Ohio History Journal

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Preservation of the Newsreel Films

of President Harding


by Robert W. Wagner


Efforts of the professional archivist in his attempt to preserve historical

materials are often complicated by the very nature of the substance he

is trying to preserve. For example, all 35mm. motion picture film from

1888 to 1951 was made with a cellulose nitrate base which makes the

reels highly flammable and under some circumstances highly explosive.

A partially decomposed nitrate film may ignite spontaneously at 120

degrees F., or even at 105 degrees F., if deterioration is far enough advanced.

Another material, triacetate, or so called "safety" film, was used on 16mm.

and, since 1951, for all 35mm., 70mm., and magnetic film and tapes. But

the problem of proper storage of this film remains. The optimum storage

place for archival films would be in an airfiltered room at 60-70 degrees F.,

with a relative humidity of 40 to 50 percent. It is now the opinion of the

commerical producers of this film that black-and-white films should last

as long as high quality paper records, in proper storage areas.

In 1952 officials of the Library of Congress, in an effort to find a way

to restore to usefulness its collection of photographic prints on bromide

paper dating from 1894 that had been accepted by the United States

Copyright Office as evidence of ownership of original 35mm. nitrate

motion picture negatives, sought the aid of the Academy of Motion Picture

Arts and Sciences. Mr. Kemp R. Niver of the Renovare Film Company in

Hollywood was contacted, and he worked for more than ten years to develop

a restoration printer. In doing so, he found it necessary to identify and

solve some twenty-seven separate and distinctly different technical problems

in the conversion of images from the opaque bromide paper onto new

16mm. acetate film.

Restoration of archival film in Ohio has been significantly aided by

the presentation in 1967 of the original restoration printer made by Niver

to the Ohio State University's Department of Photography and Cinema.

The first significant task of an archival nature employing the use of the

new equipment was the project to preserve the fast-deteriorating 35mm.

newsreel prints of the presidential years of Warren G. Harding. In 1967,

at the initiative of Daniel R. Porter, Director of the Ohio Historical

Society and custodian of the film, the collection of newsreels was removed

from the Ohio State Museum and transferred to a specially prepared air-

conditioned fireproof room used by the Department of Photography and

Cinema where cautious handling of the reels was begun.