Saturday, November 01, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: Post-Halloween Horror

This one is a day late, but trust the Siren. You will read nothing (at least, nothing non-political) in the coming week that will make your blood run any colder than the following anecdote. Have a strong drink ready. This is from Kate Buford's fine biography Burt Lancaster: An American Life. It is 1959, and Lancaster is shooting Elmer Gantry with director Richard Brooks.

Six days were budgeted for shooting the spectacular fire climax scene...The exteriors were shot at the back of a skating rink at the end of an old Santa Monica pier, but six days were not nearly enough for what Brooks claimed was Hollywood's first 'mass interior fire scene.' Lancaster got UA to allow him and Brooks to take the extra $200,000 needed from their fees and the scene was then shot in about five weeks using highly flammable old nitrate films from the Columbia vault to spread the conflagration.

Update: From Yojimboen, in comments:

Let me reassure all concerned, the nitrate film used by Brooks was old print material, badly-deteriorated and slated to be destroyed anyway. I’m old enough to have attended a Q & A session with Brooks at the London Film School in March 1964 at which -- after screening Elmer Gantry with the students -- he spoke in great detail of the fire sequence. Technicians laid single strips of 35mm nitrate print across beams, draped in bunting, etc. Brooks explained they experimented with accelerants but none spread flames at the desired speed. He thought of using nitrate film. He emphasized he was hyper-cautious about safety – the low-angle shots of the flames racing across beams and bunting were filmed mostly without actors present. He also stressed, repeat stressed, that he and Lancaster made sure the old nitrate prints were backed up by other prints and negatives. Brooks was nothing if not a movie lover, with a healthy consciousness of cinema history.

Yojimboen is a new commenter (and most welcome!) but the Siren certainly hopes he (or she) is correct. Many thanks for the additional information. The Siren isn't kidding when she says she'll sleep better tonight. Also check out Karen's comment, concerning the AFI documents about Gantry's censorship troubles. (Buford goes into those too.)

The Siren is continually amazed at the depth and breadth of knowledge of the people who are kind enough to stop by her corner of the Internet.


kassy said...

Thats terrible, burning all those old films. I want to cry.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Well, my admiration for Burt Lancaster has now dropped a few notches.

Devastating news to hear.

Uncle Gustav said...

Well, the films were from Columbia's vault...

mndean said...

I sure as hell hope they were only prints (nitrate prints were around up until the late '40s/early '50s), and not negatives/internegatives. They could have easily made the appropriate nitrocellulose from cheap chemicals and burned that instead. Hell, I had a chemistry book from ancient times (1890s) that had a recipe for the stuff, and it was easy to make (if a little dangerous - although no more dangerous than breathing in the burning nitrate film smoke). Production crews can be notoriously lazy, however.

Patrick Wahl said...

Why would your admiration for Lancaster drop? He gave up part of his salary for the sake of the movie. Seems doubtful it was his idea to burn up movies, and it also seems that anything they would allow to burn must have been duplicate prints. (can't know that for sure from the excerpt of course)

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Why would your admiration for Lancaster drop? He gave up part of his salary for the sake of the movie. Seems doubtful it was his idea to burn up movies, and it also seems that anything they would allow to burn must have been duplicate prints.

Why would Lancaster give up part of his salary without knowing what his slice of the pie was going to be used towards? Burt was a much more savvy insider than you suggest, and while we can debate over whose idea it was to destroy the prints to defend the notion that he was merely a naive babe in the woods is ludicrous. He wasn't just some bit of beefcake who got lucky in movies...he was a producer, director and writer as well.

As to the source of the films ("well, the films were from Columbia's vault") I'd expect that sort of response from some cinematic fan boy hopped up on CGI explosions, not the distinguished Mr. Head.

Vanwall said...

I had heard a rumor about that incident, which I found hard to believe, but damn, that's harsh news. I'm afraid there prolly wasn't as selective a process of choosing as we all would've wished. WTF is wrong with people sometimes?

The Siren said...

So do I, Kassy, so do I.

Ivan, I had the same reaction. Lancaster's career was at its peak, he'd been producing for quite some time (losing a mint, but giving us Sweet Smell of Success) and he must just have figured it was old stuff nobody wanted to see. That was the prevailing attitude for ages although I had thought that in 1959 we were just at the very beginning of a new view of film history here in the U.S.--guess it hadn't made its way to everyone yet. All that said, I do put ultimate blame on Brooks, who was in charge on set and comes off in the book like a real prick.

Charles, as MNDean points out, I am afraid that if the crews were give-a-shit enough to use prints in the first place I don't see them combing through and saying "oh geez, that's a camera negative, don't use that one" or "did anyone make sure there's another original release print of Platinum Blonde?"

Flickhead, I know you are joking and I have to admit that if it had been a more distinguished studio's archives I might have gone into some sort of catatonic trance. But one thing we all know is that yesterday's unwatchable antique is today's redisovered gem--hell, I got that reaffirmed just last month with the TCM Kay Francis fest. Who knows what the hell they burned up?

Van, I don't have the book in front of me but I am going to check the source for Buford's assertion and will post in a bit. The book seems very carefully researched so I am inclined to take her at her word but in this case I'd be glad to find out she was mistaken.

Karen said...

Dear gawdalmighty. I read your caution about the bone-chillingness of the upcoming anecdote with a "show me" smirk and then...oh my GOD they did WHAT???

Horrifying. Simply horrifying.

mndean said...

One more thing. For as much BS as has been slung about the terrible danger of nitrate, it's not as highly flammable as all that until it gets unstable.

Personal anecdote: Someone sent me a number of filmstrips, a few on safety and the rest nitrate, with the accompanying discs for most of them. The nitrate is still stable, but out of curiosity I clipped off a bit of excess leader from one and burnt it. It burnt, but not with any great enthusiasm. So, worse than the story itself, I bet the crew used an accelerant on any nitrate that was slow to burn. It's easy to tell the nitrate decomposition smell, it's like camphor. Back in height of the Usenet days, David Shepard told me what to look for if decomposition was setting in. I sniff my collection of filmstrips every year, if one of the nitrates is going, I don't want it in the house (yes, they're in the house because it's a controlled environment). The collection is of only minor historical value, but it has some sentimental value.

It's hilarious that one of the acetate strips is decomposing and getting vingeary, but it's in color and I have no audio record to go with it. And it's only one of two that came in a plastic can. The color is mostly gone, too.

What Lancaster and Brooks did was worse still. At that time, film libraries were becoming very valuable. Reason? Television needed product to show and they were huge customers of old film. Why do you think MCA spent money buying Paramount's back catalog? They knew that TV would want old films to keep the stations supplied with some entertainment product during the off-network hours, and Paramount was (as usual) hard up for money. As soon as network stations had enough in-house product to last the entire broadcast day, the independent stations wanted the old films, and I still remember watching old movies through the '70s and even into the '80s until the secondary networks came into being. Then the films went to cable. So someone at Columbia was I guess foolish, but Lancaster and Brooks' bright idea was stupider still.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The notion of film being permenent and eminently recyclble is extremely new. Back in the heyday of Hollywood films weren't rearded as having any particular value after their initial run. They were designed to make money and be replaced bnew ones to make money -- and so on and so forth.

As for the films burned, I don't suppose the volatility of nitrate stock has ocurred to anyone. These films were dangerous to be left lying around. Obviously something of value might have been lost -- but that's blodd under the bridge (as Edward Albee would say.)

Burt Lancaster was a very great actor and a very strange man.

Patrick Wahl said...

Ivan and Campaspe, you guys have convinced me that Lancaster made that deal with the idea he was going to torch a few movies. I'd be curious to know what they were, but I suppose that information is long gone. Since this was 1959, before Maltin and IMDB and other catalogers of every movie ever made, it would seem there probably is no record of most of those movies.

The Siren said...

David, M. makes a good point that nitrate film has to be carefully stored, but it isn't doomed if it's done properly. Alas, that is something most studios just didn't bother with, as you point out, even the ones with truly priceless archives. The last print of London After Midnight was lost in a fire at the MGM film vault in 1965. Also, while TV was using old movies for programming, at the time they were only interested in sound films, for the most part. Silents, aside from some comedies, were just laughable relics.

Charles, I do love Lancaster as an actor, still and all. David's right, he was a strange man, but an incredible presence on screen. According to the notes in Buford's book, the information on the films being used in the fire came from AMPAS production notes and Brooks himself. So it seems solidly sourced.

Sigh. I never thought Gantry was a visually striking movie--Brooks is just solid and workmanlike as a director, in my view, not particularly exciting--but I always did admire the acting and now that fire scene will bother me for the rest of my life.

Gloria said...

huh... I wanted to say something but "me cago'n dena!". was the only thing that I could think for a while.

As mndean says, what a lack of foresight! Not only as the immediate option of TV broadcasting is concerned, but think also of all the extras for DVDs which shall never see the light of the sun.

I can only say, we are only lucky that some old films could be recovered from Studio's vaults: I shudder to think that "The Old Dark House" might have disappeared forever if Curtis Harrington had not persevered in its recovery... But how many are lost forever?

P.S.: I still love Burt Lancaster, his work for Visconti redeems all sins

The Siren said...

Gloria, your expression is so pithy I can't even get Google to cough up a translation -- is it printable?

In a weird way, the sad fate of The Leopard's American release -- and its later triumphant restoration -- is a redemptive film-preservation fable from later in Lancaster's career.

Karen, do your AFI archives cough up anything on this?

MNDean, one last thing -- if decomposing nitrate smells like camphor, does that mean the set probably stank to high heaven? I would think the fumes would be overwhelming.

mndean said...

Well, it depends on whether the nitrate they got was decomposing. I doubt they cared, they knew the stuff burned good when it got going and that was good enough for them. I still bet they used an accelerant (like gasoline) to get the fire started.

I don't think archival techniques back then were very advanced (to say the least). I don't even know if they were aware back then of what decomposing nitrate smelled like. In that time, a vault was just supposed to be a storage area that was temperature and humidity controlled and, well, vaultlike.

The problem on the set was that burning nitrate film produces some nasty, nasty chemicals that will damage your lungs if breathed in. So the films may have given some of the crew permanent lung damage if they breathed in enough of it. It was dumb on so many levels to do what they did, and I'll bet that they burned silents.

Vanwall said...

The stupidity of greed is unfathomable, and bottomless. The whole idea of preservation wasn't new, but it was certainly viewed as a drain on the front end, with no real obvious way to see any profit on the back end. Much of the early and middle period TV product is gone forever due to to just that kind of thinking - and not just the ones on kinescopes - many stations later had designated tapes for a particular show so they could save a few bucks, and that would be used over and over again, taping over and wiping out the entire previous day's work - for literally years.

And weren't there a whole series of vault fires going way back? Curious how they had some idea of preserving the work, without any real plan for using them to make money.

Gloria said...


Campaspe, the expression might be very loosely translated as "darn it", although the straightforward translaation isn't printable (it has escathological and blasphemous connotations, in the best tradition of peninsular "cussing")

mndean said...

It may have been a drain on the front end, but MCA profited greatly by their purchase of Paramount's sound library even at the time, and that had to have been known by Columbia. That's why I suspect that silents (which weren't valuable for TV rental) were burned. What irritates me about the story is that it's as if they thought they were very clever to do it this way.

If I can dig up the nitrocellulose recipe, I'll put it up. The chemicals are very basic and at the time cheap and easily available. Even today, the only chemical that's not easily available is nitric acid (for obvious reasons).

The Siren said...

eek, m, don't put it up here, LOL! I don't want this site popping up as a google hit for firebugs. You think I'm joking? You should see the kind of searches my piece on the "Baghdad and boobs" genre turns up. :D

I think you may be right that they burned silents. How it breaks the heart.

The Siren said...

V., I was startled to find out some years back how many early television shows are unavailable, too.

mndean said...

How about if I leave the name of the recipe book it's in? I won't even leave the page number (it changes in different editions of the book). I don't think a lot of people are going to find a copy considering its age (the first edition was printed in the 1880s, the last in the late 1890s). It pops up on ebay only a few times a year. Naah, I'll just keep it my little secret. BTW, don't worry, it's already online - that's how I came to find the book it was in. The book even has recipes for some extremely poisonous chemical compounds. It's hours of fun to read and think how many people died trying these recipes. Sorta like reading about the liquid nitroglycerin explosion in San Francisco way back in the 1860s. Flying body parts (and where they landed) were part of the newspaper account. Or reading about steam boiler explosions. Mayhem, just an everyday part of life in the industrial age.

The Siren said...

Gloria, also OT -- but did you know that American TCM has a certain actor as Star of the Month? Well, it can't be news to you -- but is The Bribe worth seeing? And I must say I haven't seen Salome in EONS--I remember even as a girl being astonished that they gave the title character a heart of gold.

Karen said...

Siren, all the AFI Catalog says about the fire is basically what you've written already:

Brooks stated in a modern interview that the scene in which the tabernacle burns down included 200 stunt people and 1,200 extras, many of whom were recruited from nearby airplane factories. Press materials relate that the filmmakers had trouble starting the fire and so brought old nitrate films from the Columbia studio and used the highly flammable substance to start the fire.

The notes are actually incredibly long, but deal mostly with how the novel had to be adapted in order to mollify the Code office, such as:

A 21 Nov 1958 memo in the PCA file specifies that Shurlock considered the film's first draft to be in violation of the Code. In response (and in accordance with Lancaster's age), according to a modern interview with Brooks, the writer-director adapted the story to focus on Gantry's middle years, changed Falconer into a sincerely religious figure, converted "Jim Lefferts" from a seminary student to an atheist reporter and, most importantly, portrayed Gantry as not an ordained minister. This change sidestepped Code restrictions disallowing ministers to be portrayed in a negative light. In a 24 Nov 1958 memo, Brooks noted that he retained the story's 1920s setting in order to avoid any identification with contemporary religious leaders.
As a result, Shurlock stated in Aug 1959 that the basic story met with Code requirements, requiring only minor changes in language before the film could be awarded a seal. According to modern sources, in meetings with the National Catholic Legion of Decency, Brooks agreed to add the written disclaimer that precedes the film, warning parents not to bring children to screenings. The Legion then granted Elmer Gantry a B rating, stating that it created a negative atmosphere that failed to distinguish clearly between true "religionists" and commercial exploiters of faith.

There's also this little gem:
Shirley Jones stated in a modern source that Brooks wanted Piper Laurie to play the role of "Lulu Bains" and a result was initially cold to her. After her success in the role, for which she won her only Academy Award, she turned down many dramatic parts, fearful of being typecast as a prostitute. As a result, Elmer Gantry marked the only purely dramatic role in her feature film career.

Is there a direct line to be drawn, then, from Lulu Bains to Shirley Partridge?

Gloria said...

Campaspe, keeping on with the O.T.:

Yes, I know ;D

I won't be able to see it (for geographical reasons), but having all the stuff either on dvd or jaded old tapes, I'll be able to follow it, of sorts.

And, yes, IMHO, "The Bribe" is worth seeing, it went around with a dreadful reputation, but I got a nice surprise when I finally saw it. And what a cast!

I'm still shocked, tho', at some inclusions... and some absences! How can TCM do a Laughton season and forget "les Miserables", "Ruggles of Red Gap" or "This Land Is Mine"?!

And about Salome, like you it is quite a time since I saw it, and remember it as a film of the Somniferous Bible Epic genre, even though I recently got the DVD and I will revise it some day. Indeed, Columbia's take on the character had little to do with Wilde's

shahn said...


mndean said...

Why isn't TCM playing Ruggles of Red Gap? Can we all say together - It's a Paramount Picture! I'd have wanted to see Sign of the Cross, too. Don't let Carole Lombard month fool you into thinking things have changed at Universal.

The Siren said...

M., I did my part by buying a REgion 2 of Ruggles, which should mean it's about to get released, like Bigger Than Life.

Exiled in NJ said...

I've come a bit late, but would like to try some historical perspective on that period, not to excuse Lancaster and Brooks but to say, maybe it was the times....the same zeitgeist that tore down Penn Station in New York.

Yojimboen said...

Let me reassure all concerned, the nitrate film used by Brooks was old print material, badly-deteriorated and slated to be destroyed anyway. I’m old enough to have attended a Q & A session with Brooks at the London Film School in March 1964 at which -- after screening Elmer Gantry with the students -- he spoke in great detail of the fire sequence. Technicians laid single strips of 35mm nitrate print across beams, draped in bunting, etc. Brooks explained they experimented with accelerants but none spread flames at the desired speed. He thought of using nitrate film. He emphasized he was hyper-cautious about safety – the low-angle shots of the flames racing across beams and bunting were filmed mostly without actors present. He also stressed, repeat stressed, that he and Lancaster made sure the old nitrate prints were backed up by other prints and negatives. Brooks was nothing if not a movie lover, with a healthy consciousness of cinema history.

mndean said...

That's as may be, but why didn't someone just make up a batch of guncotton (a very close relative, and not hard to make)? Note: Don't say nobody on the production was a chemist because neither am I, and it was my first idea. The thing about old celluloid is it's an unreliable accelerant. Some deteriorated batches will touch off at the drop of a match, others are more stubborn.

As far as what Brooks said, I'm sure they didn't use anything out of the library Columbia didn't want them to (that's a given), but 1964's appreciation of film history wasn't the same as 1959's, either. Things changed fast. From oblivion, silents were discovered to have value by then (thanks to some tireless people), and it may have been a bit of ass-covering by Brooks to insist that all materials were covered. Indeed, he may have been told wrong, anyway. Why would Columbia bother telling them anything except the film slated for destruction was covered with other materials if asked? They didn't run the company. At a University in the '60s it may have looked bad to admit he burned something that might have had some cinematic value.

All I'm saying is your statement is mostly a relief (it's far, far better than nothing), but still isn't definitive. My objection is that it was hardly the best solution considering a chemistry professor at a University would have been happy to give them ideas for a very good accelerant without the necessity of burning film. I'm still haunted by the idea that they used it because it cost them nothing rather than because it was the best they could do.

Tonio Kruger said...

So apparently this incident wasn't quite the cinematic equivalent of the Burning of the Library of Alexandria but pretty darn close.


The Siren said...

"I'm still haunted by the idea that they used it because it cost them nothing rather than because it was the best they could do."

Yep. "Slated for destruction" doesn't completely ease my mind, I have to say.

Gloria said...

I don't think that lack of awareness about film preservation had changed much in the seventies. And maybe it would be a little naive to think that, despite some restorations, this has changed in our days.

Robert Gitt, who recently made a documentary with the outtakes of "the Night of the Hunter", told how Elsa Lanchester donated them to the AFI (later to be sent to UCLA Film and Television Archive). Now this is what Gitt Found a shoet time later "A few months after Slide and I returned to Washington, word was received from the coast that Laughton's rushes were indeed being made use of by the film students - but not to study. They were using the picture and magnetic sound trims as "fill leader", padding for assembling work-prints for their own film projects." (read the rest of the article here.

Fortunately, Gitt found out in time and the outtakes were saved from a grim fate.

Now I wonder... If this is what FILM STUDENTS did in the seventies... Can we be optimistic about the fate of old films? (which is often in hands even less sensible than those of Film students?)

The Siren said...

Gloria, my constant film-restoration worry is that there are a few marquee names that get the big restoration treatment, and then what about the rest? This is at the root of my unease with things like the AFI "Best Of" lists, which always go back to the same films over and over. The heritage is so much bigger and more diverse than that. Can't they give some love to some relative unknowns? The ruthless Hollywood survival-of-the-starriest shouldn't be the rule for an organization devoted to artistry, in my view.

Gloria said...

" Can't they give some love to some relative unknowns?"

I entirely agree... and more because, when many of the "poor relatives" get a chance to get out the vaults, they turn out to be great rediscoveries. Also, since it is not unusual that some nearly forgotten directors and performers are re-discovered by new generations of film researchers, the motto for film safekeeping and restoration should be "the more, the merrier", and not just restrained to the Oscar-winning stuff.

(Incidentally, even starry, well-publicised restorations may lack relevant material: I'm working on a post on some lost-forever scenes from Spartacus, after gathering some photographic evidence of these sadly lost scenes -I hope I can post it sometime before next january)

Recently, there was a season near my home of films restored by the Cinematheque of Tolouse : none of them were "famous", but then there were rare silent jewels, and even early soviet comedies! (incidentally, they just didn't restore/safeguard old films: they welconme copies of recent films for safeguard-storage).

Vanwall said...

The bottom line, being profits of course, is the absolutely only real interest to the higher-ups, and they have their reasons, not all of which coincide with art or logic. You'd think even today the idea of preservation could be made to work, even if it involved starving Chinese prisoners - and don't think that hasn't been run up the flagpole - but unless human nature changes utterly in the next few years, and the economy as it is doesn't bode well, we are basically screwed for the foreseeable future if we are waiting for the Studios to get off the dime. The other thing they get with having that money is a sense of entitlement, as in they're entitled to foist their bad taste and priorities on us - you can check into the buried Warner Bros cartoons vs. Scooby Doo, (yech, I spit up a little in my mouth saying that, sorry) fiasco for a still-ongoing example of A. The bottom line only thinking, and B. Bad Taste over quality.

Brian Darr said...

Whatever the actual circumstances, I'm sure this anecdote will affect my experience watching Elmer Gantry whenever it is that I get around to it.

mndean said...

While you may look for film artistry, often I look in films for bits a pieces of popular culture of the past. I'm perfectly happy watching an old series film or modest low-budget flick if it gives me insight into what people were amused/shocked/entertained by in the past, especially if the same material had been done later. Some of the films are bad of course, but that's one thing I want to get away from is being too hard on something that was meant to entertain and reflect what people wanted to see at the time. Art doesn't happen so often (not in studio-era Hollywood it doesn't) and it's too easy to fall in with the crowd. The problem with restoration and preservation and public showing of old films is that it shouldn't make any distinctions about whether a film is "good enough" to bother with. It should make distinctions only on what needs saving now.

What I'm saying won't make money, but the bought-and-paid-for copyright extensions ruined the ability of a more creative way of dealing with loss of history that might have been able to make money (or stem its loss). We know some companies are good at preserving film history, others are mediocre, some are terrible.

I never thought AFI lists were anything but trivial, since they always skewed toward more modern films, and the classic films they selected were already anointed (as it were), so there would be no surprises. Some of the later AFI lists I've seen have made me wonder if the AFI is even worth the trouble of keeping around. Each new list seems more fatuous than the last.

The Siren said...

M., your view is very much my own. I also watch movies as pieces of history -- direct history, social history. They are fascinating in that regard. I also agree with you on the execrable Sonny Bono Act. Gloria's description of the Cinematheque Toulouse sounds very much like the right idea.

Brian, welcome. Elmer Gantry is worthwhile, I have to say.

V., the studios don't want to put out things that won't make money, but then they seem incapable of even marketing things at times in ways that will make money. Dave Kehr used the example of Canyon Passage (if I recall correctly) which of course was directed by Jacques Tourneur and has a lot to interest the serious cinephile, but which was packaged as some sort of Western-movie nostalgia trip.

mndean said...

OT - one of the past threads here was on the von Sternberg version of Crime and Punishment. I thought that the casting of Inspector Porfiry weak and had ideas as to who would make a good Porfiry, one of which was Vladimir Sokoloff. Today I read that he actually played that part in a Broadway production in 1948. He was practically the only member singled out for praise by the New Yorker's critic (who slayed John Gielgud's Raskolnikov). Too bad he was acting in France and not America at the time the film was made.

Gloria said...

Since the worth and artistic value of old films has been mentioned, one of the specialties of the Cinematheque of Tolouse (present at the season) is old pornographic/erotic films.

Being quite a prudish girl, I didn't go to sample them, although it is a good example that at Tolouse they don't regard movies as separated in worthier or lesser "classes", as far as preservation and restoration is involved.