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US Library of Congress Works to Preserve Motion Picture History

  • Tim Wardner

It's been 110 years since motion pictures were first projected. Some of the early films, and others of note, are being collected and cared for so future generations can see this history.

This short length of film is the first attempt to synchronize sound with projected moving image. It was made in 1895 at Thomas Edison's workshop and shows some of his engineers playing a violin and dancing. This valuable piece of history could have been lost, but was restored and is now preserved in the Library of Congress by its National Film Registry, a program that protects artifacts from American film history.

"There are many reason why a title may be placed on the Registry, but most important is that it has been important to the American people in the 100 year history of film," says Gregory Lukow, who is head of the film Division at the Library..

Movies are a cultural reference point in America. They form a common experience, a shared understanding that also can cross international boundaries. The National Film Registry now designates 400 films for preservation with more added each year. The choices are not always obvious.

"It's not just the best of Hollywood, it's not the Academy Awards, or the Peoples Choice or the Golden Globes. It represents other niches and crannies of film making that have been important to the country but haven't stood in the glare of the spotlight," said Mr. Lukow.

Some of the Registry's films have little commercial value and therefore no one else to make sure they are preserved.

"There is a whole category of what we call 'orphan films', the films that don't necessarily have a rights holder, no one to protect them. The saddest era is the era of silent films, 70% to 80 % of silent films no longer exist in any form," said Mr. Lukow.

The Film Registry restored and preserves this 1909 special effects gem called Princess Nicotine. Its shows early special effects tricks like stop motion animation and double exposure. At only 5 minutes in length, Princess Nicotine is a novelty in today's entertainment world but it shows where today's special effects originated.

"Where the film, years ago, might not have been stored in the proper conditions and so the acetate within it starts to debase and break down."

Steve Leggett also works with film at the Library of Congress, and deals with the physical aspects of film preservation.

"Films before 1950, there's another problem, they were made on nitrate film stock which is very flammable. So in a lot of cases that has deteriorated beyond recognition. After 1950 films sometimes start smelling like vinegar and curl up. And then again, that's another problem," says Steve Leggett.

It's not just a question of preserving negatives, sometimes whole segments are gone. The restoration of this 1930 film about the First World War, called All Quiet on the Western Front, required an international search for missing parts.

"It's an international hunt. The Library of Congress has worked with other archives to coordinate major international repatriations of large groups of lost American films from the silent era and beyond that no longer existed in the United States anywhere but have survived over the decades in places like Czechoslovakia or Australia or New Zealand or the Netherlands. In some cases these countries were at the end of the global distribution chain and once they reached there, there was no incentive to pay to send them back, so they stayed there," says Gregory Lukow.

The movies are one of America's most important exports, and a vivid expression of its culture.

"It's the way we communicate with each other. It's a way we share our culture with each other. But mostly it has become a collective history," says Gregory Lukow.

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