My Nitrate Memory

I admit it. I had never even heard of nitrate film, much less seen it or inspected it or seen it projected until I became a student in The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation in 1998. And when nitrate and Idid meet, it was indeed memorable.

In our first semester, Kevin Brownlow came to lecture at theschool and to do some research. One of the items he came across was the nitrate negatives (original and duplicate) for The Big Parade (King Vidor, US 1925). My classmates and I, twelve in all, were given our first experience at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center inspecting those negatives on back-to-back horizontal rewind benches. Oh, I should mention, that this was in 1998, a year before the center was upgraded and six new vaults were added. The inspection room – what is now the holding room – is set for 50 degrees Fahrenheit and there we all were, taking turns weekly, bundled up in coats and sweaters, hats and boots, sitting for hours, reeling slowly through the negatives, making notes of any damage or decay and freezing our noses off. I ran through a lot of Kleenex that week. The experience was a revelation: I learned about nitrate decomposition, weak splices, edge damage, base shrinkage, warping, and the difference between a silent full camera aperture and a sound negative. My rotation partner was Deborah Stoiber who was a projectionist and had lots of experience handling film. She was the hare who hated the cold (Deb’s from sunny California) and I was the tortoise from Rochester, resigned to living in cold climes. It was tough getting in sync, but we managed. Deborah was not enamored of nitrate inspection – then. Now she runs the place and is known in archival circles as an expert on nitrate film! It is satisfying to know that all of our work was critical, as The Big Parade has now been restored in both its original 1925 silent release and its 1931 re-issue with an added musical soundtrack.

I enjoyed the nitrate so much - the hand-tinted prints reminded me of stained glass windows - that I did my final student project on a large collection of nitrate negatives and prints. I inspected 44 reels and every single one seemed to have decomposition issues. The final reels that I worked on were the negative for the silent version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Charles Brabin, US 1929). They were in very poor condition, but thankfully there is good safety stock material on this title, because as of this writing, those beautiful negatives have completely decomposed. Every once in a while I go out and visit Deb and inspect a reel or two or three - just to feel the nitrate!

Caroline Yeager
Assistant Curator
Moving Image Department
George Eastman House