Still from Joan of Arc [Screen Test. Katharine Hepburn]. 1934. USA. Produced by Pioneer Pictures

Film Vault Summer Camp, Week Two: Preservation

Watch Warhol’s kissing couples, excerpts from the first film with an all-Black cast, and a rare Katharine Hepburn screen test.
Ashley Swinnerton Aug 13, 2020

Welcome to week two of Virtual Views: Film Vault Summer Camp. Every Thursday in August, we’re streaming selections of historic films from the MoMA collection.

Preservation is a key function of the Department of Film—there would be no film and video collection without preservation. While MoMA is committed to photochemical preservation whenever appropriate, we also embrace digital technologies for the restoration and cleanup tools they provide, and to expand access to our holdings. The Film department generally has a few dozen titles in the pipeline at once—sometimes a major restoration of a single title, sometimes groups of several, less complicated works. We also collaborate with individual filmmakers, such as Ernie Gehr and Yvonne Rainer, to protect and maintain their bodies of work. Many of our preservation projects premiere at our annual film series, To Save and Project.

Excerpt from Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1914/2014)

Lime Kiln Club Field Day is the earliest surviving feature film with an all-Black cast. Shot between 1913 and 1914 but never finished or released, the film was effectively lost to history until MoMA assembled the archival elements and released the film 100 years later. What we originally acquired from the Biograph Studio in 1939 were seven cans of unedited daily rushes. At the time the negative was printed for viewing in the late 1970s, our staff could see the footage featured Caribbean-American vaudeville star Bert Williams, but that was all. Because the film was never completed there were no release prints to which we could compare our reels, nor were there any production records or reviews. We took it up again in 2003 when new digital technology allowed for closer inspection.

The detective work involved frame-by-frame study of each reel for glimpses of the directors and crew stepping in front of the camera between takes, as well as facial recognition techniques to identify the cast. Curator Ron Magliozzi and preservation officer Peter Williamson conducted research over nearly a decade to decipher the plot of the film and recover its production history, even going so far as to employ a lip reader and explore Staten Island and New Jersey in search of locations.

Had Biograph finished the film, it would have been a broad comedy of rival suitors competing for the hand of the town beauty on fairground playing fields and a high-society dance floor. But what distinguishes Lime Kiln Club Field Day is the love story between Bert Williams and his leading lady, Odessa Warren Grey, arguably the screen’s first Black woman star. The scene featured in this excerpt is one of joy and laughter, an important representation of middle-class Black life in the 1910s, as well as a breath of fresh air in 2020. Since its initial screening, this work has been the Department of Film’s number-one most requested title for both loans and research screenings. Lime Kiln Club Field Day continues to inspire artists such as Garrett Bradley, whose powerful installation incorporating footage from the film, titled America, will be on view at MoMA soon.

Please note: Williams was among a number of leading Black performers who appeared wearing blackface onstage at the turn of the century, and this practice carried over into early films. As we see in this excerpt from Lime Kiln, adopting this convention of the minstrel stage allowed significant numbers of their fellow Black castmates to appear alongside them, without being forced to wear racist makeup as well.

Joan of Arc [Screen Test. Katharine Hepburn] (1934)

Taken at face value, this 4K digital restoration is a screen test of Katharine Hepburn, in costume and in character as Saint Joan of Arc. May 1934 was almost certainly a tumultuous time for Hepburn—still flying high on the success of playing Jo in Little Women, freshly divorced and pursuing a torrid romance with her agent, Leland Hayward, and grappling with the release of her first flop, Spitfire, just two months prior. Despite Hepburn’s luminous appearance, this version of Joan of Arc would never be made: the producers failed to secure the rights to George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan, because they intended to cut the script. So, instead of Joan, Hepburn made The Little Minister, the second strike on her way to being labeled “box office poison.” One can only imagine the trajectory her career would have taken had she played a role so perfectly suited to her strength of conviction, defiance of the rules, and love of slacks. It took 14 more years to produce Joan of Arc, RKO finally releasing their version with Ingrid Bergman in the title role in 1948.

More than a screen test, this film is also a test of Technicolor’s latest three-strip subtractive color process. With the restoration you can see many variations in the colors, as Technicolor had not yet perfected the technique. A more refined version of this process would later be used in many famous color films, including The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes. As with the large-gauge film featured last week, many scholars visit the Film Study Center to research difficult-to-locate color formats, such as Cinecolor, Dufaycolor, and Prizmacolor. Due to the uniqueness of many of our holdings, the Museum often contributes to resources such as the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

Kiss. 1963–64. USA. Directed by Andy Warhol. Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive. © The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved

Kiss. 1963–64. USA. Directed by Andy Warhol. Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive. © The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved

Kiss (1963–64)

We presented Kiss from August 13 through 20, 2020. The film is no longer available here for streaming.

While Lime Kiln Club Field Day is the Department of Film’s most requested title, Andy Warhol is the most requested filmmaker. Since MoMA’s 1964 exhibition Art in a Changing World, it has been nearly impossible to walk through the Museum without seeing an example of the Pop artist’s work; our Circulating Film and Video Library has been the primary distributor of Warhol’s films since the 1990s. Fascinated by the notion of time, Warhol experimented with the frame rates of many of his films, often shooting at one speed and then projecting the film at another. He intended the 16mm film Kiss—a meditative study of couples, well, kissing—to be run at 16 fps, which gives it a dreamlike quality without feeling plodding or slow. Kiss is a prime example of MoMA’s collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to digitally preserve all of the artist’s films. To celebrate this partnership a trio of Warhol's early films, including Kiss, is currently installed in a blackbox theater in MoMA’s gallery 411.

What you see onscreen is probably not what most people think when they hear “preservation” or “restoration”—Kiss has visible scuffs, scratches, and dirt—but that’s the way most of Warhol’s films originally looked, and it would be a disservice to his creative process to remove the imperfections. Warhol shot Kiss on reversal film, meaning there was no negative: the reel that ran through the camera is the same reel he then projected for audiences at the Factory, making the scratches and damage caused by the projector part of the film itself.

Film at MoMA is made possible by CHANEL.

Additional support is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by Steven Tisch, with major contributions from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.