The Movie Savior

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So how does "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" figure into this year's 0scar ceremony, even though it was nominated for best film way back in 1954? Well, it's all because the original negative of the film was badly decaying, reports CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver.

"All I can remember about 'Seven Brides' is the agonies of that one."

But longtime Hollywood executive Roger Mayer, now head of Turner Entertainment, saved the day -- and the movie. A pioneer in film preservation, he had "Seven Brides" and scores of other movies restored, a major reason he will receive the Motion Picture Academy's prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award next week.

"It became a personal passion of mine very quickly because I have always believed that film is truly an art form, truly history and truly a social conscience," he said.

But when Mayer became assistant general manager of MGM more than 40 years ago, and went to check out the studio's film library:

"It was the middle of July. It was about 120 degrees in the vaults and I came back and reported that indeed, the film was secure, and it was unlikely to be stolen, but it was deteriorating like mad," Mayer said.

Original negatives of many important films (even "Gone with the Wind") were in jeopardy.

"It was close to being seriously, to have seriously deteriorated in a manner that could have been a loss on a long-term basis," he went on.

Mayer's aggressive efforts helped even helped restore "The Wizard of Oz."

Gradually, all of Hollywood got into the preservation act, but it was too late for many great films:

"To give you an example, it is thought that about 85 percent of all silent movies ever made are lost," said Mayer.

The problem is that film (especially the older stock) tends to decline over time. Often it gets stuck together in a big clump, what's known as "Hockey Puckin," brittle to the touch.

The film can also get caked with white residue; sometimes it just flakes apart or shrinks.

"If you would put a damaged film through the projector, would it just tear up at this point?" Braver asked Julia Nicoll.

"You would be able to view it that one last time," she replied.

Nicoll works at Colorlab in Rockville, Md., one of several facilities around the country that have blossomed over the last five years as interest in film restoration has surged.

The folks there have developed a series of processes to clean, remoisturize and even re-photograph fragile old films using specially designed projectors. Sometimes, total repair is not possible.

"So this is color film that's very faded and we see that like spidery thing sacross it," noted Braver.

"Right, this is film that has not a right to live, it was in such awful condition," said Russ Suniewick.

Suniewick is a co-owner of Colorlab. He says that while many major studio films are now being restored because there is a commercial market for them, there is a whole other class of films that desperately need to be saved: so-called "orphan films."

"What does that mean, 'orphan film'?" Braver asked him.

"It's a film that no one wants. It doesn't have the appeal for a commercial audience. These often are the culturally and historically most important films available. Many are at the brink of extinction because of the aging process."

Case in point: A film called "Kannapolis," recently restored at Colorlab. It's one of a series of films from the 1930s and '40s of life in small North Carolina towns, made by itinerant film make H. Lee Waters.

"This fellow would, would film these episodes in these towns and then charge 25 cents and rent out the town theater for an hour and a half before the program feature and people would -- or families -- would come and pay their quarter and go in and see themselves on the screen," Sunniewick said.

The movie (which includes some advanced trick photography) is actually an adopted orphan, restoration work paid for by Duke University.

And "Kannapolis" has now received an important honor. It's been listed on the National Film Registry, established by Congress as a way to encourage film preservation. Designed to protect both major feature films and lesser-known gems, it's an ever-growing list, now up to some 400 films, 25 chosen each year since 1989, everything from early comedies like "The Bank Dick" starring W. C. Fields to footage documenting one of our national tragedies: the famous Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination.

"It's a mark of the variety and the pluralism of American creativity and that's what we try to represent on the registry," said Librarian of Congress James Billington.

Recommendations are made by a panel. Billington has the final say.

"The buck, so to speak, stops with me," he said.

Billington says that once a film is placed on the registry, the Library of Congress must acquire a top-quality print. Many of the films are already in the vast collection there.

"So have you ever counted up, like, how many pieces of film or how many separate things there are in your collection?" Braver wanted to know.

"Well, it's about 1.1 million film and video items," he answered.

But, as at other film archives, a number have greatly deteriorated over the years. In fact some, like the "Great Train Robbery," made in 1903, existed only in a format known as a "paper print, which could not actually be screened.

"This is the first Western, really, for the modern model for Westerns, and this is the way they were stored, really up until 1912," Billington said.

But now the movie has been completely reconstituted on film.

Another top quality preservation: "The Kiss," one of the very first films ever shot (by Thomas Edison in 1896).

Of course, a film doesn't have to be endangered to get on the registry. In some cases, studios have maintained good prints of films like "Animal House," one that Billington personally wanted on the list of great American Movies.

"I think it's a very good comic film, and, in a way, it spoofs our indulgent collegiate life, a whole side of adolescent America," he explained.

With other films, like "All Quiet on the Western Front," the 1930 masterpiece about the horrors of the World War I, the Library had to track down a number of versions of the film to put together one complete print:

"It had been doctored up and changed, and it wasn't that easy, because it's not just so much preserving the film; it's a question of restoring it to its original power."

So for Billington and others in the world of film preservation, it's welcome news that Roger Mayer will be honored for his long-time commitment to saving this important part of America's heritage.

"I call Roger the Billy Graham of film preservation, because no matter where he is, he's always had this as a central piece of his consciousness."

"You wouldn't allow your art to deteriorate," Mayer said. "You would not allow the books in the library to deteriorate, but everybody was allowing film to deteriorate as if it wasn't art."

Not anymore.