There was a reason movies were once poetically referred to as the silver screen. Audiences were enchanted with images that looked as if they’d been etched in liquid silver. Directors worked with cinematographers to paint the screen in light and shadows. Their brush was a movie camera loaded with celluloid film and they created stunning images with a look of argent fluidity that can’t be duplicated today; unfortunately, there was a tragic side to their artistry. Like the oleander plant whose flower has a dulcet fragrance and pleasing to the eye yet is poisonous in the extreme, the film stock used from the 1880 to 1953 created stunning images in shades of pewter, black and white that greatly enhanced the movie going experience; unfortunately, the film was dangerous. The medium that made up the film stock base was nitrate, a combustible compound used in guncotton and some types of dynamite. Nitrate stock was not only inflammable if exposed to heat or a direct flame, it had the potential to spontaneously combust.
Film projectionists and negative cutters quickly became aware of the perils of working with nitrate. Projection booth fires like the one dramatized in the Italian classic, Cinema Paradiso, were commonplace in picture palaces across the globe. In the early days of film, movie theatres were often slap-dash affairs and projectionists were often ignorant about the inherent dangers of handling nitrate film. An errant cigarette, improper storage or even an overheated light bulb as the film passed through a projector’s film-gate could cause a conflagration. Several incidents of resulted in audience deaths from fire, smoke inhalation or being crushed by the stampede of people fleeing the theater. In his book, Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States, film historian Anthony Slide details a number of horrific episodes involving nitrate stock in places other than theaters - film exchanges, schools and conflations started while screening home movies. Undoubtedly, the most infamous case of a nitrate fire catastrophe occurred in Quebec in January of 1927. A small fire in the projection booth at the Laurier Palace Cinema in Montreal caused pandemonium. Seventy-seven children died in the ensuing chaos either from suffocation or by being crushed by the panicked crowd. The tragedy led Quebec to a prohibition on children under sixteen from being allowed in cinemas, a law that stayed in effect until 1967.
Once nitrate film stock started burning, there was no way to stop it. Water, sand and foam were useless since nitrate supplies its own oxygen and burns with abandon; submerging the reel in water was no help since it burns under water. After numerous accidents, fire departments in larger cities mandated that projection booths be constructed of concrete and steel. Wooden furniture was strictly verboten and no one other than the projectionist was allowed in the booth. Safety doors were installed so that in the event of a nitrate fire, only the poor projectionist would be incinerated.
In the early years of film, movie studios had no way of knowing that as the nitrate stock decayed, it transformed from glossy celluloid into a foul-smelling gooey substance that dried into a brown powder that intensified the likelihood of auto-ignition. Nitrate films were used in the war effort during W.W.I. Because of its volatility, recycled stock could be transformed into explosives and many films shot before 1917 were lost. Studio heads were negligent in preserving the original negatives of their films in film libraries. Prior to television, VHS and DVDs, movies were a disposable commodity to be tossed in the garbage like a week-old casserole. Films would have an initial release then possibly a second, third and sometimes, a fourth. The print would pick up more battle scares with each successive screening and eventually would be destroyed to reclaim its silver content. Some films were simply dumped in the ocean, forgotten in trash heaps or even tossed into an abandoned Yukon swimming pool. There were fatal nitrate fires in MGM's storage areas in 1955 and 1960. Those conflagrations finally led the Culver City Fire Department to order MGM to purge their lot of nitrate films. 1978 was the annus horribilis for film archivists and made many question if nitrate stock could be stored safely. The United States National Archives and Records Administration and George Eastman House both suffered devastating losses when their film vaults self-immolated. Three hundred twenty nine original negatives stored at the Eastman House were destroyed, while the National Archives lost millions of feet of newsreel footage.
The clock continues ticking on the fate of thousands of films. Negatives and prints of countless movies have either been destroyed or have disappeared and not just those of standard studio programmers; the original negative of classic, Citizen Kane, perished years ago and more are in peril. Film archivists are working at feverishly to transfer films into non-nitrate copies. Their efforts have not yet caught up with the digital age yet and the copies are still made from of cellulose. Everyone involved in film preservation is in a race to prevent more treasures from the earlier years of filmmaking from vanishing. Film preservationists estimate that 85% or more of films made prior to the advent of sound are gone, though not forgotten.
Two authoritative books on the subject of nitrate films are Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States written by film historian and archivist, Anthony Slide, and This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, a compendium of articles and essays on nitrate film and its dangers edited by Roger Smither, Catherine A. Surowiec et al.
preservation/preservation- UCLA is one of the leaders in film preservation and storage of nitrate films.
e.htmThis is a link to Leonard Maltin’s article which was originally published by In Focus Magazine in 1996 and details the efforts to preserve nitrate films in Dayton, Ohio.
- www.filmpreservation.org - Excellent resource for any student of film interested in preservation
- www.filmreference.com - Great resource for cinemaphiles.
- www.pictureshowman.com - Another site dedicated to Hollywood’s Golden Years with interesting information on nitrate films.
- www.fiafnet.org/uk - The official site of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).