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Saving Classic Cinema


By Mary Daily

Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM


One of Gitt’s projects was the restoration of The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum as preacher Harry Powell is pictured.
Photo: Courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive

“Film preservation takes three things: technical ability, aesthetic sensibility and a deep knowledge of film history,” says Robert Rosen, former dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television and former director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “Bob Gitt is that rare individual who has all three.”

Since 1977, when Robert Gitt became UCLA’s first film preservation officer, he has supervised the preservation of about 360 features and hundreds of shorts. He has created “an archive program that is respected around the world,” says current archive director Jan-Christopher Horak, adding that Gitt “has been the single most important force in placing UCLA at the forefront of moving-image restoration.”

To appreciate Gitt’s commitment to his craft, consider the 1955 film, The Night of the Hunter, which he first saw on late-night television in 1959. He admired everything about it and was surprised that the director was actor Charles Laughton.

Fifteen years later, while working for the American Film Institute (AFI), Gitt visited Laughton’s widow in Hollywood to pick up photos, sketches and memos related to the film for deposit with the Library of Congress. While there, he learned that she also was sending boxes of the film’s outtakes to the AFI Film School for use in teaching and research.

A few months later, though, Gitt’s AFI colleague learned that the students were using the outtakes simply as padding in the work prints of their student films. Right away, he arranged to have the 18 boxes shipped to the AFI in Washington, D.C. Inside were about 80,000 feet of random picture and sound trims.

So began a task that would take Gitt more than 25 years — assembling the film in the proper order and synching the picture and sound. Finally, in 2002, as part of UCLA’s Festival of Preservation, he and film preservationist Nancy Mysel presented two-and-a-half hours of the outtakes, which were in surprisingly good condition. The snippets revealed a lot about Laughton’s technique. Unlike other directors, he often left the camera running between takes as he gave direction to the actors. Today, The Night of the Hunter is the only classic film of its era for which complete takes, outtakes and director’s on-camera instructions survive.

Dedication as great as this is one reason Gitt is in huge demand around the world as a speaker on the history of motion-picture color and sound. And, at UCLA, Horak says, Gitt has “positioned us well for the challenges ahead in an increasingly digital environment.”