Sunday, June 08, 2008

Jonathan Kuntz on the Hollywood Fire

Jonathan Kuntz taught my American Film History course and John Ford seminar at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. So, I was interested to see this op-ed about the Hollywood fire in yesterday's New York Times:
Among the sets that burned this week were the courthouse square from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Back to the Future,” and a New York street from countless films and television shows. These sets themselves had been damaged and altered many times, and were mostly false fronts to begin with — so what has really been lost? The physical residue of great movie memories, no more, simulations of simulations. The studio can rebuild the sets, as they have before — now configured as much to the tour tram as to the camera — and they’ll likely be better fakes than ever.

More serious may be the loss of the circulating 35-millimeter theatrical prints. While not original masters, these are the copies made for screenings at repertory theaters, art museum retrospectives and in college classes. Universal has already canceled screenings of “Rear Window” and Howard Hawks’s “Scarface” for the U.C.L.A. film history class I teach, along with all their other titles for the indefinite future.

Universal controls a big chunk of Hollywood history. Their own prodigious output includes “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the third film to win the Oscar for best picture; classic monster series like “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy” and “The Wolfman”; the comedies of Abbott and Costello; the melodramas of Douglas Sirk; and hundreds more. In addition, through wise acquisitions in the Lew Wasserman era, Universal also owns the rights to many additional Paramount titles, including various Alfred Hitchcock classics, the Marx Brothers movies and Billy Wilder’s film noir “Double Indemnity.” Prints of many of these seem to have been destroyed.

This latest fire, I hope, will prompt Universal and its fellow majors to better preserve not just key titles like “Duck Soup,” “Dracula” or “Vertigo” — which will surely be reprinted and return to circulation — but also the other 90 percent of their inventories, the less famous and therefore more vulnerable titles that the studio may not feel justify spending thousands to save. These are exquisite samples of 20th-century American culture and deserve to always be seen in their extravagant, sensual, big-screen glory.