Randy Gitsch, Operations Manager, PRO-TEK
I recently had a surprise while working on one of our client’s still image collections. Going through a series of boxes of Hollywood studio photography, preparing select titles for our PRO-TEK crew to inventory, archivally re-sleeve, scan and QC, I came across a box of 8”x10” negatives with no referenced motion picture title on it. This box was unmarked except for the picture code, “ML-8”. Unfortunately, our picture code reference didn’t include the code.
A look inside the box revealed a dozen brittle paper sleeves holding a variety of negatives on what I recognized by their overall appearance and feel to be nitrocellulose, or nitrate film stock. Nitrate was the mainstay of still photography through the early 1940’s, when flammability and susceptibility to decay led to its replacement by acetate “safety film”. Unfortunately, acetate is also prone to organically deteriorate over time.
While the margins of these negatives didn’t actually bear the word, “Nitrate”, I detected the sweet smell of nitrate decay in the box. Sure enough, a quick check revealed that some adjacent negatives had congealed and melded into each other.
Another negative, dry and intact on the emulsion side was having a base side interaction with the paper sleeve it was touching. It was gooey, often the first stage of nitrate deterioration that ends in turning the negative into nothing more than powdery dust
On one of the paper sleeves, was a hand-written scrawl, “Give The Enchantress”. I could find no record of any film by that title. One other sleeve was marked, “Circe”. After a little research, I realized that these photos must be from the 1924 motion picture, “CIRCE, THE ENCHANTRESS”, a bona fide lost film -which means that no known copies of this silent era motion picture are now known to exist. Because all 1924 films were photographed on unstable nitrate film stock it’s very likely that this film was lost in a disastrous studio vault fire in 1967.
With my gloves on, I gently placed one of the stable negatives on a light box, which revealed, sure enough, “The girl with the bee -stung lips and butterfly gestures”. At only 5’3”, the petite actress also known as “Miss Itsy-Poo of 1922”, was none other than Mae Murray, one of the silent cinemas first superstars. Mae’s talented director husband at the time, Robert Z. Leonard, produced and directed this motion picture. Hence, the “ML-8. This was Murray and Leonard’s 8th collaboration under their Tiffany Production banner. It was released on Oct. 6, 1924 by Metro-Goldwyn, just before Louis B. Mayer rejoined Metro, the studio he originally founded, adding another hyphen and his name to the concern.
Mae Murray had gotten her start as a dancer growing up in New York City. After stints with the Ziegfeld Follies she moved westward to break into the movies. With big, blonde hair, and accentuated, “bee-stung” red lips, her loud appearance matched her over-the-top gestures and flamboyant lifestyle. She danced her way through 33 motion pictures before making “CIRCE, THE ENCHANTRESS”. After its’ completion, she starred in her biggest screen hit, “THE MERRY WIDOW” (1925). By 1931 however, her film career would be over, a victim of “the talkies” and changing tastes. Here in these negatives, Mae Murray still reigns as a star, as big as she was in the Roaring ‘20’s.
As much as 90% of the motion pictures that were shot on decomposition prone nitrate film from the silent era may be lost. However their scripts, advertising art and attendant still photography, like the negatives I found for “CIRCE, THE ENCHANTRESS”, may still exist. These artifacts give us clues to their unique contribution to film history and the transformative power of the silent motion picture.
Another lost film, one highly publicized due to Lon Chaney’s starring role, was M-G-M’s silent picture from 1927, “LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT”. It was recreated in 2002 when Turner Classic Movies broadcast filmmaker Rick Schmidlin’s homage representation of the movie made from existing still photography. In that assembly, Schmidlin used the films archived cutting continuity script as his guide. Along with extant inter-titles he set them to a new score by Robert Israel.
Similarly, another use of surviving still photography has been to bridge gaps in feature films that have been cut since their original release, for which the excised footage has since been destroyed. “GREED” (1924) and “A STAR IS BORN” (1954) have both charmed audiences anew after being revisited this way.
Upon this discovery, I immediately segregated these nitrate images from safety film holdings in our work area. Our PRO-TEK technicians then proceeded to process these precious negatives. They will now be sent to a dedicated deposit facility for nitrate assets, safely archived in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment. The image that was sticky on its’ base side proved still scan able. After image capture, it and the congealed images that were beyond scanning, will be destroyed in accordance with Federal Standards for the disposal of nitrate film.
While we can only hope that one day, some rusty film cans may reveal the original motion picture inside them, we now have 57 still images from ‘CIRCE, THE ENCHANTRESS” resting in the digital realm, where their creative life and distribution can far exceed the limitations of their existence on nitrate film.
Randy Gitsch is the Operations Manager for PRO-TEK’s Still Archive operations. With a workforce in place on site at one client’s locale and working on select images from other studios under PRO-TEK’s own roof, he oversees the inventory, archival re-sleeving, re-housing, scanning and QC of Hollywood’s priceless legacy, analog photography.
All Photos by Michael J. Cahill / 35mm Films © 2014