Public Domain Day advent calendar #13: Safety Last! by Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, and Tim Whelan

Yesterday the Library of Congress announced the latest additions to its National Film Registry.  The registry, which has now been active for 30 years, is intended to list films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”, and to ensure their preservation, whether by the Library of Congress itself or by other organizations.

One of the 750 films in the registry will be joining the US public domain 19 days from now.  Safety Last!, a silent comedy whose best-known image is that of Harold Lloyd’s character dangling from the hand of a skyscraper’s clock, high above a city street, was copyrighted in 1923, and the copyright was renewed in 1950.

The copyright renewal registration says the film is “by” Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, and Tim Whelan, all of whom are credited as writing the story.  Hal Roach also produced it, and Sam Taylor also co-directed it.  The other director, Fred C. Newmeyer, is not mentioned in the Catalog of Copyright Entries renewal record; the popular present-day notion of the director being the main “author” of a film doesn’t appear to have taken root at the time. Current copyright registration practices for authors allow a wide variety of individuals to claim authorship for role such as “direction, production, editing, music, script and cinematography”.  Alternatively, a film production company can claim the entire authorship for itself, if the film was made as a “work for hire”.

Safety Last! was added to the National Film Registry in 1994.  The Registry website has an essay by Richard Bann discussing the movie and the making of the iconic skyscraper clock scene. Bann spent $4 million preserving this and other Hal Roach films.

Many other films were released and copyrighted in 1923, though that’s the only film on the Registry joining the public domain in January.  (Salome, a film based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same title, is also listed on the Registry as a 1923 release, but it was copyrighted in 1922, and is already in the public domain.)  Unfortunately, many other films of the time are no longer available to be viewed, much less preserved.  A 2013 study written by David Pierce written for Library of Congress, The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929concluded that only 14% of the feature films produced in the US in that time period survive in their original format, and that 70% “are believed to be completely lost”.

Traces of those lost films exist in our cultural record alongside the surviving films.  The Copyright Office has published cumulative lists of film copyright registrations for 1894-1912 and 1912-1939 that can be used to see what was produced in those early years of film.  (Project Gutenberg has also transcribed the 1894-1912 listings and 1912-1939 catalog, putting them in formats convenient to search.)  Any renewals filed for these films can be found in online scans of the Catalog of Copyright Entries.

If you want to get a better sense of the films than bare listings provide, it helps to see how they were promoted and discussed at the time.  One good place to look for that is The Moving Picture World, a trade magazine for the American movie industry published from 1907 to 1927, the height of the silent picture era.  It has articles, publicity photos, and full-page advertising spreads for many of the films released in American cinemas, some of which are now otherwise lost.  We now have a near-complete run of The Moving Picture World online, thanks to libraries that have scanned their copies and uploaded them to the Internet Archive.  (I’m also thankful that the magazine didn’t renew its copyrights, allowing the run to be be freely readable online now all the way to the end.)  Other movie periodicals are also online; I list a number of them on The Online Books Page, and am happy to hear of others I can list.

While full restoration of old films can be an expensive undertaking, even inexpensive copying and reformatting would help preserve access to many films that might otherwise disappear entirely.  I hope that public domain status, along with generous copyright exemptions for preservation and restoration, will permit a broad range of people and organizations interested in particular films to keep them alive.  With a new crop of films joining the public domain in January, it might be worth doing another search of film archives and collections to see if any of those “lost” films turn up, and preserve them while there’s still time to do so.

2019 update: Link to full silent video of Safety Last!, now in the US public domain, on Wikimedia Commons.


About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
This entry was posted in adventcalendar. Bookmark the permalink.