July 9th, 2019

carole lombard 02
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A fiery, massive, largely silent disaster

It was 82 years ago today that part of Carole Lombard died, slightly more than 4 1/2 years before she actually did. This "death" didn't occur on a rugged Nevada mountainside, but in a small New Jersey town where she had far more than 21 fellow victims.

We're referring to a fire in Little Ferry, N.J., on July 9, 1937, that destroyed the entire Fox film vault stored there, along with content from other studios.

Because of the blaze, the several films the teenage Carole made for Fox, such as "Marriage In Transit" (above) and the western "Hearts And Spurs" (below, with Buck Jones), are feared lost forever, barring a near-miraculous recovery in some far-off place.

Lombard's lost output that day was minimal compared to others. Think of Theda Bara, the studio-created "vamp" who put Fox on the map in the mid-teens with vehicles such as "A Fool There Was."

Nearly all of Bara's films perished in the fire, including all but a few seconds of her 1917 turn as Cleopatra. Many of western legend Tom Mix's movies also were lost, as were the highest-quality versions of Fox releases prior to 1932; this presumably includes the best print of Carole's only talkie for the studio, 1930's "The Arizona Kid."

How did this disaster happen? Nitrate, the film stock used in cinema's first few decades, is highly flammable. There had been a heat wave in North Jersey in early July of '37, with daytime temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit at a time when air conditioning was largely limited to movie theaters. While the facility, built in 1934, was deemed fireproof, it lacked a fire sprinkler system or mechanical ventilation. Moreover, it was built in a residential neighborhood.

At about 2 a.m., there was spontaneous ignition in the building's northwest corner, and flames quickly spread. Vaults in the south and east portions exploded, and a mother and two sons were severely burned; one of the boys died 10 days later. it's estimated some 40,000 reels of film were lost.

Here's footage of the blaze, taken by the chief of the Little Ferry fire department:

That evening, the Bergen Record of nearby Hackensack reported the fire:

In the aftermath of the fire, motion picture companies developed safer, more durable film stock, in addition to improved archival safety procedures. But all media is inherently ephemeral, as was learned a decade ago when a fire on June 1, 2008 seriouly damaged a vault of film and recordings at Universal City (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/108392.html). It wasn't until this June that the severity of the musical damage was revealed via a report in the New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/magazine/universal-fire-master-recordings.html).

Original tape masters dating back to the late 1940s were destroyed; hundreds of thousands of recordings were lost, including alternate takes and session masters. Legendary labels affected included Decca (Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bill Haley, Brenda Lee, the Who), Chess (Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry) and many more.

The Times called it "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business." How depressing.

But let's leave on a happier note. ABC News covered the recent Rom Com Fest in Los Angeles, and here's their report, including comments from screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith. Enjoy. https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/video/celebrating-love-film-63954368?fbclid=IwAR2gEJUcR2NWRbXvhg1-xQ4exD9eI24q0N8XtF9ZHqu2TRVD1SxDL1MIRaU
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