Digging Up the Celluloid Pueblo and Finding Treasures
A UA associate professor of English uses media archaeology to uncover rich, all-but-forgotten history of the American Southwest.
Jennifer Jenkins' smile betrays the fondness of someone talking about an old friend. Her language evokes indulgence of the Thanksgiving dinner variety. She leans in as if she were telling the juiciest of secrets, and her voice jumps up a couple pitches as she says film geeks would totally "gobble up" her "yummy" cellulose nitrate reels.
Then, she stiffens up in her chair and tilts her head sideways. She's thinking.
"Film captures the way people present themselves to the world. So why do this? It's our cultural heritage. Plain and simple. I mean, it just plain is," she says.
"This" is media archaeology, the process by which Jenkins has spent years painstakingly bringing the old Southwest back to life. And "this" is referred to as archaeology because it involves digging.
Jenkins' book, "Celluloid Pueblo: Western Ways Film Service and the Invention of the Postwar Southwest," forthcoming from UA Press in the fall of 2016, invites readers into the Southwest's past lives that she has dutifully uncovered.
Jenkins graduated from high school in Tucson, went to the University of Arizona for her bachelor's and doctoral degrees and has remained in Tucson ever since. She is an associate professor in the UA's Department of English.
People are nostalgic for the Old West, but the short, nonfiction films Jenkins analyzed for her research project contain "such a wealth of information." They are more than just "retro curiosities" — they are visual time capsules.
"Issues of class, of gender, of race … who's onscreen and who isn't, who's in center frame and who isn't, who's given a bigger portion of the frame…. That gives us a lot of information about the attitudes and the culture of the time that's being filmed. You just have to know to look for it," she says.
Jenkins' research focuses on films by Charles and Lucile Herbert, a prolific filmmaking couple in Tucson.
Charles, a Fox Movietone cameraman, met Lucile in Florida on his travels. After they married in 1926, she began joining him on his Movietone jaunts.
"Part of Herbert's genius was that he could visualize how a story would unfold before shooting it," Jenkins says. "It was so natural to him and so ingrained in him. You can just tell that he saw the edits before he ever turned on the camera."
When they eventually settled in Tucson, the Herberts shot more than 100 reels about Arizona and northern Mexico, on everything from planting a saguaro cactus at a mansion in the foothills to souvenir shopping in Nogales — all on cellulose nitrate film.
The Volatile Chemistry of Cellulose Nitrate
Before the base for film switched to cellulose acetate around 1948, there was cellulose nitrate, now considered a Class 4 hazardous substance.
Back when theaters would play cellulose nitrate films on the big screen, projection booths always had metal shutters; this way, if there ever were a fire — there were many — only the guy working the projection booth would be in danger. Entire film libraries burned to the ground, all because of a little 35mm film that looks something like a clear Fruit Roll-Up.
Early 20th-century film was made out of this chemical blend of cotton and nitric acid. It is highly flammable and unstable. It has an ultra-low flashpoint of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, emits poisonous gases as it burns and can’t be put out by water.
In order to process it, "you can't just slap it on a flatbed scanner," says Jenkins, who is certified to handle cellulose nitrate film. The friction from rubbing up against the surface and the heat from the scanner could cause it to burst into flames. Instead, cellulose nitrate film must be sent to federally licensed labs, where it will float on a cushion of air as it is digitized.
Starting in 2007 and with some funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research, Jenkins sent 15 different 10- to 12-minute Herbert films to a lab on the West Coast, where they were carefully restored and transferred, at a cost of $1,000 per 10 minutes of film.
'Cowgirls Shopping' Restored
One such film by the Herberts is titled "Cowgirls Shopping," which came to Jenkins in a rather sorry state. The movie was literally in pieces. Years of decomposition had eaten away at it, and the remaining film was cracking.
"Most people would've probably thrown it away," says Jenkins, but the National Film Preservation Foundation gave Jenkins funding to restore "Cowgirls Shopping."
The lab had to splice the reels more than 50 times, carefully filling seams with rubber cement and covering them with a transparent tape to hold the seal.
When Jenkins finally received the restored film, about a year later, she was able to identify it as a promotional film for Steinfeld's, a high-end department store that used to stand in downtown Tucson, on the corner of Pennington and Stone.
At the time the film was made, the Southwestern artist Ted DeGrazia had an agreement with Steinfeld's to paint original designs onto skirts and blouses. This was the era of the prairie dress.
In the film, two young cowgirls ride up to the store on horseback. When they enter, "live mannequins" twirl around in DeGrazia's "Southwestern deco" designs for them to see.
"There's this wonderful shot where the mannequin walks toward the camera in this skirt and it dissolves into the skirt on his easel at his studio where he's painting it. It goes through him painting it and then cuts back to the girls wearing their new outfits and looking very fetching," Jenkins says.
To determine when the film was made, Jenkins began digging.
She enlarged a single shot of the intersection, carefully examining the license plates on the vehicles. There, she would find their registration dates, which pointed her in a general direction: late 1940s, early '50s. She could also tell the time of the year, based on the clothing of passersby in the film.
With some rough dates and seasons in mind, she scoured online archives of newspapers from the time, until she eventually found an advertisement for DeGrazia's skirts in Women's Wear Daily. This discovery was followed by another: a story in a local Tucson paper inviting "everyone" to come to Mr. and Mrs. Steinfeld's residence at the top of the Pioneer Hotel for a screening of "Cowgirls Shopping."
In this article, one of the "cowgirls" in the film is mentioned by name. She was a student at the UA.
Jenkins searched for her online ("Google is a wonderful thing") and quickly deduced that she had graduated from Tucson High School in 1950. Jenkins then emailed the president of the Class of 1950, also found online via the school's alumni association.
She got a response right away. The "cowgirl" happened to be a good friend of the president's. Jenkins was able to meet with the cowgirl, who is now in her 80s, and conduct an interview.
Media archaeology requires perseverance and passion: From the time Jenkins first opened that can of old film to when she was sitting in front of the cowgirl this past spring, it had been five years.
"It's so fascinating opening a time capsule like that," she says. "It restores people and places to cultural memory in ways that the official history books haven't done. It adds to the texture of our understanding of a historical period.
"If all you get are the official government newsreels, that's not real life. It's a version of it, but not the messy one that real people lived in. It's not just names and dates anymore."
The Arizona Historical Society call numbers for the images are as follows:
- Portrait of Lucile and Charles Herbert: MS1255/Box 1/F8/Image F
- Man photographing saguaro: MS1255/Box 2/F16/Image L
On Oct. 19, 2016 as part of the Confluencenter for Creative Photography's Show & Tell @ Playground series, Jennifer L. Jenkins will present "Celluloid Pueblo," exploring the invention of the Southwestern imaginary with its roots in filmic representations dating back to the 1930s. The free event will be held at 6 p.m. at the Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St., and copies of her book will be available for sale from the UA Press.
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