The Race is On: Animation Preservation in 1998 and Beyond

by J.B. Kaufman

As we turn the corner from 1998 into 1999, what is the state of animation preservation -- and what is the outlook for the future? From leading voices in the archival community, the answer is one of cautious optimism.

Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai. Photo courtesy of George Eastman House.

"I'm happy to say that the concern for lost animated films is growing exponentially," says Paolo Cherchi Usai of George Eastman House, "so animation, together with comedy, is not the pariah of film archives any longer." His words are echoed by other preservationists. The traditional enemies of film archives -- the inexorable advance of nitrate deterioration, and the spiraling costs of preservation -- are still very much to be reckoned with, but more and more attention is being focused on rescuing our animation heritage before it is too late.

U.S. Companies and Archives
Surprisingly, some of that attention is coming from the private sector. Perhaps the best publicized animation preservation event of 1998 was the Disney company's reclamation of Little Red Riding Hood, Walt Disney's first narrative film, produced in Kansas City in 1921-22. (The publicity was in fact somewhat surprising, considering that the whereabouts of the surviving print had been widely known for at least six years!) Relying on the considerable talents of its Library Restoration officer, Scott MacQueen, the Disney company has begun to show a commendable interest in its own silent films, generating newly restored prints of some thirty Alice Comedies -- more than half the total produced between 1923 and 1927 -- and exhibiting them on the Disney Channel.

Disney's Alice's Spanish Guitar (1926), one of 1998's surprise discoveries, was recently restored by George Eastman House. Photo courtesy of George Eastman House.

Meanwhile, George Eastman House likewise made news in 1998 with a Disney find of its own: Alice's Spanish Guitar (1926), long considered a lost film. This was exciting partly because, as Cherchi Usai notes, "In this case the nitrate print we found was in extraordinarily good condition. It included the original leader and was a first-generation print." Eastman House's increased interest in animation has coincided happily with its launching of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, a magnet for budding preservationists. One student of the School devoted a considerable part of the 1997-98 year to compiling an inventory of Eastman House's own animation holdings. "We are finding much, much more than we thought," says Cherchi Usai, "so one year of work was not enough to complete the inventory. This means that both on the identification and the preservation front, there is a lot to be looked at, and perhaps a lot to be preserved." Specialists in animation of the silent period, the area in which Eastman House focuses, are invited to contribute to the research.

One of the brightest hopes for animation is the Animation Preservation Project, an entity that combines the efforts of ASIFA-Hollywood and the UCLA Film Archives to raise money specifically for the preservation of animated films. Project director Jere Guldin feels that, to date, the resulting list of roughly two dozen preserved films is "not much in the scheme of things, yet at the same time it's something significant because, I'd say, thirty to forty thousand dollars, at least, has been raised." Officially launched in 1991, the Project has continued to gain momentum in recent years. The year 1998 has seen a number of stellar additions to the Project's list of credits, among them several Fleischer films of the 1920s and `30s -- including an extremely rare 1926 entry from the "Marvels of Motion" series -- and Baron Bragg and the Devilish Dragon, produced in 1922 by pioneer silhouette animator Tony Sarg. The Project's web site -- offering individual browsers the opportunity to "Adopt-A-Cartoon" -- can be reached via ASIFA-Hollywood's home page through Animation World Network's Animation Village.

Tony Sarg's Old King Cole (1926).
Photo courtesy UCLA Film Archives.

One of the restored Fleischer films serves to illustrate the Animation Preservation Project's attention to detail: Betty Boop's Penthouse (1933). Why preserve a film that is already widely available on video? Because this is the complete film. When the Betty Boops were sold to television in the 1950s, the new owners cut the original main and end titles out of the original negatives -- an action which probably seemed justifiable at the time -- and substituted their own logo. Restoring the original titles has been generally impossible because nitrate prints, Guldin reports, "are just scarce as hen's teeth; they're just not around." But nitrate negatives of Betty Boop's Penthouse were made available to the Project, and the film has now been preserved in its original form.

The European Effort
Other notable preservation projects in 1998 came from the European film community. Lobster Film, a small independent company in Paris, publicly exhibited two Disney restorations of its own: the previously "lost" Alice's Little Parade (1926) and a complete version of Alice Gets Stung (1925). Plus, the year reportedly saw completion of the Italian National Film Archive's project to restore the feature-length La Rosa di Bagdad (1949). This film, the first Italian animated feature, had previously been seen in incomplete circulating versions, and was restored from Technicolor negatives donated to the Archive by the producer's daughter.

As the new year dawns, it brings with it the promise of more rescued animation. The Animation Preservation Project continues to strengthen its ties with both corporate and private donors, generating funds which are earmarked for specific titles. Some of those titles have yet to be determined and some cannot be announced yet, but the list includes Mr. Strauss Takes a Walk, an outstanding entry in George Pal's Puppetoon series, to be preserved from the only known surviving 35mm picture material. Ub Iwerks' 1934 Willie Whopper cartoon The Cave Man is another possibility, and there will almost certainly be more Fleischer films.

SIIARA's restored title card for Halas and Batchelor's Animal Farm, Britain's first-ever animated feature released in 1954. Photo courtesy of SIIARA.

From England comes the report that SIIARA's long-awaited restoration of Halas and Batchelor's Animal Farm, incomplete as of this writing, is to be completed by early 1999. Top-quality prints of this important feature will thus be available for the first time since its original release in 1954.

A Cry for Expansion
So, the healthy trend continues. Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely! All these activities, however encouraging, are merely a drop in a very large bucket. The real responsibility for preserving copyrighted animated films should rest with the companies that own them. Some companies have shouldered that responsibility, but the average corporate response to the needs of preservation ranges from disinterest to outright hostility. As a result, vast quantities of precious animated films are slowly disappearing. Animator and animation historian Mark Kausler has compiled a lengthy list of lost or endangered cartoons which reveals alarming gaps. Some of them are simply oddities: for example, the entire 1931 output of Terrytoons seems to have disappeared altogether. "Nobody seems to know if they're preserved or not," says Kausler. Great numbers of Columbia cartoons are also at risk, as are many of those by Van Beuren, Universal and -- despite all efforts -- the Fleischer studio. In addition, some of the titles most earnestly sought today, such as wartime propaganda cartoons, are the ones for which the least preservation effort has been made.

Now that Disney has taken the lead, it is devoutly hoped that other companies will follow their example and take steps to preserve their own animation history. Meanwhile, the public archives need help; their best efforts are salvaging only a fraction of the animated films languishing in preservation limbo. One example is the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, one of the world's most distinguished film archives, which has already catalogued and preserved an impressive list of animated films. In the early 1970s a collection of roughly 300 camera negatives of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, with corresponding soundtracks, was deposited with the Library. These are SENs (successive-exposure negatives), which represent a priceless resource for the preservationist. To date, nearly three decades later, funding has been found to preserve only about a dozen of them.

So it is with a mixture of hope and fear that we approach the millennium. The clock is ticking...

J.B. Kaufman is an independent film historian who has written extensively on early Disney animation. He is co-author, with Russell Merritt, of Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney, and the two are completing a second book on Disney's Silly Symphonies.

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