My Top 13 Films That Need Preservation

Find out more on the Film Preservation Blogathon here.  Donate here.  The host blogs are Marilyn Ferdinand’s and Rod Heath’s.

I read about this blogathon with some interest.  They’re raising funds for preserving and distributing The White Shadow (1923).  This is a worthy project, since it’s one of those films that won’t be preserved by normal methods.  We only have the first half of this film that Alfred Hitchcock co-directed.  It isn’t really a Hitchcock film, and it isn’t complete, and Hitchcock remembered it as not being very good.

Exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see!  Why?  Because it will show just how Hitchcock developed as a director, and I love the work of some of the actors (especially Clive Brook) in the picture.

And since it’s not really terribly historically important, and incomplete, it will get shoved on everyone’s back burner.  Again, that makes it the film I want to see.

I’ve been reading over the blogs on the blogathon so far, and there are quite a lot of them about Hitchcock and Hitchcock-related films.  It got me thinking how I could contribute in my generally contrarian way, not really talking too much about Hitchcock, which I think is being covered adequately by others.

What isn’t being adequately covered is the thing that is most dear to my heart, which is film preservation itself.  I got myself to thinking what other projects I’d love to see preserved.  Now, many of you loyal readers (I realize this is an impossibility since I have too few readers to be called many!) will cry foul.  Since I am involved in film preservation myself, I’ll naturally pick projects that I’m already involved in.

Well of course!  That’s why it’s my blog.  If you’d like to rant about your own special projects, then write about them in your blog.

Here, then are some of my top picks, in no particular order.  I have restricted these to films that actually exist and could be preserved or restored, but nothing is currently being done.

  1. Thunder (1929).  This is Lon Chaney’s penultimate film, for which about 12-16 minutes exist.  I know that it was a big deal a few years back when Rick Schmidlin did a stills-only restoration of London After Midnight.  Well, Thunder has two advantages over that film: a) There is actually some footage that survives and b) all indications are that it was actually a good picture.  The disadvantage that Thunder has is that it’s not a lost Tod Browning picture, and few people have heard of it.  I’ve been told by archivists that the photography on this film is as lovely as any ever shot, and this comes from jaded guys who have seen everything.  I’d love someone to care about this film in the same way people cared about London After Midnight.  Even half as much.  Chaney is always an amazing actor.  His work should be seen.
  2. Seven Chances color restoration.  What?, I hear you ask.  Didn’t you already do this?  Yes, I did.  I even wrote about it a zillion times. What I hope I proved was that a full-scale restoration could be done in the right way, from good-quality film elements, combining the best of multiple print sources.  There are a number of people who would need to collaborate on this project, and it would be expensive to do it right.  I hope the politics can be overcome and this film can be preserved in the way it deserves.  I think my restoration could be vastly improved if we just had better source elements.
  3. Little Orphant Annie (1918).  Not only is this a rare early Colleen Moore film, but it’s also one of the only appearances ever made by poet James Whitcomb Riley, in a film that was probably made at his house by Chicago filmmakers.  I don’t know for certain, because I haven’t seen it.  Film historian Bruce Lawton located a nitrate print several years ago, and I tried to raise funds to restore it from local historical societies and the Riley Foundation itself.  They didn’t have the money.  The print has subsequently been donated to an archive that has no immediate preservation plans.  Complicating the issue is that a truncated version was duplicated (rather poorly) by a dubious collector in the 1970s.  It’s felt that this version may be “good enough” even though we may have a complete original nitrate, which would be longer and better.  The last I heard was that the nitrate was starting to get sticky.  I hope that people wake up before this film is gone.
  4. King of the Kongo (1929).  Hey, wait!  Isn’t this a pet project?  It sure is.  I wrote about it here.  Vitaphone researcher Ron Hutchinson located the original sound discs for three reels of this rare serial and they do sync with my silent 16mm print.  I was able to restore the sound to the reels for the first time in 80 years.  The pluses?  It’s the first sound serial, and an early Boris Karloff film.  The minuses?  It’s painfully acted by people desperate to dive in for the immobile microphones, and it isn’t very good.  We only have the sound for one complete chapter.  The agonizing part: another collector has several more discs and smells money, so he will not lend these discs for a restoration, but will only sell them for an outrageous sum.  Even with all the extant discs, we’d have less than half of the serial restored to sound, and I’ve got to tell you that the blu-ray sales of this one would be in the single digits.  Still, it’s cool and it should be restored.  I’m probably going to do a Kickstarter project to get it done…at least what we have now.
  5. Beggar on Horseback (1925).  Gee, a silent picture directed by James Cruze, with Edward Everett Horton, from a play co-written by George S. Kaufman.  Could this be a hidden gem?  You bet it is.  The good news is that it has been preserved, but the bad news is that it’s missing the last reel.  I’ve seen it; it’s wonderful, bizarre stuff.  I’d love to see this released on some sort of video with stills and bridging text.  It’s not been done yet, but it should be.  The trouble?  As usual… copyright issues from a studio that thinks no one cares.  I hope they’re wrong.
  6. Showdown at Ulcer Gulch (1958).  OK, this one isn’t very good.  I admit it.  The “review” on IMDb by the fraudulent F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre makes it sound worse than it is.  Chico Marx’ son-in-law, animator Shamus Culhane, directed this piece for the Saturday Evening Post.  It’s no more than 15 minutes or so, but it contains cameos by no less than Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Edie Adams, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby.  It stars Orson Bean and Salome Jens.  I found a faded Eastman color print of this in 2001, and it is in desperate need of a color restoration.  The color negative may still exist, but it’s on very unstable stock (1958-62 Eastman negative is particularly bad at fading), and it may be too far gone.  Historically important?  You bet!  I’m not sure what the problem is, but someone is claiming a copyright on it.  I’ve offered it as an extra to two separate boxed sets and have been turned down twice.
  7. The Haunted (1965).  Yes, this is another of my own pet projects.  After many years of searching, I found a print of this on eBay a couple of years ago.  I’ve written about it before, but it’s a wonderfully spooky pilot by Joseph Stefano, co-creator of The Outer Limits and the screenwriter for Psycho (1960).  Hey, I got in a Hitchcock reference!  There are more here: Hitchcock stars Martin Landau (North by Northwest), Diane Baker (Marnie), and Dame Judith Anderson (Rebecca) are the top-billed actors.  Spooky photography by Conrad Hall, and a beautiful, lyrical script by Stefano make this an unheralded classic.  16mm material exists in the hands of at least one archive and a couple of different collectors.  35mm material exists in the hands of a major network.  There are two different cuts, both a pilot at 60 minutes and a feature cut (distributed to Europe) at about 90 minutes, but it’s languishing in contract problems.  Is there a negative?  Do we need a restoration from the surviving prints?  It’s not clear.  I can’t recommend this highly enough: it’s as good as the best of the Outer Limits episodes, yet no one can see it.  Maddening.
  8. Mack Sennett credits.  Paramount sold its library of short films to NTA in the 50s.  NTA retitled them for TV issue.  In many cases, this was butchery of the highest order, but it was done for legal reasons.  In some cases, original negatives, uncut, survive, but in others, we are not so lucky.  Mack Sennett did a series of shorts for Paramount in the 1930s that had a unique opening: a bulldog came out of a dog house, barking twice, and then a fade into the main title (a spoof of the popular MGM lion opening).  In most cases, NTA just froze the main title, leaving the soundtrack alone, so it’s possible to hear the dog even though we never see it.  Fortunately, there are a few surviving prints of the barking dog visuals.  I’d love to see these restored to the Sennett shorts, because they give a fresher, more vibrant open to these films.  I’ve worked on it a bit, and I think it could be done with more of them…
  9. Hard Luck (1921) This is one of the maddening problems in film when a movie is really too profitable, so people fight over it.  An early Buster Keaton short, it does not exist in complete form.  However, there are two different versions, each with different footage, that survive, and since Keaton makes money, both versions are available on video. I hate it when this sort of thing happens.  I fully sympathize with the problem, because I know that Keaton pays the bills on other projects that are worthy but pay less.  In this case, I really wish the two players could get together and cooperate so we could get a more complete version of this short.
  10.   The Lost World (1925) Long a holy grail of film restoration, it was a big deal when a extra footage from this film finally resurfaced in the 1990s.  Historically, it’s a knockout, because it’s the first ever giant monster film with dinosaurs found in a “lost world,” a set piece so powerful it was even stolen for the movie Up (2009).  A major archive did a complete restoration of The Lost World from the best materials, and they did some roadshows around the country.  Alas, they wouldn’t release it on video.  This meant that another company did another restoration on it and released it themselves.  The result?  You guessed it.  The two prints each have footage not in the other, meaning that no one yet has seen the complete version.  I’d love to see the various political factions work out the problems here so that this film can finally get the restoration it deserves.
  11. The Mascot (1934) This is an early sound stop-motion short, with lovely, almost stream-of-consciousness animation.  A couple of years ago, the Library of Congress reprinted a beautiful 35mm of this relatively common short that contained a great deal of material I’d never seen before!  Ironically, my own print contained footage not in theirs!  This short has been cut and recut so much over the years that the original intent of Starevitch’s wonderful work is often blunted or lost.  I have a feeling that it would make a bit more sense if we had more of it to tie the narrative together.
  12. The Treasurer’s Report (1928) Robert Benchley’s groundbreaking and hilarious monologue was one of the first sound-on-film releases from Fox.  Long available in hideous dupes, with the most common print marred with an ugly defect that looks like a tarantula leg stuck in the optical printer, this film appeared to be doomed to a life of substandard picture and hissy image.  I found an original diacetate 35mm print in the hands of a collector several years ago, and another collector owns a beautiful 16mm reduction print from the original negative.  Between the two prints, an almost pristine restoration could be made.  Will it happen?  I doubt it.  The copyright on it is dubious, and there’s a problem deciding who owns what.  It deserves to be saved.
  13. Freckles (1935) Ostensibly based on the book by Gene Stratton-Porter, this film ends up being a completely separate work.  It’s also basically a lost film starring Virginia Weidler and Tom Brown.  I found a badly vinegared print, still runnable, on eBay a few years ago.  As far as we know, it’s the only surviving print.  There’s the usual trouble: it has a copyright renewal, but no one knows who owns it now.  As a result, I can’t show it except in archival conditions, I can’t copy it to video without contravening the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and three archives have turned me down on my offer to have it preserved.  One offered to store it for me but not to do any work on restoring or preserving it.  No thank you!


No, there’s no Greed here, no London After Midnight, nothing really earth-shattering.  There is a great deal of material that’s interesting and historically important.  Some of it may be preserved eventually, some may see the light of day, but I expect some to continue languishing.

That doesn’t mean I’m not in there fighting!

I love the idea of a blogathon that actually results in a film being preserved.  I have always been told that no one cares about old films, particularly silent ones.  Please, just for me, prove those people wrong!

Why I’m Just Mean

Many years ago, a friend of mine disciplined his 5-year-old girl.  She reacted with disgust at not being able to do whatever she had put her mind to doing.  As one might expect with a 5-year-old, tears were immediately forthcoming and she burst out with a loud pronouncement:  “You’re just mean!”

I thought of that again the other day when I got involved in an argument on  It was only a third-hand argument, and, frankly, I can’t do anything about it, but it points up a problem that I keep encountering, and it’s one that makes me “just mean.”

I’ve long hated the kind of collector who collects things just so other people can’t have them.  I particularly believe that film is an art form that depends on being served up socially, and someone who squirrels away prints just so no one else can see them is, I think, somewhat messed up.  This is why I do every thing I can to ensure that films I have are accessible to people.

That’s another problem.  I have a lot of films that are in “copyright hell” that no one can legally watch, and some of them are languishing with no one to show them or even (in a few cases) preserve them.  I keep these prints.  Others may be public domain but of a nature that no one will ever want to see them.  These include bad pictures, shorts of an odd length with no stars in them, and sometimes even films that are of only historic/academic interest.

I keep these prints, too.  I hope someone wants to see them someday. But I’m crazy.  You knew that.  I keep these prints and I mend them, resprocket them, throw camphor in with them, patch them, put them on new reels, etc.  It takes money.  And, as you all know, I am a film professional, which means that I make a “living” (not much of one, hence the quotes) from doing film shows, presentations, and lectures.

Film exhibition is a strange thing.  Rare films doubly so.  There may be an area that really wants to see a particular film and has wanted to for years, but they just can’t seem to find it.  I got a job recently in Vevay, IN playing a print of The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1935) just because the author of the book came from that same town.  It didn’t matter that the film had virtually nothing to do with the book.  They wanted to see it.

That film is available freely on, which is fine, since it’s in the public domain, and it had an impact on how many people showed up.  Despite the fact that I had a nice print, showed a cartoon, and showed it on a big screen, it was “contaminated” by being free on  Only 15 or so people showed up.  It’s sad.  (I could do a whole separate posting on how theatrical exhibition is being killed by inferior material shown at home, but that’s for another time.)

I have to face the fact that I can put on a better, nicer, sharper show than can put on, but the fact that I have to charge in order to keep solvent is a hindrance to me.  That’s why I rely on a few profitable films that keep me floating above water.

These are films that are generally not very available, in the public domain, and have some niche market for them.  These are films that I run over and over again.  I refer to them as “the pantheon.”  They pay the bills for the other, less marketable, films in my collection.

Alas, I have to guard these films jealously.  No one seems to care that I lavished time, care, and hours of work into preserving some of these films.  All they care about is seeing it free on  Many years ago, I was also involved with a video company that specialized in getting good copies of public domain titles into the marketplace.

I learned my lesson on that one, too.  Ever buy material from Alpha Video?  Well, probably 1/3 of their catalog is material that got copied from my collection.  Sure, it’s public domain, but my copies were and are nicer.  I was charging $10-$15 for copies, and they’d make DVDs blasted (poorly) off VHS copies of copies and throw them at Wal-Mart for $1.  At the time, I couldn’t even buy blanks for that price.  The power of cheap blew away the power of better quality.  Ack.

So, in response, I started doing live film shows.  These are infinitely more satisfying, because they’re with an audience, you can see the quality difference, etc.  Amazingly, if you factor in costs of media, I make more money from 2-3 successful film shows than I did in a year of selling video copies of the same film.  Extra points: as I accrue more rare titles, Alpha doesn’t get them.  I can still show them.  I get eating money.  Yay.

At this point, a lot of people will already chime in and claim that I’m “just mean” for not putting these on video.  A couple of years ago, a woman who called me worse than that for not releasing a film with questionable copyright on video.  Yes, I have the only copy, and no, no one wants to preserve it because of rights issues.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to break the law to make the film available.

I also point out that I am more than happy to rent out films from my collection, to do backyard parties or film shows, etc.  I have never told anyone to buzz off if their request was legal.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot myself in the foot by putting it on video.

A while back, there were 3 people who asked me for a copy of a particularly rare film.  I won’t go into specifics, because that will draw attention to that title, and not to my overall point.  These people had some good reasons that they could use a copy.  I made some, and asked them not to make copies of that title.  I nicely explained that doing shows of this film helps keep me preserving others.  They all politely agreed.

So, then, it was a great surprise to me to find that someone had uploaded it for free use on  It was from my own transfer and my print.  I recognized my handiwork.  It was also 2-3 generations removed from what I’d done, so yet again a degraded copy is competing in the marketplace with something I have in a better copy.

I carped about it, and said that, once again, I’m too nice.  I should tell people to buzz off when they want video copies.   It’s already had an impact: I used to get 4-5 shows on this title per year, and I’ve only had one (non-paying) in the last year.  I just can’t compete with free.

A friend of mine leaped to my defense and posted a shame-on-you response on  The vitriol that this caused amazed me:

“There is no copyright on this movie. No one owns it. No one has the right to keep others from watching it.

“Anyone who has a digital copy can—and should—share it with others.

“XXXXXXX is the one who should be ashamed for viciously and mindlessly attacking the uploader.

“Another who should be ashamed is XXXXXXX’s friend, who attempted to keep this film out of the hands of the public, and who, by so doing, increased the likelihood that the film would be lost forever.”

WHAT??????????  ARE YOU KIDDING ME????????  Well, that caused me to have Popeye syndrome:  “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.”

I wrote this in response:

“Uploading low-resolution copies of material at is not a way of preserving films. Neither is the practice of uploading books a replacement for the books themselves. It may be useful, but it’s not a preservation. I intend no slam at the wonderful service is. Google isn’t a replacement for librarians, either.

“(the film in question) is preserved at The Library of Congress and a pristine 35mm print exists that anyone can rent out. The original camera negative survives. It is not in danger of going away. There are two senses of the word ‘own’ here: in one sense I do not own the intellectual rights to these films, because they have expired rights. In another sense, I may in fact own the best surviving prints of them.

“I need prove to no one that I stand for preservation and availability of films. I have donated films to every major archive, and I’m an archive source for TV and DVD. Many films from my collection have already been bootlegged and appear here for free, often in embarrassingly poor copies. I was not provided any remuneration for the hundreds of hours I put in preserving these films, transferring them, and making them projectable. Many of these are films that I preserved myself and would not have been available had I not rescued them.

“The vast majority of films in my collection are not marketable and few people care enough to see them… When a film is free on the internet, it drastically cuts down the audience that will pay to see it projected theatrically..

“I’d be happy to make more films available on, and even make good direct-from-film transfers of them. When someone comes up with a way for me to do so without compromising both my means of income and my ability to preserve films, I’ll do it. The gas man needs to be paid, even if he may agree that what I do is cool and worthwhile.

“Perhaps you still feel that I should be ashamed, but I am not, because I’ve done more for film preservation and availability than most people you will ever meet.”

You’ll note that I did not resort to profanity even once.  I’ll admit I sure thought about it.

I’ll close with some more thoughts here.  I love old films, and I love showing them.  I preserve material that no archive and few collectors care about.  I also know that I will lose all control and all income from them once they’re on the internet.  I further understand that I can only be in so many places at once doing shows.

The whole idea of the Dr. Film show is to let me do the same sorts of things that I do in live shows, but to share them with a wider audience.  I fully realize that they’ll be bootlegged nine ways from Sunday all over the internet once they air, but at least I can be paid once for my work before it gets shared all over the net.

You want to strike a blow for film preservation and availability?  Help me get Dr. Film on TV somewhere…anywhere. (Contact your favorite TV provider and send them our web page address!)  I guarantee you’ll see oddball films that you haven’t seen before, and usually from the best prints that survive.  Strike a blow against the third-rate free films and help me do it a little closer to “the right way.”

Still, if I come to your town, please show up anyway.  OK?