How Nitrate Film Set the World Ablaze
Decades before the compact disc, DVDs and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix – even Betamax, there was the film reel – specifically, the nitrate film reel that manufacturers stopped producing in the 1950s.
The reason for the sudden stoppage in the manufacture of nitrate film reels? Combustibility. This posed a huge danger not just to production outfits of the 1930s onward, but also to cinemas that necessarily stored nitrate film reels. By the 1950s, Kodak had replaced both colored and black and white nitrate reels with more stable film stock that didn’t blaze like their predecessors.
Film critics and curators like Genevieve McGillcuddy of the TCM Classic Film Festival state that there’s nothing quite like watching films straight from nitrate film stock, and many similar believers of nitrate film say that the experience of enjoying this type of cinema is close to a spiritual experience.
It truly is unfortunately that nitrate reels were actually manufactured with a chemical that was used in explosives. George Eastman, the founder of the Kodak company, first used celluloid nitrate as the foundation of cinematographic film stock in 1889. While celluloid nitrate definitely helped in creating high fidelity reproductions of cinematic sequences, the material degraded over time and became more and more dangerous as it aged due to the chemicals it released into the air.
Just how combustible is this material? New film can ignite with the ember of cigarettes, while older and more decayed film reels can instantaneously set itself ablaze with temperatures as low as 49 degrees Celsius. Older film reels kept together in locations with highly combustible materials like paper and wood creates the perfect sequences for a huge blaze, as celluloid nitrate releases oxygen upon burning, essentially feeding the blaze continuously, until there is nothing left.
Identifying nitrate film is fairly easy for modern film archivists of today. For one, nitrate film has a width of 35 millimeters, though the much older reels will be much narrower because of the natural degradation of the material. A visual inspection of the margins of the film will also identify the type of film you are looking at.
The ones marked with “Nitrate Film” will of course be the most combustible ones. When Kodak stopped producing nitrate reels, they switched to safety film, which had a different material base. These were marked with either “Safety Film” or “S.” Films struck before the 1950s almost have a one hundred percent chance of being filmed in nitrate reels, with the exception of European films. In Europe, nitrate films continued to be used well past the 1950s.
Disasters and preservation of nitrate film
The Glen Cinema disaster in December 31, 1929 is one of the more notable blazes attributed to nitrate film being extremely combustible. The Dude Desperado was onscreen when audience noticed dark smoke billowing inside the cinema. Panic ensued, resulting in the deaths of 71 children. The fire was attributed to a mistake committed by the projectionist’s assistant, James McVey.
Halfway through The Dude Desperado, the projectionist changed the thousand-foot film reel. James McVey carried used film reel to the Rewind Room. He placed the reel’s metal can on an accumulator battery. After the rewinding, McVey placed the rewound reel on the metal can. The resulting short-circuit immediately caused a blaze. The smoke, confusion and chaos from the smoldering film reel claimed 71 children that day, many of which died from being suffocated and crushed. The cinema’s exits were inaccessible.
The 1978 Nitrate Vault fire is another sad day for history buffs and the cinema buffs as well.12.6 million feet of newsreels were burned to ashes in Building A of the Maryland Federal Center. The aging structure had been unable to maintain the ambient conditions necessary to keep the newsreels stable, and before it was possible to carry out the necessary renovations on Building A, the blaze took place. In response, the Universal Company donated 28 million feet of newsreels that covered the momentous period of 1929 to 1967. The Archives had been in the process of transferring the most important of the footages to safety film, which was about sixty percent of the total number of nitrate reels stored in Building A.
Nitrate film’s continuing legacy
Some rare films still exist in nitrate reels, despite all the daunting challenges facing this cinematographic film. The Man Who Knew Too Much was (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934) was shown at the TCM Classical Film Festival in 2017, and was introduced by no less than director Martin Scorsese, who said that that nitrate film allowed images “to glow.”
A copy of this film also exists in the George Eastman Museum, where it has been in safe storage in 1999. According to the Moving Image Department of the George Eastman Museum, 6,000 of their 28,000 titles are still in nitrate film, including cult classics like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), Gone With The Wind (which grossed $390 million) and Metro-Goldwin-Meyer’s The Wizard of Oz. Other titles that have been featured by the museum are The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Phantom of the Opera (1943).
The legacy of nitrate film is indelible among serious cineastes, producers, directors and documentary buffs. Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time was produced in 2016, but featured many of the cinematographic techniques used during the silent film era, including overlays of textual information on shot footage. The documentary also included footages from old newsreels, such as the 1919 World Series. Dawson City: Frozen Time is as much a play on different film approaches as it is a wave to the nitrate film era, where cinema was deeply embedded in popular imagination and had a much more widespread impact on people’s culture and social life.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is another example of a modern filmmaker paying its respects to the medium that changed cinema forever. In one scene in the film, Shoshanna looks at film reels and states that she plans to burn down the cinema “on Nazi night.” The character Marcel ignites Shoshanna’s modified film roll (Stolz der Nation) and a massive fire ensues.