Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Defending My Dad's Good Name: Accuracy in History

My father, Sid Samuels, Vice-President of Worldwide Services 
at 20th Century Fox, just before his retirement in 1987

History, it's worth reminding ourselves, is created through the prism of the historian's life, experiences and personal sense of morality.

I was reminded of this fact the other day when I was poking around the internet and came across an article on motion picture industry history that happened to mention my late father.


Apparently, this "editor/historian," a man by the name of Rick Mitchell, was particularly unhappy with a decision my dad made in the 70's: "*I have also seen film-outs of 2K restorations of "DOWN ARGENTINE WAY" (1940) and "LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN" (1945), necessitated by Seventies moronic Fox executive Sid Samuels' decision to have all the company's nitrate three strip Technicolor negatives duplicated to CRI stock and the originals then destroyed!"

I realize this is all somewhat obscure for most people, but it boils down to this:  In the early days of the motion picture industry, film was printed on nitrate film stock - which was not only flammable, but unstable and prone to deterioration if not carefully preserved. As a result, many early works have been irrevocably damaged or entirely lost.  Studios, always focused on the bottom line (yes, even in the early days), rarely saw the value of preserving their old product.  Today, there are countless outlets for such product, and the film preservation movement is a healthy force in the film industry.  That wasn't the case throughout much of the 1970's.

For many years, Nitrate prints of many Fox films were kept right on the lot, in special fireproof vaults - but an investigation, as I recall, showed that many of those films were beginning to deteriorate.  My father headed a department which, among other things, was responsible for Fox's film library.  He was given the directive to save these films - but with little or no resources (as my father would later relate the story).  He did the best he could, I think, under the circumstances, making an informed decision based on (at the time) over thirty years of experience at Fox.  Naturally, as he noted many times, he couldn't please everyone - particularly those who could only speculate on the realities of working within the studio structure.  

It won't surprise you that I wrote Mr. Mitchell an email, questioning his use of the word "moronic" in describing my father.  I also pointed out that my father was, in fact, appreciated for his positive contributions to film preservation.  I reminded him of the management structure under which my father worked.

To his credit, Mr. Mitchell apologized for calling my father "moronic," but at the same time offered a perspective that makes me wonder about the objectivity of this historian.  After mentioning that he worked at Universal during that period, "a studio whose executives were the most moronic to infest the industry to that time," he went on to insist that "every account I've heard, from several sources including one who was at Fox at the time and involved in post, blamed him exclusively for the decision." (his italics).

Mitchell, I believe, has completely ignored the realities of the corporate / studio world. I'm sure he would have preferred that my father sacrafice himself and his job to the sacred altar of film preservation, but his responsibility was to balance all of these concerns  and, at the same time, fulfill company policy.  

Ultimately, my father had a forty-five year career with Fox, and to this day, 23 years after his retirement,  I still hear fond memories from his former colleagues and staff members. 

Mr. Mitchell, history is made up of real individuals, not one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs.  You may not have liked the studio structure, but understanding it is key to understanding the truth about decisions and motivations made in that environment.

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