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  • Let It Burn:Film Historiography in Flames
  • Katherine Groo (bio)

In 1909, a clerk at the offices of the Columbia Film Exchange turned on the lights and triggered an explosion that destroyed the building and injured seventy-five people.1 That same year, three hundred people were killed in a theater fire in Acapulco, Mexico, when a film ignited.2 In 1914, a spontaneous explosion destroyed the Lubin Film Manufacturing Company, four reels being carried by a projectionist on his way to work ignited in the smoking car of a commuter train in Chicago, and a fire in one of Edison's vaults spread across his New Jersey facility.3 The following year, the Manhattan studio of the Famous Players Film Company caught fire.4 In the 1920s, stories of film fires in theaters, studios, and homes accumulated in trade and local papers, along with reporting on innovations in fire safety and advertisements for the latest fire-prevention equipment.5 A fire at the Hollywood Consolidated Film Industries lab in 1929 destroyed $2 million worth of film material.6 In 1934, six vaults were destroyed on the Warner Brothers' Bur-bank lot, including negatives and positives from the Vitagraph and First National Studios.7 In 1937, forty-two vaults containing 40,000 reels of prints and negatives from the Fox Film Corporation library caught fire, destroying every single film they contained and damaging several adjacent homes.8 In the 1950s and 1960s, major fires at RKO, the Cinémathèque Française, MGM, and the National Film [End Page 3] Board of Canada destroyed entire collections. Still, the fires kept coming and continue well into the twenty-first century.9

What caused or compounded these fires was the substrate of cinema itself: nitrate, otherwise known as cellulose nitrate, nitrocellulose, or simply celluloid.10 Admired for its strength and durability in projection as well as its luminous visual properties, the material is nevertheless extremely flammable.11 Nitrate deteriorates into an explosive powder and can produce its own oxygen, set itself on fire, and burn underwater. As Heather Heckman succinctly describes in her study of nitrate and contemporary archival approaches to handling the material, "All celluloid products have at least two things in common: they are flammable and they are unstable. Exposed to fire, celluloid burns; over time, all celluloid chemically decomposes in ambient conditions."12

Preventative measures were taken to mitigate the threat of nitrate fires. Kodak developed its first acetate "safety" stock as early as 1909, although widespread use would not be realized until the 1950s.13 In the United States, many cities introduced stricter building codes in the 1910s and 1920s, requiring sprinkler systems and fireproof projection booths.14 And in the decades before film historians began to conceive of film as something worth saving, reels of nitrate were simply destroyed by film theaters, studios, and concerned citizenries in order to reduce the risks of fire.15 There were creative approaches to nitrate destruction among these early efforts, such as the one devised in the 1920s by the Ithaca fire marshal who, so the story goes, placed the nitrate prints of the local Wharton Brothers Studio on a rowboat in the middle of Lake Cayuga and sunk the whole lot.16

David Pierce's 2013 report on the survival of American silent film for the Library of Congress confirms what many film historians had already suspected: only 14 percent of silent feature films—1,575 titles—survive as they were originally released.17 A further 11 percent—or 1,174 titles—survive as complete films in nonoriginal variations (e.g., in 35mm foreign-release versions or in small-gauge formats). Among the major causes of these extraordinary losses are fire and decay. More surprisingly, fire continues to destroy film nearly every year, and these events are not limited to collections of nitrate. The various safety stocks that replaced nitrate were not fire resistant, just less flammable than their combustible predecessor. They burn as well as paper.

It is little wonder that film historiography has been shaped by this ongoing history of artifactual fragility and archival loss. Since at least the late 1970s and 1980s when a broad field of...


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