The Race to Save 100 Years (1997)

This entry is part of the For the Love of Film blogathon to support the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so here.

“EVERYTHING WE ARE DOING NOW MEANS NOTHING!” This was Martin Scorsese’s calm, cool, collected way of alerting his colleagues in filmmaking that bolder, faster steps needed to be taken in the area of film preservation. We see that memo, and hear Scorsese talk about it, in 1997’s The Race to Save 100 Years, a 57-minute program produced for television by Turner Entertainment. We also learn that Scorsese’s decision to shoot Raging Bull in black and white wasn’t entirely an aesthetic homage to such classic boxing pictures as Body and Soul; he was horrified by the epidemic fading of color movies, and he wanted Raging Bull out of the crosshairs of time. (He also drops an interesting anecdote about Star Wars: it seems George Lucas planned the color scheme of the film around the inevitability that it would fade.)

The cynical way to look at The Race to Save 100 Years is that it’s an hour-long commercial for Ted Turner and his wonderful efforts to keep films like Gone with the Wind from decaying into dust. This is the same Ted Turner, after all, who earned the sobriquet Crayola Ted for his brief dabbling in colorization in the ’80s. “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayolas away from my movie,” Orson Welles reportedly said, since Citizen Kane was now owned by Turner. (As it happened, Welles’ contract with RKO blocked Turner’s Crayolas anyway.) Yeah, so it was a crap idea, but Turner has also been instrumental in film preservation, if only by leading by example. This film, a sort of Preservation 101 for casual viewers who don’t understand that a lot of work and money goes into restoring the classics they enjoy on DVD, gives some hope that everything Scorsese and every other director is doing now means something. (Well, maybe not Uwe Boll.)

Again and again in the program, we hear that long-lost elements of a particular film were found in some Czech Republic archive, or elsewhere overseas. That’s because studios used to whip film prints like mules, playing them in American theaters until they simply fell apart. In other countries, they got much less wear and tear. You never know where films will turn up; the most hilarious example, to me, is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc being discovered in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. And MIA sections of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were recently found in, of all places, Argentina. I think many film geeks harbor the fantasy of perusing some estate sale or looking around in a long-abandoned theater and unearthing London After Midnight or the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons. Of course, once found, there’s no guarantee it would be watchable or even salvageable.

We hear that 85% of all American silent films are considered lost today. Want to see Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle? Sorry, you can’t. How about Emil Jannings’ Oscar-winning performance in The Way of All Flesh? Tough luck, it’s gone. 1913’s The Werewolf, the first werewolf film? A fire claimed it in 1924. I imagine that the advent of television, which convinced studios that old films now had another venue to generate profit, played a big role in the growing realization that movies were worth saving. But the battle isn’t limited to creaky old flickering celluloid. The famous story about Jaws is that Steven Spielberg went back to look at the original master in the ’90s and was shocked by how badly the print had degenerated in only fifteen years.

Today, of course, every new movie from the great to the not-even-close-to-good gets digitally preserved. When this program first aired in 1997, the DVD format had only been around for a few months; movies had previously been “remastered” for videocassette, but DVD created and met a demand for high-quality picture and sound, and putting out a disc whose transfer looked like the flick had been in your grandpa’s attic for fifty years just wasn’t going to cut it. Criterion stepped up in a big way, as did Kino and such purveyors of grindhouse fare as Blue Underground, Synapse, and Dark Sky, making grungy old exploitation pictures look better than they ever had in fleapit 42nd-Street theaters or on drive-in screens.

Every month seems to bring more and more classics given a new polish for DVD and, increasingly, Blu-ray. We may be trending towards on-demand streaming video, but those films still have to look good on the HD televisions everyone will probably have by the end of this decade. Any home-video format needs content to feed it, and eventually people will get tired of what contemporary Hollywood has to offer and look to the past. Preservation will continue to make not only historical and aesthetic sense but financial sense as long as people continue to sit in front of moving, talking images to be told a story.

Explore posts in the same categories: documentary

6 Comments on “The Race to Save 100 Years (1997)”

  1. Joe Thompson Says:

    Thank you for the thoughts on preservation. I remember when Scorsese decided to use b&w for Raging Bull. It made sense in a time when even recent television reruns showed strange color shifts. Speaking as an IT person (information technology, not Clara Bow-related), I can say that digital formats are going to run into many problems, as they become obsolete at an increasingly rapid rate.

  2. Kendra Says:

    And the Blu-ray print of Gone with the Wind looks spectacular.

    Great post!

  3. The Siren Says:

    This was a good documentary–a primer, as you say. As a kid I learned so much about preservation from GWTW and a book called “Scarlett Fever.” For all that it was the box-office champ, that film suffered every indignity in the book, including a terrible attempt to release it in widescreen that cropped a huge chunk off the bottom of the image. And in the 60s there were sporadic fadings in a number of the prints too.

  4. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for it. I can always use a primer. Can you believe that I’d almost forgotten the days ofr colorization? Not a memory I like to relive, but good to revive “lest we forget”……

  5. Richard P. May Says:

    Thanks for this article. Actually, THE RACE TO SAVE 100 YEARS started out as a short subject to be run at the Turner Entertainment Distribution Services offices near Culver City CA at the end of the many requests we had to tour the facility. Once started, it grew to close to an hour.
    As can be seen in viewing it, many people and many non-Turner related studios cooperated in supplying the over 200 film clips.
    I’m gratified to see that 13 years later it still holds interest.

    Dick May (one of its Executive Producers, and ex-VP of Preservation for Turner)

  6. […] (Happy Presidents Day, everyone) Rob Gonsalves takes on Martin Scorsese’s Preservation 101 lesson The Race to Save 100 Years (1997) at Rob’s Movie Vault. Imagine Scorsese choosing to make Raging Bull in B&W because he […]

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