The Tale of the Forgotten Films: An Archival Rescue

Donna Anoskey and Dan Rooney contributed to this post.

Years ago many government agencies, along with Hollywood and independent film makers, stored film productions with the private laboratories that provided their duplication services. In 2001, one of the premier film facilities on the East Coast, in business for over 50 years, went bankrupt, still in possession of tens of thousands of reels of film, including hundreds of titles made by government agencies. The company that purchased the property agreed to try to locate the rightful owners of the films and in 2006 they contacted the National Archives, as well as the Library of Congress, Hollywood studios and others to come identify and reclaim their film.

Almost a year later NARA sent several staff members on an initial visit to identify government films that could be accessioned into our holdings. However, lack of good lighting, poorly identified cans and no access to an inventory made it extremely difficult. During several trips NARA staff were able to identify, segregate, pull, inventory, and prepare for shipment all of the positively identified Federal productions. On the second trip new problems had arisen; leaking roofs and suspension of climate controls in the vaults increased preservation concerns.

In September 2007 more than 3,000 titles in 5,000 film cans, representing over 30 federal agencies, were shipped to the National Archives. Once they arrived, we started the process of sorting through them, obtaining legal custody from the originating agencies, and preparing them for long-term storage.

These rescued films made up the first project I worked on in the Motion Picture Branch. It was fascinating determining what agencies the films had originally come from and whether we had copies of the films in our holdings or if they were new to us. In my head I kept a list of the really cool things I came across, waiting for the opportunity to share them. Here are some of my favorites:

Smokey and the Little Boy (Local Identifier: 16-P-1147/National Archives Identifier: 2151)

This is a very dramatic animated film about the danger of working in oxygen-deficient conditions:

Two Breaths To…. (Local Identifier: 434-GENERAL-865/National Archives Identifier: 4487046)

Willy Whistle Television Spot: Curbs (Local Identifier: 416-PI-5/National Archives Identifier: 4499494)

After the Applause (Local Identifier: 235-WRS-2/National Archives Identifier: 4747978)

Check out more rescued films in this playlist.

6 thoughts on “The Tale of the Forgotten Films: An Archival Rescue

  1. Great stuff! Paul Frees narrates “Smokey and the Little Boy” and Casey Kasem, who did a lot of work for Hanna-Barbera, is heard on “Two Breaths to… “

  2. Wow! I can’t believe the efforts that must have been made even to send the reels back to their owners, let alone having to go through them and label/store everything. Are digital copies made of all the films?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Max! All of the federal government films came to the National Archives so the creating agency and the public can have access to them. We digitize films when researchers want to see an item that does not have a reference copy in our research room. Other films are digitized for anniversaries or inclusion in blog posts. Also, we’re currently working working on a donor-funded project to digitize WWI and WWII films. The playlist for this project can be found here:

      Our holdings are massive (500,000+ reels of film) so it will be a long time before it is all available digitally.

Comments are closed.