Phil Hall on “In Search of Lost Films”

insearchofWe at Cinema Crazed have had the pleasure of enlisting some truly gifted writers and movie fanatics, and Phil Hall is no exception. We’ve been very close friends with Phil for over ten years, and have followed his extensive work in film both far and wide. He’s worked in film festivals, helped bring very obscure cinematic gems to public attention once again, and has also garnered an immense insight in to the art of filmmaking over the years. His latest book “In Search of Lost Films” from BearManor Media explores the tragic history of how many films have been lost to time, and the rising tide of film preservation.

What inspired you to write “In Search of Lost Films”?
I have been writing about film history for three decades, and one of the most puzzling aspects of that pursuit is the large number of missing films in the careers of many artists on both sides of the camera. In recent years, many films that were considered to be irretrievably lost suddenly emerged, often in the least likely circumstances. After finishing my last book, “The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time,” I was in search of a new topic to pursue and I thought that a book on lost films would be a good idea. Also, the last truly great book on that topic was Frank Thompson’s 1996 book “Lost Films,” and so much has happened in the years since that was released.

In the early days of film, the medium was viewed movies as a novelty for making money and not art, what kinds of films were made available to watch?
The first major commercial film success was an 1897 film about the James J. Corbett-Bob Fitzsimmons boxing match. It ran 100 minutes and played in prestigious theatrical venues – and it attracted a lot of women, who were banned from attending boxing matches back in those days. Sadly, that film only exists today in fragments.

The early days of motion pictures had every imaginable genre: comedy, drama, newsreels, animation, Westerns—and even musical endeavors with primitive sound-on-disc experiments. There were no rules or restrictions back then, so anything that moved wound up on the screen.

For folks unaware, why did a lot of Hollywood productions shoot films with nitrate film stock that could slowly disintegrate?
When projected, nitrate film offered a pristine visual presentation that was peerless. That is why movies became so popular so quickly. If you look at current prints of “The Great Train Robbery” or any of the old films of that era, that is not what they looked like when they were first screened—they were a sight to behold.

If properly preserved, nitrate film could have a very long shelf life—the main problem was that too few people took care in storage. Not only did prints and negatives disintegrate due to improper storage, but prints were known to catch on fire in projectors. There were also many fires at storage facilities where these materials were stored.

Who or what motivated the movement toward preserving cinema for posterity?
There was some degree of advocacy as early as the 1920s, but the main thrust for preservation began in the 1930s when the National Archives and New York’s Museum of Modern Art began collecting older films for archival deposit. Similar efforts took place in England, France and (incredibly) Nazi Germany during that period. By the 1950s, a serious move to restorative efforts began, due in large part to a renewed interest in cinema history among both film scholars and the general public.

Do you think Hollywood’s attitude toward the importance of film has improved over the last four decades?
There have been extraordinary efforts by the studios and institutions like the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the folks behind the Oscars), along with other nonprofits, to restore and preserve films that were at risk of disappearing forever.  However, preservation requires a great deal of money, which is often lacking in a nonprofit setting. And there are still many films that are still on a nitrate format that have yet to be safely transferred to the digital format. Time is not necessarily our ally in this effort, but a great deal of important work is ongoing.

Why has film just recently caught on as a form of art that needs preserving alongside literature and periodicals?
For too many years, the medium was never truly taken seriously, either by the public or the industry itself. The public was entertained by the movie stars and the big productions, and the industry loved the profits being generated, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a serious push was made by film scholars to view cinema as both an art form and as a chronicle of how society evolved over the 20th century.

Is there any lost film that was discovered that fascinates you the most?
The 1941 documentary “Kukan,” which won the first Academy Award for Best Documentary, was considered lost for many years. I wrote about the film in one of my earlier books, “The History of Independent Cinema.” But after that book was released, I was contacted by Hawaiian-based filmmaker Robin Lung that she located the last known extant print—it was in the possession of the family of the film’s director, Rey Scott. I was given the opportunity to see the film and it is extraordinary—it captures the Chinese fight against the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s in color (this was rare, as most documentaries of the era were in black-and-white), and it was uncommonly sensitive to the ethnic and religious diversity of China. The film is now in the process of being restored, and I am eager for others to witness its greatness.

If there is one lost film you could watch in full, which film would it be and why?
I might get some groans for saying this, but I wish that I could see the four-hour-and-one-minute director’s cut of Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” The only ones that saw this version were the United Artists executives that forced Kramer to dramatically cut the footage down for a commercial presentation. It is one of the most deliriously funny films ever made, and I wish I could see what happy madness was captured by Kramer in its extra-extra-long version.

Do you think film can be preserved longer in digital form or hard copy form despite constantly changing formats?
Going forward, I don’t think the problem will be preservation so much as viewing films on new formats. We always have the problem of new technologies becoming obsolete after a period of time. In the theaters, we don’t have CinemaScope or Cinerama or Todd-AO anymore, and at home we no longer have films released on 8mm or laserdisc or VHS video formats. And digital formats are not immune to problems, even though they were originally presented as being perfect.

Do you think the new generation of film buffs will work on preserving films and discovering potentially lost films?
Only those that love film history and are serious about pursuing the subject. I find it distressing that so many young people know nothing about film history. A couple of years ago, I was in an office and I tried to tell a story to a pair of people in their early twenties regarding my friend Paul Wunder’s encounter with Robert Mitchum at a press junket for the David Lean epic “Ryan’s Daughter.” I had to stop telling the story because neither of these young people ever heard of Robert Mitchum, David Lean or “Ryan’s Daughter.”

Why do you think some of these once thought lost films have been discovered at yard sales and rummage sales?
I assume that the people selling the films either had no way to screen the films anymore—very few people retain projectors at home—or were unaware of what they had in their possession. These are happy accidents, and a surprisingly large number of lost films have been recovered this way.

Do you think there are other forms of media that we’ll begin preserving for future generations?
A lot of the Internet culture has vanished before our eyes because pioneering websites have gone offline. For example, I had the great privilege of working with The Sync, a pioneering webcasting site. The Sync presented the first contemporary feature film for real-time Net viewing in 1999 with Erica Jordan’s “Walls of Sand,” and it also had a reality program starring Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam fame. Sadly, The Sync went offline during the dot-com bubble crash and most people today are unaware of its importance to the development of webcasting. And JenniCam disappeared after the lovely Ms. Ringley wanted her life back. “Walls of Sand” has yet to be transferred to a digital format, and I would love to see it back in circulation because it is a beautiful production.

Do you think the quote still rings true that movies are like books, that they have their moment, lose their appeal, and completely escape the public’s memory?
There is always the possibility that older works and forgotten talent will be rediscovered by the next generation. The silent comedy stars of the 1910s and 1920s were mostly ignored until James Agee’s groundbreaking Life Magazine essay in 1949, and TV reruns helped bring new appreciation to Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges during the 1950s. Oscar Micheaux’s work was rediscovered in the 1970s, and more recently there have been efforts to highlight the long-forgotten work of women directors in the silent film era. A DVD of the works of the long-forgotten silent film star Marcel Perez was released, which helped to save him from obscurity.

With the ease of the ability to make movies and the large variety of films in the modern age, will film societies become selective in preserving works of film? If not, do you think they should be?
Preservation is predicated in having the rights to the work being restored. Production companies and smaller distributors have a tendency to go out of business, so this becomes complicated regarding who owns the rights to certain works. There are facilities where scores of film material are laying unclaimed because no one is certain who has the rights to the work.

What other books are you working on and what other topics of film would you like to cover in the future?
I am not working on any books at the moment, although I can be seen discussing the history of the aforementioned “Kukan” in Robin Lung’s upcoming documentary “Finding Kukan,” which is being positioned for release in 2017.

I had a lengthy segment on the rise of cult films in the Tom Seymour film “VHS Massacre,” now in release from Troma (yes, they are still around), but that segment was cut out—which was a major mistake, as the finished film wound up getting its facts wrong in tracing the rise of cult movies. If there is one thing that is worst than being ignorant about history, it is recklessly presenting history in an incorrect manner. Still, my segment was preserved for the special editions section of the film’s Blu-ray release, so I am spared from becoming among the missing in the world of lost films!