Home #Hwoodtimes Preserving and Restoring Hollywood’s Classic Films: An Interview with Paul Gierucki

Preserving and Restoring Hollywood’s Classic Films: An Interview with Paul Gierucki

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/26/2019 – Motion picture film was originally made up of nitrate, a highly flammable and chemically toxic compound, causing silent films to erode over time. That is where preservationists come in – to restore and secure the films to high definition prints. A majority of films made before the 1950s are now considered lost, and film preservationists, such as Paul Gierucki, work to restore and rediscover the film history of the generations as much as they can before it is too late.

photo of Paul Gierucki
Paul Gierucki

“I have loved classic film as far back as I can remember! According to my parents, when I was just two or three, the only thing that I would watch on TV were old cartoons and comedies — Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang (airing as The Little Rascals), The Three Stooges, Popeye, and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Five decades later, that preference for comedy never went away.” It should be no surprise that Gierucki works in the field of motion picture restoration, preservation, and research, all topics he has been fond of since his early youth.

He helmed his own preservation and restoration company, Laughsmith Entertainment, Inc. from 1992-2010 and currently runs CineMuseum LLC, with partners Brittany Valente and Lisa Tatge, a specialty company in motion picture production, restoration, and preservation. The company enjoys a long-term collaboration with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on their classic film restorations. The joy, for him, is in sharing rare and long unavailable films with new audiences.

“I think that we first made contact with Charlie Tabesh, the Senior VP of Programming and Production at TCM, back in 2004 when we were working on The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Collection for DVD. He licensed the bulk of those films and arranged for the very first airing of an Arbuckle feature film on national television – Leap Year (1921), which was broadcast on April 4, 2005. We have continued to collaborate over the years on projects like the Mack Sennett 100th Anniversary Festival that broadcast 87 films, with 76 restoration premieres, airing every Thursday night in primetime throughout the month of September in 2012. And ten years after Leap Year first aired, we again collaborated to premiere our restorations of the long-unavailable Arbuckle feature films The Round Up (1920) and The Life of The Party (1920). TCM is a marvelous organization and always a great production partner. There is no greater broadcast home for classic movies.”

To this date, Paul Gierucki has restored over 300 silent and sound comedies and has collaborated on numerous documentaries and about 50 Hollywood related books and magazines. As a contributor on numerous projects, he is also working on a book on Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of his favorite classic actors.

“Arbuckle was a dynamic and extraordinarily talented individual. He worked in nearly every form of entertainment, from stage to screen, and could do it all; write, produce, direct, act, sing, dance, juggle, stunt work, emcee, he recruited new talent, mentored other performers, and so much more. His good nature and kind spirit carried him through the very worst of times until he was able to resume his rightful place on the screen, ten long years later, as one of the all-time great comedians. His story is not just one of tragedy but also one of great triumph, loss, perseverance, and redemption. He was a true Hollywood pioneer. In May of 1998, I acquired Roscoe Arbuckle’s personal scrapbook and started writing the definitive biography – 21 years ago – and it will finally see release next year. It was an extraordinarily complicated project, the research compiled exclusively from primary sources, but I think that the end result will be worth the time and effort.”

Gierucki made headlines for finding a lost film under the production company of Keystone Studios, known for their Keystone Cops shorts. The rare find is entitled A Thief Catcher, which was released in 1914 and retitled His Regular Job. He had been shopping at an antique show in Taylor, Michigan at the time, not finding anything worthwhile. On his way out of the venue, an old steamer truck caught his eye. He walked over to the truck and flipped open the top of it to find a stack of 16mm films. Spooling through everything in the stack, he picked out some titles along with a one-reel Keystone short. After paying for the sorted stack of films, he put them on a holding shelf for cleaning and repair. Months after the incident, Gierucki finally screened the print, turning out to be the reissue of the Keystone film starring film actors Ford Sterling, and to his eyes, Charlie Chaplin.

“It was exciting enough to find a lost Sterling comedy, but imagine my surprise when a very young Charles Chaplin strolls out dressed as a Keystone Cop! I could not believe what I was seeing and quickly sent some snapshots along to associates for additional confirmation. All agreed it was him, and the rest is history! Shock and disbelief – in equal amounts. Everyone dreams about finding lost films. It is an exciting proposition, but also a truly humbling experience which comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. It is critical to make sure that rare and otherwise lost films get into proper hands for long term preservation. In this instance, my goal was to have the film duplicated, scanned, digitally restored, and then share it with the rest of the world. We were able to do all of that (it was released to home video as part of The Mack Sennett Collection Volume One from CineMuseum LLC), and it has again been seen by millions all around the world.”

Films, such as the rare silent gem he found, deserve the most attention when it comes to restoration processes. Though the process seems easy, preservationists know the job comes with a long process, that is worth it for all the time put into it in the end.

“Every case is different but, generally speaking, we decide which title we would like to restore, do a great deal of research about the production, and then track down and secure the best surviving original materials and any known variations. We examine the physical elements (execute cleaning and physical repairs where necessary) in preparation for 4 or 5K high definition digital transfer,” he explains. “Once we have converted the film to the digital realm via our in-house telecine, we begin the digital restoration process. This includes things like replacing missing footage, recreating original logos, titles, dialogue cards, and end slates. We digitally repair splices, jump cuts, tears, jitter, frame burns, weaving, framing issues, and all manner of defects. From there we do an automatic dust and scratch removal, some additional hand cleaning, then we clean and sweeten the audio, or in the case of silent films we perform speed correction (with a proprietary process), and commission a new score which is married to the picture. The film is reviewed several times to check for any additional touch-ups or errors, and then a new master file is created. Once the film is fully restored, we can then send a copy of the digital file to a photochemical lab for conversion back to motion picture film! A new negative is struck and then positive prints for projection and donation to an archive for long term preservation.”

People wanting to join the field of preservation must note that their health is always at risk when doing such actions as tampering with every length of nitrated film stock. Though the nitrate is old, the compound is still highly flammable based on previous fires at Fox Studios’ vault in 1937, and the fire that burned three acres of the backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008. Though both fires are more than 70 years apart from each other, this shows that a fire can start at any minute, from the chemicals in the classic films, albums, etc.

Macintosh HD:Users:Sarah:Desktop:Taken by Molly Race of Gierucki.jpeg
Photo credit: Molly Race

“All film is handled with great care, but particular attention is paid to nitrate or films exhibiting Vinegar Syndrome. Gloves, masks, and proper temperature storage areas are a must. Unfortunately, I have been hospitalized on several occasions in the past for breathing issues related to prolonged exposure to the various cleaning chemicals, acetic gas, dirt, dust, and mold, which are associated with the search for and restoration of vintage film. (Please note that I am much more careful now than I may have been during my somewhat more reckless youth). I know individuals who have received severe skin burns after working extensively with decomposing nitrate. Every great passion comes with a price.”

For the past two decades, film preservation programs have been offered through graduate degrees at many universities across the United States. As a start for students wanting to learn more about the process, “I would suggest reading books like Nitrate Won’t Wait by Anthony Slide, Keepers of the Frame by Penelope Houston, The Film Preservation Guide (2004), as well as all of Kevin Brownlow’s books and documentaries. Learn from the very best.”

Lost films have been the hardest challenge for film historians, preservationists, and restoration teams to locate and repair, for decades. While there is hope out there for them to reappear above the surface, no one knows what they are going to find out there, hence Gierucki’s discovery of the Keystone Chaplin short.

“As a comedy maven first and foremost,” said Gierucki, “I would most like to see the lost Arbuckle and Keaton short A Country Hero, Laurel & Hardy’s Hats Off (which is the progenitor to their Academy Award-winning three-reeler The Music Box), the long lost Marx brothers silent effort, Humor Risk, Jail Birds Of Paradise (a two-reeler with appearances by Moe and Curly Howard), Harry Langdon’s last silent feature Heart Trouble, and The Rogue Song (a two-strip Technicolor feature with Laurel & Hardy). I certainly do wish that more films could have been saved from decomposition. So many intriguing films are considered lost, but I hold out hope as new discoveries are still turning up all over the world.”

Though most films are lost, our generations are able to enjoy the classics that have survived through those decades before becoming fully destroyed. Much of the greatest films are viewed today as a source of study; the more we watch a film, the more we notice the beautifully lit screens and notice things we soon value as important such as the quality of the film, the dimensions of character throughout the film, and the lighting and color of the film all thanks to the preservationists and restoration crews of our past and present times.

According to him, “These are films that I can watch over and over again — not because they are of great historical importance, but simply because they are wonderful. In no particular order: The General, Rio Bravo, A Night at the Opera, The Maltese Falcon, Sons of the Desert, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sunshine Boys, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Godfather (trilogy), The Wizard of Oz, 12 Angry Men, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Film preservationists, historians, restoration teams, researchers, such as Gierucki, continue to protect the nature of films to further preserve and teach the history to audiences on why their jobs are important in the industry. When asked how he would like classic films to be remembered, he said, “Archaeologists are currently digging up small bits of pottery and other remnants from ancient societies in order to gain a deeper insight into the lives and cultures of our ancestors. Since 1895, every single aspect of our lives has been captured by motion picture cameras – that is nearly 125 years of our entire existence being recorded in a moving, almost living, visual medium! I believe that it is incumbent upon our society to locate, preserve, restore, and exhibit as many classic films as we are able to find before they are lost forever. Classic film is much more than a form of entertainment. It is our history, our heritage, our legacy – a gift for future generations who will also almost certainly want to know who we were.”