cover image Our Movie Heritage

Our Movie Heritage

Tom McGreevey. Rutgers University Press, $45 (200pp) ISBN 978-0-8135-2431-3

Of the 21,000 American features made before 1950, less than half survived. In part it's because the cellulose-nitrate film stock that dominated moviemaking prior to the 1950s was unstable. It was also flammable, which made storage expensive and potentially dangerous, so studios routinely destroyed films. But all film deteriorates, and in their second book (after Movie Westerns) this husband-and-wife team make an impassioned plea for preserving a uniquely American legacy. Leading archives, like the Museum of Modern Art, Rochester's George Eastman House, the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which together house some 224,000 film titles (far more than those held by the motion picture studios) are in a race against time. The authors' guided tour through these vaults leads to a look at lost films discovered: The Uhl Collection was a 1987 find--500 cans of deteriorating nitrate film stored in a Michigan barn for 50 years. Richard III (1912), the oldest existing complete American feature, was a 1996 donation to the AFI by 77-year-old Portland projectionist Bill Buffum. This well-researched, informative book spans the work of both archive founders and technical specialists; it also explores the lifelong contributions of the late William K. Everson and other film collectors as well as the ongoing efforts at major studios: for example, for the computerized clean-up of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 100 artists worked 18 weeks on 119,550 individual film frames at a cost of millions. This is a thorough and entertaining overview, filled with people, institutions, 138 photos and most of all with a very real enthusiasm for the subject. (Sept.)