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Beautiful, Deadly Nitrate

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  There was a reason filmgoers once referred to cinema as the "silver screen.”  Audiences were enchanted with images that looked as if a master metallurgist had etched each frame from liquid silver. Directors worked with cinematographers to paint the screen in light and shadows and their brush was a movie camera loaded with celluloid film. Filmmakers created stunning images with a look of argent fluidity that no process can duplicate today. Unfortunately, as beautiful as nitrate stock films were, there was a sinister side to the artistry. Like the oleander plant whose flower has a dulcet fragrance and is pleasing to the eye yet is poisonous in the extreme, the film stock used from 1880 to 1953 to create stunning images in shades of pewter, black and white, that greatly enhanced the moviegoing experience, was dangerous. The medium that made up the film stock base was nitrate, a combustible compound used in guncotton and some types of dynamite. Nitrate stock was not only inflammable if exposed to heat or a direct flame, it had the potential to spontaneously combust.

Film projectionists and negative cutters quickly became aware of the perils of working with nitrate. Projection booth fires like the one dramatized in the Italian classic, Cinema Paradiso, were commonplace in picture palaces across the globe. In the early days of film, movie theatres were slap-dash affairs and projectionists were often ignorant about the inherent dangers of handling nitrate film. An errant cigarette, improper storage, or even an overheated light bulb as the film passed through a projector’s film-gate could cause a conflagration.  Several incidents of resulted in audience deaths from fire, smoke inhalation or the crush of a stampede of people fleeing the theater.

In his book, Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States, film historian Anthony Slide details a number of horrific episodes involving nitrate stock in places other than theaters – film exchanges, schools and conflations started while screening home movies.  Undoubtedly, the most infamous case of a nitrate fire catastrophe occurred in Quebec in January of 1927. A small fire in the projection booth at the Laurier Palace Cinema in Montreal caused pandemonium. Seventy-seven children died in the ensuing chaos either from suffocation or from the crush of the panicked crowd. The tragedy led Quebec to a prohibition on children under sixteen from cinemas, a law that stayed in effect until 1967. 

Once nitrate film stock started burning, there was no way to stop it. Water, sand, and foam were useless since nitrate supplies its own oxygen and burns with abandon; submerging the reel in water was no help since it burns under water. After numerous accidents, fire departments in larger cities mandated that theater owners construct projection booths of concrete and steel. Wooden furniture was strictly verboten and the law barred anyone other than the projectionist from the booth.  Theaters installed safety doors so that in the event of a nitrate fire, the only one incinerated was the poor projectionist.

 In the early years of film, movie studios had no way of knowing that as the nitrate stock decayed, it transformed from glossy celluloid into a foul-smelling gooey substance that dried into a brown powder and intensified the likelihood of auto-ignitingStudio heads were also negligent in preserving the original negatives of their films in film libraries. Prior to television, VHS, and DVDs, studios considered movies a disposable commodity that they tossed in the garbage like a week-old casserole. Films would have an initial release then possibly a second, third and sometimes, a fourth run. The print would pick up more battle scars with each successive screening and eventually the only thing of value was the silver content. Studios dumped old film stock in the ocean, forgot it in trash heaps, or even tossed numerous reels in an abandoned Yukon swimming pool.

There were fatal nitrate fires in MGM's storage areas in 1955 and 1960. Those conflagrations finally led the Culver City Fire Department to order MGM to purge their lot of nitrate films. The year 1978 was the annus horribilis for film archivists and made many question if nitrate stock could be stored safely. The United States National Archives and Records Administration and George Eastman House both suffered devastating losses when their film vaults self-immolated. The fire destroyed three hundred twenty-nine original negatives stored at the Eastman House, while the National Archives lost millions of feet of newsreel footage.

The clock continues to tick for thousands of films. Negatives and prints of countless movies have already burned in fires, decayed, or disappeared over the years, and not just standard studio programmers: the original negative of the classic, Citizen Kane, perished years and ago and more classic films are in peril. Film archivists are working at a feverish pace to transfer films into non-nitrate copies. Their efforts have not yet caught up to the digital age, forcing preservationists to make copies onto cellulose acetate, another medium that also decays. Those involved in film preservation are in a race to prevent more treasures from the earlier years of filmmaking from vanishing. Film archivists estimate that 85% or more of films made prior to the advent of sound are gone, though not forgotten.

Two authoritative books on the subject of nitrate films are Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States written by film historian and archivist, Anthony Slide, and This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, a compendium of articles and essays on nitrate film and its dangers edited by Roger Smither and Catherine A. Surowiec.

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