this question: Where will funding arise to save and preserve most of the finest B-Westerns ever made in this genre’s long history? The genre which paid the bills for so many studios, for so long, maybe 70 years. Will Hopalong Cassidy return? Will the “Bar 20 ride again”? Or will the famed series legacy rot away and end in decayed “trail dust,” as is starting to occur with self-immolating chemical reactions ongoing right now, and, for that matter, across all nitrate film held everywhere?

If you have ever screened any of the same-named feature films, you will be concerned about the answers. A 4K scan and related electronic digital cleanup is not “film preservation,” unless the end product is transferred back onto polyester 35mm safety film stock. The DVDs and the telecasts look great, as of right now. Still, the key titles in the Hopalong Cassidy canon are in dire need of preservation for the long term; they are just as important, and just as worthy of saving, as any other motion picture in achieving a well-rounded representation of our cultural film heritage. Anyone who lived through the Hopalong Cassidy phenomenon of the 1950’s can attest to this.

But where, inside or outside the commercial film or institutional archival communities, will the necessary funding come from? And will it arrive in time? I made a point of carefully winding through all six reels of what appears to be a studio file print (and the only surviving 35mm nitrate material) on the first and finest entry in the series, Hop-along Cassidy (1935), beautifully shot in the scenic, rock-studded, tumbled terrain splendor of Lone Pine. Around the year 2000, the same nitrate from the original Paramount Pictures release (not the 1946 re-titled Goodwill Pictures reissue) was scanned for the DVD boxed set, and we are fortunate these elements remain in near-pristine quality today. But for how much longer?

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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