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Treasures from the Archives: an interview with Clyde Jeavons

© Parviz Jahed


By Parviz Jahed.

Clyde Jeavons is the programmer of the London Film Festival’s ‘Treasures from the Archive’ section. He was the former curator of the National Film and Television Archive and the British Film Institute. He’s been retired for some years, but he now annually programs the restored films at the London Film Festival. Clyde is passionate about film and has dedicated his life to the history of cinema and preservation of films.

As a film archivist, he rescued and preserved many classic films and has brought together some treasures and restored copies from the cinema archives across the world.

I met and interviewed Clyde at the 55th London Film Festival (October, 2011) where he screened a tempting range of films in the ‘Treasures from the Archive’ section including a restored copy of Georges Méliès’s 1902 Trip to the Moon (Voyage dans la lune) and Elia Kazan’s epic autobiographical film America America with Haskell Wexler’s spectacular monochrome cinematography.

Parviz Jahed: This year’s festival features an array of rare treasures from around the world including Elia Kazan’s masterpiece, America America, Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People and Edward Dmytryk’s epic film The Cain Mutiny with Humphrey Bogart. How do you select these films and where do they come from?

Clyde Jeavons: Well, the films kind of select themselves. I spend much of the year talking to my contacts in studios which restore films, to find out what films have been restored in the past year or so, and if I think they’re interesting enough I program them in the London Film Festival. So it’s almost random, there’s nothing thematic about it, it’s accidental. It’s just whatever the archivist has chosen to restore this year, that’s why there’s such a wide range of material on show.

And I may not know until 3-4 months before the festival what my final selection would be, but it’s based on these factors.

Is there a committee that selects the films or are you the only one who makes a decision?

Just me, I’m the archive consultant for the festival, I work alone. But of course I take advice from a number of ex-colleagues and friends – people in the business – first of all as to what is actually being restored and how to gain access to it via various routes, to determine whether it’s good enough. For example, I might attend one or two preservation festivals that exist now across the world; there’s the famous Bologna film festival (Cineteca Bologna) of restored and rediscovered films, that’s a very strong hunting ground for that kind of thing. There’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival which is the world largest festival of this type in Pordenone, northern Italy, and so forth.

And through my regular contact with my ex-colleagues and friends in the archiving world I also get recommendations, sometimes I get surprises, for example this year right at the last moment I was able to include in the program Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.

Is it in colour, this version?

Yes, it’s been known to exist, it’s only been seen in b&w copies with bits of colour. It’s [been] many years since the whole film’s been restored to its original condition. The colouring is interesting from a restoration point of view – it’s hand colouring, with a stencil.

Who did the colouring?

It was done with armies of women, with occasional hand colouring directly onto the film, there were no colour negatives – you had to apply colour onto the b&w print.

There’s a story behind being able to find this copy, I think it was found in Spain…

That’s right; there are various bits and pieces of the film that have existed but never the complete film. And I think they finally found a colour copy in Spain, very damaged and very worn.

Lobster Films and The Méliès Family Foundation and others came together with various bits and pieces that were discovered, and were able, digitally, to apply the colour as it was meant to be in the very first copies.

Are all the films in the ‘Treasures From the Archive’ selection restored copies?

They’re all restored to one extent or another. Traditionally, film restoration has been exactly that you gather together the best possible materials on a film. Nearly all films that are neglected, destroyed or damaged need restoration eventually. Traditionally it is a film photochemical procedure, in which you take all the bits to a laboratory and try to improve them as best you can, including the sound of course.

In more recent years there’s been a dramatic change in film restoration, because of digital technology. You can not only restore films, you can take them right back to pretty close to how they should have been by using digital techniques, and you can restore faded colour and sound to its original condition, all sorts of magic tricks with digital enhancement. But you have to be careful: digitisation can also change the film, quite alarmingly, from how it should have been in the first place.

We’re in a transition period where laboratory film handlers are required to make sure the film is graded properly and looks correct when put back on film. And not all films are now put back on [celluloid] they are kept as a digital artefact, which is projected on the screen.

Is film restoration a difficult and time consuming process?

It varies, if you are, for example, Sony Columbia, you do a lot of restoration work. They are dedicated to restoring the back catalogue of Columbia films, systematically via the marvellous team led by Graver Crisp, and they have a budget and facilities to do so, at the top end they are able to conduct a programme of restoration doing the best work they can.

For example, The Bridge on the River Kwai which I showed last year at LFF, has now been restored back to its original look and its original cinemascope ratio and back to all its true colours. It is a very splendid restoration, looks like it was shot yesterday. That is now a digital artefact that you can put back on the screen.

Or on the other side, you can have the poorest archive struggling to restore films of their own accord, the factor there is whether someone would help them.

We have had, for some years now, the Film Foundation in America, which was a move made by Martin Scorsese to recover and restore American cinema. And that is a ‘part-funder’ to restore films, it doesn’t have the money to restore complete films, but it is one of the funding bodies now, for selective restoration of American films.

Scorsese has now extended that to the ‘World Cinema Foundation’, that is specifically aimed at finding lost or damaged or neglected masterpieces in poorer archival countries where they don’t have the resources adequate for restoring almost lost film.

This year you have a Turkish film called Law of the Border, which is the last film staring Yelmaz Guni and restored by Martin Scorsese and his Foundation.

Law of the Border

That was a politically damaged film, the film of Yelmaz Guni and his associates was denounced and nearly all materials were lost or deliberately destroyed. Fortunately one print was kept by the family – one precious damaged print – and thanks to the World Cinema Foundation it was possible to take that film and restore it in a good laboratory, and bring it back to life.

That’s at the other end of the scale, and then in the middle you have the other archives and studios, all restoring films of their choice, sometimes very easily – they just need to find good original materials and reprint them and enhance them, or they could be severely damaged films which require a lot of work both photo-chemically and digitally.

So it could be a very pricey project to restore a film?

It’s deeply expensive, yeah.

Are there any priorities for selecting films to restore?

Well, only local ones. For example Sony Columbia’s restorations range from the early films of Frank Capra – one or two of which are now completely lost – but thanks to this programme most of Frank Capra’s work has been rediscovered and been restored, and I’ve shown most of them in the festival, systematically.

And that can go all the way up to, well in the case of Columbia, the late 30s when Capra ceased to work for Columbia, but even after that many more films from the Columbia studios right up to The Cain Mutiny [were restored].

The Cain Mutiny was not a very problematic restoration, but a very interesting one, in that it’s typical of a 30-40-year old film which has been used and printed a lot and the original material has been worn, the colours have faded, the sound is damaged and it will still cost a lot of money to put all that back into shape, for it to be restored digitally and photo-chemically and screened again.

And very often in that period, cinema, and particularly high-end commercial cinema, went through an explosion of technology in the 50s (by that I mean widescreen, cinemascope, stereo sound, in order to compete with television).

There were a lot of early cinemascope films that until recently could not be restored to their original ratio, because photo-chemically it’s too difficult and too expensive, but digitally you can now redesign the shape of the film back to its original ratio.

So there are one or two films out there which I’m very anxious to see restored for that very reason.

How do you judge a restoration? Is there any limitation not to exceed?

Money…

Except that?

You can over-restore a film. Firstly you don’t change the way a film is supposed to look, integrity means you stick to the original look and design of a film, and secondly you don’t take out materials that were in the original version – it doesn’t matter if it’s a cinéma vérité of the 1960s and there are hairs in the gate and the camera’s moving around, and its grainy, you keep all that, that’s the integrity of the film.

If you take a film like Wanda which was shot on 16mm, in a cinéma vérité style, then you have to accept all the look of the film that goes with that; it’s grainy, the colour is not glorious Technicolor, it’s natural colour – on pictochrome in this case – and you keep all that, you have to remain honest to the original artefact. To do that you have to have people who are used to that kind of material and know how to handle film, whether or not they’re using digital techniques to conduct the restoration.

This year there’s a copy of Marcel Carne’s masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradis in your programme and I heard that it was the first negative print to receive a digital restoration treatment in ‘4K’…

It’s one of the first to have been up to 4K digital standards.

How can you differentiate between 4K and 2K?

If you’re looking at a film on the screen you can hardly tell the difference between 2K and 4K with the naked eye, there is some difference, it’s [similar to the] difference between 35mm and 70mm – there’s a difference in sharpness and clearness. But not everyone can show 4K at the moment. That’s just a restoration standard, and it’s a standard that can be used in some venues. And at the moment most venues which can show digitally show up to 2K. But 4K will come, and all new films and restored films will come up to that standard. I don’t think there’s a huge difference myself.

But the industry is always progressing and looking forward and improving its own technology all the time.

The thing about a film like Les Enfants du Paradis is that it’s 1940s b&w, relatively cheaply made during WW2 and it has its own ‘look’. And the important thing is that, however the film is restored, the original look of the film has not been impaired, as far as possible. I would say that it was pretty well done. In this country, we have never seen a good copy of the film. When it was a quite popular repertory film in the 60s and 70s, we probably saw quite bad, worn out prints in repertory cinemas which were never up to this kind of standard, so we’re not quite sure what the standard was and we accepted what we were given this time, but it looks pretty good and the sound is marvellous – and that’s often a very important factor.

Do you show 35mm restored copies at the London Film Festival?

As I said you restore from original materials as far as possible – you scan them onto digital machinery and you use that to enhance and restore. That’s a tool for removing damage and restoring colour, it’s a very expensive tool – so expensive that most archives and studios only use it if they don’t have the photo-chemical alternative, but nevertheless it does save a lot of films, [reducing] the damage and wear and tear of the film.

As for what goes on the screen, you can go two ways when you finished enhancing the film digitally, you can then make a print again, or you can make a digital artefact and show it as a DCP, a digital cinema projection version of the film. Again, the industry both in the lab and cinema is going through a transition between projection of original celluloid and the projection of digital cinema and what you get depends on the technology they have in the projection box, and again I stress that with older films you must be careful that what you’re showing is close the original creation.

There is a copy of Roberto Rossellini’s unseen film, The Machine That Kills Bad People in the programme.

I hadn’t seen it until this year.

Yes, it’s very rare.

The Machine That Kills Bad People

It’s a remarkable film. It’s almost a Jacques Tati-esque satire on the situation of Italy at the time, it’s a combination of [themes such as] the post-war economy, ambition, the need for money… It’s as simple as that really. And it’s a farce and it’s anticorruption to an extreme level. But the reason it wasn’t a commercial success is that nobody knew what to do with it, in the cinema, nobody knew how to distribute or show it – [it was] completely unlike a ‘Rossellini film’. He was just coming out of his neo-realist period and entering into his high drama period with Ingrid Bergman. And he made this as a highly personal statement, I think, and nobody knew, so it disappeared almost immediately. Very few people had seen it, those who had had forgotten it.

I didn’t really know what I was showing. I was expecting the worst, but it’s a terrific film, very funny, beautifully made and a period piece, which works [now too], dated though it is, the message still works. It’s still relevant.

And what about Robert Parish’s powerful but under-appreciated film noir, Cry Danger, which has been restored by Nancy Mysel at UCLA?

Again film noir is now quite fashionable, and many of the American studios and archives are now restoring a lot of film noir, partly because they’re not difficult to restore, they’re all small b&w films which are worn and torn and have to be brought back to life.

But film noir is going through a fashionable phase, there are many DVD sets of film noir, most of the well known ones have been restored and Cry Danger just happened to be a rare example of one that is very little known and little seen. I think it was the second film in which Dick Powell starred in as a serious actor [as opposed to a 30s crooner that he used to be]. And he was very adept at playing gritty, slightly dubious gangster or detective roles in these kinds of films.

Cry Danger turned out to be a brilliant little film, with a most wonderful and amazing script, with great performances from Powell and Richard Erdman and Rhonda Fleming and now, for my money, it enters the cannon of very good film noirs and I hope it will stay afloat this time.

And Robert Parish is an interesting figure because he was originally a child actor and I think he was in All Quite on the Western Front and films like that. He then became an editor and finally he blossomed into director. This was his first film, and it was beautifully made, he’d obviously learnt his craft, and he went on to make a number of good films like A Wonderful Country – he specialised in western films – more importantly he wrote a couple of brilliant memoirs about Hollywood, the very best ones about Hollywood, one was called Growing Up In Hollywood, and those are well worth reading, very excellent portraits of the Hollywood scene.

You’ve also western films in the line up, such as Rainbow over Texas, how did that come about?

I’ve been asked for a couple of years now to feature a Roy Rogers B-western, Under Western Stars. I’ve kind of resisted because it’s short and difficult to program, but I was persuaded by someone from the UCLA Film and Television of Archive to present a double bill of Roy Rogers films because it’s the centenary of his birth.

So I was persuaded, [Rogers] was a hero of mine when I was a kid, and I took it to Sandra Hebron the artistic director of the London Film Festival thinking she would say no, she immediately said yes – good for her – she knows well the range of films we like to put on at the London Film Festival.

Under Western Stars turns out to be a very good film, it’s not just a B-western but it’s actually almost a Capra-esque exercise and it has a sociological theme. It’s about the dustbowl need for water, and Roy Rogers becomes a young cowboy who sings his way to Washington on behalf of the local community, in order to save them from the evil and corrupt water corporation.

There are lots of different foundations and people involved with film restoration, are they interconnected with each other and aware of one another’s activities?

Yes, there is a huge network, the reason I can do my job every year and find the 15-20 films I need – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. [The films] come from a huge, unofficial collective of archives and studios and collectors and distributors and agencies who are passionate about film and who want to make sure that historic films are recognised and restored – not just for money but for sheer love of cinema.

There is for example the International Federation of Film Archives, dedicated to preservation and restoration of films. In the past 20 years they have increasingly cooperated with the film industry throughout the world – the parts of it that care – ensuring that films are rescued and restored, so yes it’s not lots of people independently, accidentally restoring different films, it’s a network of shared work.

Often two or more archives and studios and agencies will collaborate over the same film, they’ll acquire the materials from different sources. You may find, for example, a Russian film which needs to be restored. You’ll find a print in France or negatives in Spain: somebody will do the work of finding out where the materials are.

It’s important to [understand that] the whole nature of film, in its 110 years of existence, has been that it’s an art form that’s spread around the world and – particularly in the silent era – it’s a medium of international communication.

This also means that the film materials have spread around the world and sometimes they won’t even exist in the country of origin. They will only come from another source. For example there are collections in New Zealand and Australia of American films that don’t exist anymore in America and have to be repatriated to their country of origin. So there’s not only a network and knowledge of information – the stuff moves around as well. Often it’s recollected into one original source where it can be restored properly using whatever materials and tools are available.

What about in the UK, is there such a foundation here?

Film restoration in the UK is conducted by the British Film Institute National Archive, almost exclusively, but the same applies, it will cooperate with other archives and other sources of materials in order to regenerate a film. There’s no independent source of film restoration in the UK, it is more or less centralised on the BFI. But I should note that there’s also the Imperial War Museum that is an alternative source that restores films.

When you talk about the restoration of films from other countries, what about those which have poor archiving systems, is there hope for films in places like Iran where they are neglected by the local authorities?

One of the major differences is economic, whether or not the country has an archive in the first place, if it does have an archive how rich is it or how poor is it, whether or not it is traditionally a film producing country and most importantly in some cases, and I think it is the case in Iran and a number of countries like that, there are political factors, whether or not cinema has survived for political reasons.

Law of the Border

Again if you take Law of the Border, that is quintessentially a film that has suffered politically by an authoritarian, totalitarian regime wishing to suppress that kind of filmmaking that has attempted to destroy the film literally and it’s survived. That applies to many countries, particularly those with volatile politics. Or even in a country like Japan, which has suffered from a tremendous loss of its film culture, particularly from before WW2. Politics and invasion, militaristic regimes and neglect – [there are] many reasons why Japanese cinema has not survived and I doubt there’s even 10 percent of Japanese productions still surviving from before WW2. Since then films have survived better in Japan.

So this can happen not only in small volatile countries of production but major countries of production as well. And even in major film producing countries like America and Europe, silent cinema has only just barely survived – the popular figure is that not even 20 percent of silent cinema has actually survived – even in the major film archives.

How rich is the restoration of cinema so far?

Well, I’ve kind of answered your question I think. It all depends on what’s left to begin with. The first major period of rescue has been silent cinema – because of the major damage and loss and neglect. And I would say that the philosophy with silent cinema is ‘if you find it keep it’, restore it whatever it is because there isn’t much left.

And early sound films from the 1930s have also suffered dramatically from a great deal of loss. It’s not until you reach the 50s and 60s that a great deal more of cinema has survived, and one of the reasons for it is that the original material changed from volatile nitrate film – which can deteriorate chemically – to a safety standard. But there are other problems that have caused cinema to suffer.

And finally, what does restoration of a film mean to you?

Well, as someone who is passionate and dedicated to the history of cinema generally, the point about restoration for me is: all films are to some extent a work of art, in the same way that literature and painting is art, and when I say that I mean it holistically – the whole of cinema for me is an art form. And a very peculiar art form because you never see the original, you see a copy – and it doesn’t sit in a gallery as an original artefact. It’s also a very expensive, mechanical medium.

It is of exceptional importance that what I see in the cinema is as near to the original creation as possible and that’s what film restoration now tries to do, it tries to recreate the art and the artefact that was originally made and then copied for cinema projection.

And I speak as someone who grew up in a little provincial town watching the most terrible prints with the most awful sound possible, and it never occurred to me when I did that, there was something better that could be put on the screen, I was satisfied with what I saw, but now I know better!

And I know that film at its best is a beautiful artistic medium which deserves to be preserved and then restored in that tradition, and that was my objective when I was a film archivist and I rescued and acquired and preserved and tried to restore films myself as part of an archiving team and since then I’ve been dedicated to putting that work on the screen, of the people who are my successors in film restoration and so now I’m a passionate programmer of restored films.

It’s as simple as that.

Are there any films in your mind that you’re expecting to see restored.

There are two films I’m currently, desperately propagandising about that need restoration. One of them is It’s Always Fair Weather, which is the third of the three Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly musicals after Singing in the Rain and On the Town. And the point about that is it’s in original 2.55:1 cinemascope and all current prints are in the wrong ratio and the whole point about Fair Weather is that there are three men dancing on the screen – and they’re right across the whole screen. But the prints you see now cut them off, so at each end of the screen you only get half a dancer, you see an arm or a leg. So it is now possible to restore that film into its original ratio and have the complete picture.

And similarly you know I’ve just shown a restored version of Nicholas Ray film, We Can’t Go Home Again.

Is it the film about which Jean Luc Godard once said that Nic Ray is capable of reinventing cinema with it?

Yes it is. More importantly there’s Nic Ray’s Party Girl, also made in this original cinemascope ratio and again, I’ve not seen a print of Party Girl that is in the correct ratio, and it can be done now, digitally. It was very difficult to restore that ratio chemically. That’s what I’m working for, so those are the two films that I want restored to their original ratio – apart from all the other factors of damage, wear and tear.

Otherwise I’ll wait and see, every year I discover a new film or more, which is very pleasing to me. There are still films that I haven’t seen. Each year I get to see two or three more and I shall go on doing it as long as it gives me gratification.

Mr Jeavons, thank you very much for your time.

Pleasure.

Parviz Jahed is a freelance film critic, journalist, filmmaker, and lecturer in film studies, scriptwriting and directing. He is the author of a number of books and essays on Iranian cinema and the editor of Directory of World Cinema: Iran(Bristol: Intellect, 2012).

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