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Lost Film and Little Orphant Annie

Disintegrating Nitrate Film

Very early silent movies were all filmed on a cellulose nitrate film base or celluloid - which is a compound of nitrocellulose and camphor. In fact, all movies made before the 1950's and the invention of "safety film" were photographed on this type of media. This includes such classics as, "Gone with the Wind," "Casablanca," and "The Wizard of Oz."

This film is highly flammable and self explodes in temperatures over 300 degrees Fahrenheit (think of a hot car in the sun). For this reason, a projection room was created in movie houses to protect the public from possible fires. The combination of a white hot projector bulb and a flammable film - caused many fires. If celluloid combusts, the fire generates its own oxygen, creating a flame which cannot be extinguished. It can burn underwater. It can burn beneath a fire blanket. It burns until the celluloid is gone, and any attempt to smother it creates clouds of poison gas.

Almost every major studio has had a vault fire. A 1922 electrical fire burned Universal's film storage unit. A hot New Jersey summer was enough to fry every movie made by Fox before 1937. In 1965, the storage sheds at MGM exploded. All in all, there have been at least 15 major archive fires.

But this isn't the only problem with celluloid.

Unfortunately, the film deteriorates over time - if not kept in temperature and humidity controlled conditions. As the celluloid ages, the camphor molecules are ‘squeezed’ out of the film due to the unsustainable pressure used in the production. That pressure causes the nitrocellulose molecules to bind back to each other or crystallize. Also in older films, the camphor molecules can go right from a solid to a gas at room temperature, leaving the plastic a very brittle nitrocellulose. For this reason, many films need to be kept in cold or cool conditions. Exposure to excessive moisture can accelerate deterioration of nitrocellulose into a goo of nitric acid. The films must also be protected from ultraviolet light as the celluloid absorbs ultraviolet light well. The absorbed light leads to chain-breakage and stiffening. Due to improper storage methods, many celluloid film reels have been found to be melted into an unrecognizable solid block, broken into little bitty pieces, or crumbled into dust - especially after decades in storage. However, this isn't the only problem that plagued celluloid films. As time went on - vault space for films became an issue. Some studios recycled the celluloid for their silver content while other studios simply junked them. This was especially true for the silent movies - which were deemed to have no market value after the advent of talking pictures. Conservative estimates indicate that over one half of the 20th Century Hollywood films do not survive to present day. For silent era films, it is even worse - more than 75% of those films are lost. A recent study by the Library of Congress showed that only 14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format. This is according to the report, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality. If you have read my blog before, you know that James Whitcomb Riley's poem, "Little Orphant Annie" was made into a silent movie in 1918. It starred a very young Colleen Moore (which if you have ever been to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry you can see her Fairy Castle). This film was produced by the Selig Polyscope Company, which was originally located in Chicago. However, by the time of the Orphant Annie film the company had moved out to California.

Scene from the 1918 Silent Movie, "LIttle Orphant Annie."

This film was to be in a series of films based on Riley's poems. However, by the time of the release of the Orphant Annie movie, Riley had passed away. Luckily, there was early footage taken of the Hoosier Poet in front of the Holstein Home on Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis (his primary residence). This early footage would be used in the Orphant Annie movie - where Riley would act as narrator. This film would help launch the career of Moore. Moore had alrerady appeared in one Riley related film, "A Hoosier Romance." "Little Orphant Annie" was seen by Moore as an opportunity to become the "Riley Girl" - as future film rights for other movies based on Riley's works had already been secured. Little Orphant Annie was released in December 1918, and proved to be a very a popular film. In a Chicago Daily Tribune “Right off the Reel” column from January 12th, the writer "Mae Tinee" (“matinee”) reported “Colleen Moore will divide honors with Thomas Santschi in Little Orphant Annie. She was a lovely and unspoiled child the last time I saw her. Let’s hope commendation hasn’t turned her head.”

Moore had been well on her way to cornering the “sweet and unspoiled” market. This worked well for her: she was an eighteen year old passing as fifteen, and the wholesome, heartbreaking roles she was being given helped project that image. This image would drastically change by the time of the launch of one of her most famous roles in "Flaming Youth," 1923. In this role Moore portrayed a flapper - an icon of the jazz age. She famously bobbed her hair - and the style became fashionable the world over. This role would officially mark Colleen Moore as a Hollywood star.

Moore would go on to make several other films before she retired from films in 1934. Ten years later, Moore would donate fifteen pristine copies of her films, including "Flaming Youth" and "Little Oprhant Annie" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection joined the seventeen million feet of film in MoMA’s possession. Later, MoMA returned prints of her Warner Bros. films to the studio upon their request, but her First National films remained in the collection. Ultimately, they were set aside forgotten and unprotected. Many years later, Moore inquired about her collection and MOMA found the films languishing. When the films were examined, they had decomposed past the point of preservation. Heartbroken, she tried in vain to retrieve any prints she could from several sources without much success.

For this reason, the current project of preserving one of the remaining copies of "Little Orphant Annie" by an Indianapolis film preservationist, Eric Grayson is so very important. I have posted earlier on here about Grayson work, and he has kept me apprised of his progress. Hopefully, he will have something soon to show for his work - which is a very time consuming and tedious process.

To keep updated on this progress - please like my Orphan Annie's Author's Facebook page - as I will post information there. As I find out more about Grayson project - I will try to also write more here - in my "not so free" time.


On Nitrate film

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