History in the Backyard

The former USMPC site, as seen from the second floor of my home. A daycare and a pizza restaurant now sit on the site.

By Kellie LoGrande

History can be found anywhere, even in one’s own backyard. Run-down buildings, remains of landmarks, forgotten paths, and plots of land often have a story. All you need to do is find those forgotten things, and then maybe you can find the story behind them. The history of the United States Motion Picture Corporation runs through my hometown of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, from filming locations to the site of the studio itself. In fact, the location of the now-demolished studio, located on the corner of Wyoming Avenue and Slocum Street, is adjacent to my backyard.

I’d never known what used to be there; one building had been a convenience store, then a Little Ceasar’s, and now a local pizza restaurant. A daycare sits directly behind it. There are few indicators of what could have been there before, if any; some of the garages look as if they could have been industrial, though I do not know when they were built. The stores and apartments nearby seem old, especially when you look at the unpainted brick. I’d known this town was very old. I had always attributed the age of the buildings to that alone, and did not wonder anymore.

usmpc-studio-forty-fort

The United States Motion Picture Corporation studio, built in 1915, was located in Forty Fort near Slocum Street.

I hadn’t wondered for a long time, until I began to get involved with the history of the United States Motion Picture Corporation. That’s when I had found out that a major movie studio used to be where the convenience store–Little Ceasar’s–pizza restaurant and the daycare were now. I also found out that the USMPC filmed there, around the area of their studio.

As we watched His Neglected Wife — which features a railroad — for the first time, Charles Petrillo said to us, “We believe the railroad was on the corner of Murray Street and Slocum Street.” I knew exactly where that was. Furthermore, I knew that there was not one railroad there, but two: one which had been used until about a decade ago, and another which had clearly never been used for a very long time. The oldest railroad barely remains, obscured by growth; it seems to have been swallowed by the ground. I came upon it by accident one day, while taking a walk. A large tree had been growing between the rails, indicating that the railroad had not been used for a very, very long time. Should you walk down Slocum Street, next to a storage center, look on the ground; from the sidewalk, you can see the planks of the railroad, barely visible among the grass.

An old railroad. This could have been the railroad seen in His Neglected Wife.

Forgotten Films: The Loss of Silent Movies

By Kellie LoGrande

This still taken from the United States Motion Picture Corporation’s one-reel comedy “His Neglected Wife” (1919) shows some of the damage that nitrate films can suffer without careful preservation.

You may have seen a few silent films, such as Metropolis or Nosferatu, but the silent films available today are just a small percentage of all the silent films ever made. Today, very few silent films exist, and many of the films which do exist are incomplete. A staggering number of silent films in America are considered to be lost — approximately eighty-three percent. But why are so many of these films unavailable today? It’s all in the materials and preservation.

Today’s films are made from cellulose acetate plastic film, and are distributed via DVD and digital download. Cellulose acetate plastic film, known as “safety film,” replaced its predecessor in the 1950s. Its predecessor? Cellulose nitrate. Cellulose nitrate, or silver nitrate, is the type of film stock upon which silent films were recorded. Nitrate is an unstable film stock, one which can decompose if not stored properly and one which can catch fire easily.

There is one very serious problem with silver nitrate film stock, a problem which led to its replacement in the 1950s: nitrate film stock is highly flammable. Nitrate film is flammable in a perfect state; however, as it ages and decomposes into a brown powder, it progressively becomes more and more flammable. This is why the replacement for nitrate, acetate plastic, is called “safety film.” Nitrate films have been known to easily catch fire, with the fire spreading to other highly flammable films near it; this accounts for the large amount of movie vault fires, and for the loss of the films as a result of those fires.

Decomposition, especially due to improper storage, is the main cause of silent film loss. When nitrate films decompose, the top layer of the film will separate from the base, resulting in missing patches of the film and visual imperfections – some of which can hardly make the film viewable. This is illustrated well in the recently-discovered United Staes Motion Picture Corporation Comedy, His Neglected Wife, where some sections of the film are obscured by large blotches. Even properly storing the film does not guarantee its survival. This is why so many silent films are of poor viewing quality, with issues such as black or white blotches across the screen. The deterioration of nitrate film can also lead to certain parts of a film being unviewable altogether, thus destroying certain scenes. In fact, entire films have been destroyed; this is why most silent films are considered “lost.”

Many of the films of the United States Motion Picture Corporation and the United States Moving Picture Corporation seem to have suffered that final fate, with the acidic nature of the films even destroying parts of the documents — summaries and manuscripts – which accompanied them. While films such as Flesh and Spirit survive, they survive only through the efforts of those who clamor to preserve early film. Flesh and Spirit was transferred onto safety film in 1966 by Andrew Sordoni, and was later transferred by Charles Petrillo, in 2010, into a digital format. Unfortunately, the preservation of other early silent films is often limited by insufficient funds to perform the restoration. With the clock ticking away on the life spans of these films, with the nitrate decomposing more and more, early films cannot wait and, eventually, can be lost with the passage of time.

Information on the preservation of early silent film, including the U. S. Motion Picture Corporation film His Neglected Wife, and information on how you can get involved in the preservation of early silent film can be found on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website: www.filmpreservation.org