The Final-Hour Preservation of Dance, Girl, Dance in Nitrate

The Final-Hour Preservation of <em>Dance, Girl, Dance </em>in Nitrate<em></em>

A slyly feminist film by the only woman directing in the Hollywood studio system of her thirties-and-early-forties heyday, Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance stands as one of the era’s most groundbreaking—and entertaining—backstage sagas. And as it turned out, a different sort of behind-the-scenes drama developed during the production of Criterion’s edition of the film (now available). Our timing in approaching Warner Bros. about the prospect of restoring and releasing Arzner’s 1940 movie, one of a few titles in the company’s library directed by the trailblazer, ended up being quite fortunate: without our edition on the horizon, the film’s nitrate camera negative—always the best element to use for restoration purposes, when one is extant—could have decomposed completely in storage.

The story starts with Warner Bros.’ commitment of considerable resources to the preservation of its own library, efforts that the company—with which Criterion has enjoyed a long working relationship—has recently been able to streamline. “Really for the last three years, we’ve had an initiative that we jokingly refer to as preservation on steroids,” says Warner Bros. senior vice president of theatrical marketing George Feltenstein, who oversees the studio’s vast back catalog of titles. “We’ve got a large team going after as much content as possible and addressing the preservation needs. And we’re scanning . . . the best surviving elements at 4K, and this becomes what we can rely on in the future, hopefully, as a backup. But with a library as large as ours—and ours is by far the largest in the industry—you can’t do everything all at once.”

The cold-storage vault at Warner Bros.

The necessary prioritizing is now guided by an annually updated “archive health report,” the brainchild of Steven Anastasi, Warner’s vice president of global media archives and preservation services. The report assigns each film in the library a score based on the quality of the available elements. A movie’s prestige or profitability doesn’t factor into the equation, and neither does it matter whether a title is an original Warner Bros. production or a holding acquired from another company—though certain market needs, such as an upcoming home-video release, can put a film at the front of the line. Special consideration is also given to movies shot on nitrate stock—phased out of use by the early fifties, on account of its high flammability—which also tends to deteriorate rapidly once it has begun to decompose. As the studio’s director of preservation, Craig Johnson, explains: “Since nitrate is an organic substance, even the base—the clear base that the emulsion’s affixed to—is organic. So it will decompose into nothing. We have pictures of reels that are literally dust. And there’s a stage of decay called nitrate honey, which literally looks like gooey honey on the reel, and that’s essentially nitroglycerin.”

Despite its original camera negative (or OCN) being nitrate, Dance, Girl, Dance—in which Arzner gets a pair of unforgettable performances from Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, as dancers who become fierce romantic and onstage rivals—had not yet moseyed its way to the top of the archive health report. This was due largely to the fact that New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a viable—if less than ideal—backup element: a second-generation fine-grain master positive, also nitrate. (The best element Warner Bros. itself has on-site is a fourth-generation safety—that is, non-nitrate—fine-grain, which had been used for a 2007 DVD release that, Feltenstein says, “was several generations away from the original, and did not look as good as we had hoped.”) But Criterion’s licensing of the feature quickly put it on the preservation fast track. Warner Bros. arranged to have the film’s negative sent coast-to-coast from its home at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—one of the few facilities in the country where such nitrate can be stored. Studios are allowed to keep only ninety minutes of the material on their own lots at any given time, a measure aimed at preventing the destructive vault fires of the past. The federal and state requirements surrounding the shipment of such negatives are stringent as well: they must be packed in specialized, reinforced boxes, and cannot travel during the summer months. And there is only one company that will carry the hazard: FedEx.

Photo by Michael Borquez

MoMA also sent their fine-grain west, and it went, along with the negative, to an outside “prep house” for close evaluation—a step that, as per the studio preservationists’ standard operating procedure, precedes the actual digital scanning of the film. In the case of the Dance, Girl, Dance OCN, the early diagnosis was not good: in addition to wear and tear such as scratches, dirt, and glue residue, moisture had at some point seeped inside the film cans, leading to water spots and other chemical stains. In addition to nitrate’s general instability as a material, the particular provenance of Arzner’s film certainly hadn’t done the negative any favors. Dance, Girl, Dance was originally produced and distributed by RKO, and came into the Warner Bros. fold in the midnineties, prior to which the RKO catalog had passed through several other hands—and not always conscientious ones. “The RKO library titles were not given the proper attention in the years prior to the company’s acquisition by Turner Entertainment Co.,” which is now part of Warner Bros., says Feltenstein. “And so you never know what you’re going to be working with in terms of your film elements. With some of the most important RKO films”—including Citizen Kane and King Kong—“the original camera negative is long gone, and you’re working with second-generation elements.”

Once it was clear that Dance, Girl, Dance’s negative had begun to decompose, under the influence of moisture, getting it scanned—and as soon as possible—became a matter of some urgency, as is the case with any nitrate OCN whose condition has begun to deteriorate. Warner Bros.’ in-house Motion Picture Imaging facility was assigned the job, one that requires constant vigilance. “We scan decomposed sections at 1 fps”—instead of the rate of 6 frames per second typically used for undamaged nitrate—“so we can closely monitor shrinkage and listen for excessive sticking and stop the machine if needed,” says Michael Borquez, who manages the film-scanning process at MPI. “Our Lasergraphics Director scanner is specially designed to handle film in advanced stages of decomposition . . . Thankfully, we were able to get this title in time, and although we did have frame loss, we were able to scan the entire feature before the decomposition became worse.” Anastasi also notes that the scanning process for an element in such uneven condition can often hold its own surprises, not all of which are of the unpleasant variety. “A lot of times, since the technology has changed, something that makes an element that might be tagged as ‘NG’ or ‘no good’ is irrelevant in scanning,” he says. “Scanning actually ignores a lot of scratches, because instead of direct light—like in the photochemical process, [where] you’re pushing light through one film to expose another film—in scanning, it’s indirect light from a bunch of different angles, and it just simply doesn’t see it.”

Once Warner Bros. passed along its 4K scans of both the OCN and the MoMA fine-grain, the restoration team at Criterion then took the baton, mobilizing its expertise and deep digital tool kit to determine which portions of the film (in addition to where the negative had lost frames) absolutely necessitated the use of the second-generation element, and then from there working to assemble the best-looking presentation of the film possible. The clips below—the first from MPI’s original scan of the negative, and the second of the same sequence as it appears in Criterion’s final release—illustrate just how much vividness and richness of detail this painstaking restoration process can breathe back into the film image.

A scene from the nitrate scan
The same scene in Criterion’s release

But as Criterion technical director Lee Kline attests, work on a movie made as long ago as Dance, Girl, Dance doesn’t always wrap up with such an upbeat ending. “When you open up a negative from 1940, you’re kind of always hoping for the best, because that’s a really long time in the film world. And unless it was preserved perfectly . . . it could be great, or it could not be,” he says. “Many years ago, we opened up a can of the [1942] film To Be or Not to Be. It was a nitrate negative, and we were all excited about it. Most of it was not usable. It had basically all stuck together—mold and some moisture must’ve gotten in . . . But in this case, we got it at a good time.” Back at Warner Bros., the digital preservation work continues on at a furious pace, encompassing assets beyond just movies, including television episodes, video games, and comic books. But for Feltenstein, the near loss of the Dance, Girl, Dance OCN serves as an instructive example of the necessity of such efforts. “If we hadn’t gotten to it, let’s say, until next year, it probably would’ve been too late. It would’ve been gone. Now, that’s not to say that [in the fine-grain] there wasn’t something decent to go back to . . . But this just underscores the race to save and to preserve these films.”

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