Reviving and Preserving Alexander Forbes's 28mm Home Movies

Up From the Basement: Reviving and Preserving
Alexander Forbes's 28mm Home Movies

Dwight Swanson


My presentation is a case study of a recent preservation job we did here at Northeast Historic Film. The hero of the story is a man from Blue Hill, Maine, named Irving Forbes who called me up in the summer of last year. He was calling from Massachusetts, where he was visiting his sister and was going through the family films which had been stored in her house.

Irving told me that the films were 35mm and I was skeptical, because 35mm home movies are so rare, and limited to only the wealthiest of families. Also, one thing which you quickly learn as an archivist is that most laypeople don’t really have that good of a grasp of the differences in film gauges, so you usually have to have them describe the film to you—is it as wide as your pinky or as wide as your thumb? At first I figured that they were probably 16mm, which of course is much more common, so I had him describe the film to me. He said that it was about an inch wide and they came from the ‘Teens and Twenties. That made me go “hmmm…” because if they were from the ‘Teens they couldn’t have been 16mm, since of course that wasn’t commercially available until 1923. Now I was thinking that they really were 35mm after all, so I had to figure out if the film was nitrate or not, since the Forbes’ were going to be driving home from Massachusetts with the possibly deteriorating film in the trunk of their car in 90 degree weather.

As we were talking, Irving kept mentioning a projector, which usually makes my eyes glaze over because I’m personally just not all that interested in film equipment. But then at some point he mentioned that there was a rooster on the projector’s cover and a light bulb went on over my head because Pathé’s 28mm projectors went by the trade name “Pathé Kok” and they had a rooster as a logo. I asked him to go get a reel of the film out and describe the perforations to me. Specifically I asked him if for each frame there were three holes on one side and one on the other—the tell-tale sign for Pathé film. He said that there were and I immediately started to salivate because 28mm home movies are even rarer than 35mm, and I knew that this was going to be a major find for us.

Alexander Forbes

The films were taken by Irving’s father Alexander Forbes, so I’m going to take a divergence to give some biographical information about him. All of this information I got from various sources on the web, which should show you just how prominent Forbes was. He was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1882, the youngest son of William Hathaway Forbes, Bell Telephone Co.’s first president, and Edith Emerson Forbes, a daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In other words, he came from a family with enough money to be able to afford some pretty decent film equipment. He leapt gracefully from the top of one field to the top of a completely different field with apparent ease.

Forbes attended Harvard, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in biology, and finally an M.D. He was more interested in clinical research than practicing medicine, so he concentrated his studies in electrophysiology. After graduation from the Harvard Medical School he continued his research in England, where he produced two seminal papers demonstrating electrical recordings of central reflex phenomena. In the early 1910s, Forbes returned to America, and during the First World War enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to work with the Submarine Signal Corporation. There he assisted in the development of submarine detection devices. When the war ended he came back to Harvard to continue his neurophysiological studies at Harvard. He became a full professor there in 1936.

Meanwhile, though, during the summers of 1931, 1932, and 1935, Forbes had organized expeditions to survey the northern Labrador coast. It was during these trips that he perfected the technique of taking photographs at an oblique angle from the cockpit of his airplane in order to improve the available mapping techniques of the coast. Several of Forbes’ papers about the trips were published by the American Geographical Society.

When World War II started he was almost sixty years old, but that didn’t stop him from joining the Navy again and going back to Labrador, where his knowledge of the Northern Atlantic coast helped in the selection of sites for airstrips in Labrador, thereby expediting the transfer of fighter planes from North America to Europe. With the war over he returned again to Harvard, and in 1948 was named professor emeritus. It was then that he began his work on the physiology of color vision at the Harvard Biological Laboratories.

That takes care of his work life, but in his spare time Dr. Forbes also was a sailor, flyer, skater, skier and equestrian, and most of these hobbies show up in his films. For our purposes, the most important of his hobbies was cinematography, since it is because of that that we are here talking about him.

28mm (another divergence)

The following is mostly taken from a paper written by Anke Mebold and Charles Tepperman of the University of Chicago, with other information coming from Alan Kattelle’s book Home Movies.

Pathé Frères had begun producing their 28mm cameras and film stock for the French amateur market in 1911. It was primarily marketed as a gauge for use in watching movies at home, and much less so as a home movie format. The reason for this is primarily because of the expense. 28mm was a negative/positive system, so unlike the later 16mm reversal film system, for every foot of film you shot you had to pay for two feet of film—one foot of negative and one foot of print. And if you think about it, 28mm isn’t really all that much smaller than 35mm. Its main selling point wasn’t its cost, but the fact that unlike 35mm of the time, 28mm stock was safety film, so it was considered safe to project at home, unlike the flammable nitrate, which already had a bad safety reputation after some major theater fires. Both the leaders and the cans in the Forbes collection boldly state “Non-Inflammable Film—Safety First.” Interestingly, though, the 28mm negatives are made of nitrate, so clearly Pathé was mostly concerned with the dangers of projection, not of the film itself.

Anke and Charles, in their paper--which is available in the special amateur film issue of the journal Film History co-edited by Dan Streible--do an interesting study of the marketing of 28mm. Obviously, it would be difficult or impossible for Pathé to try to market their system to the masses, since it was just too expensive. The cameras cost $150 in 1915, which is the equivalent of $2500 in current dollars. Instead they sold it to the elite classes as a type of status symbol item, although a functional one. An early Pathé booklet said that “although new to America, Pathéscopes already grace many of the finest homes and create the greatest enthusiasm and delighted amazement wherever shown.”

[I]t does not appear that the introduction of the professional projecting machine in the home can be considered as a monumental proposition, nor can we discern any insurmountable barrier on the score of expense, because it compares in that respect very favorably with the untouched piano or the much-used player piano, to say nothing of the family automobile with its complicated machinery and high cost of maintenance.

We have to keep in mind that the cinema itself was at this time still a fairly disreputable business, so it made sense for Pathé to not try to sell their projectors as a way of recreating the movie theater experience at home. In the words of one writer, the Pathé system was “designed as a refined alternative to affluent consumers who would avoid the disreputable and seedy venues where films were shown publicly, but might be interested in watching movies in the comfort of their own home.” The distribution branch of Pathé was more successful than the home movie film department. At its highest point in 1921, there were 1,204 titles available from Pathé catalogs. There is a 28mm Union Catalog being developed and by far the largest holder of 28mm films in North America at least, is the National Archives of Canada, in a large part because it was a primary format of a provincial motion picture bureau in Ontario, and the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension, which received a gift from the Goodyear Rubber Company to establish the “Winged-foot Travelling Library of Moving Picture Films and Lantern Slides.”

Getting back to home movies, the Pathéscope system was first marketed in America in 1914 and Alexander Forbes apparently purchased his camera in 1915, meaning he was probably one of the very first people in the U.S. to do so. Once again, because of the cost of the Pathéscope cameras, very few cameras were sold in the United States and virtually no Pathéscope amateur films survive in any American archive or film collection. Ironically, though, Northeast Historic Film does have another 28mm collection—the Kitty Clements Collection, which comes from Blue Hill, Maine, the same town that Irving and Margery Forbes live in now. Some of you may have seen the film of the home production of “Snow White” which comes from that collection. It was such a coincidence that they were both in Blue Hill that we started to wonder if there wasn’t perhaps some connection between the two families and the two cameras, but apparently it is just a coincidence, since at the time the films were made they didn’t know each other.

Back to Maine

Irving and his wife Margery came into Northeast Historic Film as soon as they arrived back in Maine and we began inspecting the films.

The collection contained fourteen reels of 28mm home movies, dating from 1915 through 1928 as well as some 28mm and 35mm negatives, some of which corresponded to the prints and some of which didn’t. In addition to the home movies, there were a few commercial prints on a variety of topics: otters, water beetles, the circulatory system, and documentaries about the French military and a city in Poland.

We pulled the home movies out of their box in no particular order. Most of them had some description written by Alexander on the can labels. Apparently when Forbes bought his camera in 1915, in a rush of enthusiasm he shot six of the reels that year. Several of the earliest reels were filmed by Forbes while on canoeing and kayaking trips in Maine and Massachusetts. Irving and I were expecting some thrilling scenes but the films were almost entirely static shots—it appeared that Alexander set up a tripod on the side of a river and watched the boats go by. The same was true with his films of sailing: the camera was set up on the deck of the boat as it cruised through the water. Even more interesting, in a minimalist kind of way, were three reels which were labeled “surf”—these reels were nothing more than shots of waves crashing onto the beach, sometimes for several minutes at a time. I have heard before that scenes of waves crashing on the surf was actually a type of film genre in the very first years of the cinema, but I’ve never actually seen any, and I doubt that Alexander Forbes had either. I suspect that he just like to watch waves and so it perfect sense for him to film the beach in Maine so that he could bring the films back home to Massachusetts and watch them there. And why not film that?

Historically, probably the most significant film of the batch is one called “Naushon Sheep Drives.” Naushon Island is off of the coast of Cape Cod, and was purchased by Alexander Forbes’ grandfather in 1843, and has been a Forbes family retreat since then, “the scene of countless fishing outings, painting weekends, and musicals.” The reason why Irving and Margery aren’t here today is that they are on Naushon with their family.

[Clip 1—sheep on Naushon Island]

The film, when you see it projected on film is kind of beautiful and very soothing, but the subtext of the film, which I learned later from Irving, is that in the years since the film was shot there has been a major biological shift on the island. Coyotes arrived on the island (having swum over from nearby islands), killed off most of the sheep, and as a result the landscape has been overrun with thick brush and poison ivy. So the film documents in its own way a massive environmental change on the island.

Most interesting to both Irving and I, however, were the movies of the Forbes family at home. The films consist almost entirely of shots of the children at play on the lawn at their house in Milton, Massachusetts.

We were looking at the films on our rewind bench, stopping every few feet to peer through the film with a loupe. Irving and I looked at the reels and watched his three older sisters Katherine, Janet, Florence playing and dancing, then in the later reels Irving himself appears, playing with a ball and riding his tricycle. I was hoping that as we looked at the films that they would turn out to be something really groundbreaking and of vast historical importance, but to be honest they weren’t really all that exceptional and a lot of them were frankly kind of boring. I kept asking myself...“if these were on 16mm instead of 28mm would they be so fascinating and would I be paying so much attention to them?” And to be honest, the answer would probably be “no,” but since they WERE 28mm they WERE important, and as anyone who knows me knows, there is no home movie too mundane that I can’t become obsessed by it, and in fact the less “interesting” a film is, in the conventional sense, the more fascinated I am as to why it was filmed in the first place. As I’ve rewatched the films they really do have a kind of beautiful simplicity to them.

If you can picture the scene, I was standing alongside Irving as we were looking at these 80 year old films including footage of his sisters, two of whom have since passed away, as well as fleeting glimpses of his mother and father. Even though I was there acting as a professional archivist checking out the condition of the film and supplying him with technical information, it was still one of the most intensely emotional experiences I’ve had on the job.

From the very first time I talked to Irving he kept asking about the Pathé projector and what it would take to get it running again. One of the rules for archivists is to always try to keep people from projecting original materials, especially with a projector of poor quality—and this one would definitely need a lot of work before it could run at all. I kept telling him over and over about this “rule” against projection, but I also kept weakening every time we talked because I realized that I wanted him to wait until we had done full preservation on the prints, meaning making new 35mm negatives and prints which we would then project for him in this theater. This was clearly going to take a long time and a lot of money, and more and more I felt like I was protecting the films for some future, abstract audience, and here I was keeping the one person in the world who would gain the most out of viewing them from being able to see them. Eventually I decided that I was going to do everything I could to allow the Forbes’ to be able to watch their home movies, even though I didn’t really have any idea at the time how that was going to happen.

As luck would have it, though, my friend Anke Mebold had already become obsessed with 28mm film and was chairing a panel on the history of the format at the upcoming AMIA conference in Boston. As part of that panel, Sandra Joy Lee from Industrial Light and Magic was bringing a functioning 28mm projector with her to show some Pathéscope reels. I found it the height of irony that she had gotten some ILM technicians, who mostly work with the most cutting edge digital technology—to fix up this ancient projector.

After the panel we arranged to get the biggest hotel room we could and to set up the screening for the Forbes’ there. Throughout this whole process I always felt like Irving thought that I was slightly crazy for making such a big deal over his little home movies. It wasn’t until I told him that I had arranged for a whole group of archivists to show up and watch them that he realized that it wasn’t just me and that the films were, in fact, pretty unique.

I felt like we had to be kind of secretive about it because I was afraid of being ratted out by some purist archivist for projecting original unpreserved materials, but frankly I didn’t really care all that much at that point and I don’t think anyone else in the room did, either. It helped that I had full confidence in the projector, since I had seen it in action earlier at the conference. Irving and Margery and one of their daughters showed up and about half dozen archivists, and it was just fantastic—probably the best single moment of my career so far. Irving didn’t actually talk all that much during the screening, but I don’t know exactly what he could have said, since most of the films were shot before he was born and they were so simple that they didn’t need a lot of explanation. His comments were mainly about how simple their toys were at the time—just a ball or a tricycle or sometimes nothing at all.

[Clips 2-4, home movies and scenes of 28mm projection]


I felt really happy about the screening since I had done my little part as a human being, but when I got back to Maine I realized that I was still a film archivist, too, and I had to get work on really preserving the films. I started writing a National Film Preservation Foundation proposal to preserve as much of the film as I could and I felt pretty confident that the NFPF would go for it, since it was such an unusual story.

As part of the funding process, first you have to get two estimates from labs. There are two labs in North America set up to print 28mm film, the Library of Congress and the National Archives of Canada, and we did have “Snow White” from the Kitty Clements 28mm home movie collection printed by Bill O’Farrell several years ago. For an NFPF grant, however, we were limited to two commercial labs: Haghefilm in Holland and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy. Nicola Mazzanti of L’Immagine Ritrovata had been on the 28mm panel in Boston where he talked about optical printing of 28mm. Haghefilm, on the other hand does digital scanning of their 28mm and as a result the price was several times higher, so we ended up going with L’Immagine Ritrovata strictly so that we could try to get more reels printed. In the end we asked to do 35mm blowups of five reels:

[titles from Alexander Forbes labels]

1. Naushon [Island] Sheep Drives, June & Sept. 1915, 250 ft.
2. Surf, Cranberry [Island], Dart, Jericho Bay, Black Duck, 1915, 300 ft. [note: Cranberry Island and Jericho Bay are locations in coastal Maine, the Black Duck was the name of a Forbes Family boat]
3. Family at Milton, Oct. 1915, 50 ft.
4. Janet & Florry, Milton, 1919, Seal Harbor [Maine], 1920 and Forbes Children, Milton, 350 ft.
5. Forbes Children, 1924-1928, 350 ft.

Of these, the NFPF only agreed to fund the first three reels—the ones from 1915. I’m still very disappointed that we couldn’t get more, especially since the last one was probably my favorite reel. The total budget for 35mm prints and digital betacam transfers of these came to almost $2,500. I had hoped to be able to show the films today, but since there isn’t a lot of demand for 28mm printing they do it infrequently, so the films are still in Bologna.

Because I wanted to say something about the importance, and in particular the aesthetics of 28mm home movies for this presentation I got out my original NFPF proposal to remind myself what I had written and I found this paragraph, written in my best grant-writing language:

The Forbes family films offer a fascinating example of amateur filmmaking before the grammar of the home movie became codified following the advent of the less expensive 16mm filmmaking in the 1920s. Although Northeast Historic Film has one of the largest home movie collections in the country, our early amateur films are typically on 16mm, so these will be among the very oldest the films in our collection and will document an era which is sorely lacking in motion picture documentation of this type. The last reel in this group shows typical home movie scenes—children at play—but with an air of formality in the filmmaking very unlike the majority of the home movies which were being produced concurrently.

So I was all set to come up with some grand theory about how these earliest home movies are completely naïve documents since in 1915 Alexander Forbes had probably never seen a home movie and therefore every early Pathéscope filmmaker was individually creating the form anew. By studying this form, then—both with the Forbes films and the Kitty Clements films—maybe we could distill from them what exactly was the essence of amateur film. The most striking thing about the films is their almost complete lack of camera movement. This led me to come up with a smarty-pants explanation that Forbes was inspired more by still photography than movies. Then I took a look at a picture of the Pathé camera in Alan’s book and I realized that the thing is really heavy and because of its awkward rectangular shape has to be held on a tripod—so that’s why there was no camera movement. Just then it struck me that I could easily test this theory because in 1929 Alexander Forbes gave up on 28mm and purchased a 16mm camera—presumably a Cine-Kodak, so if I were to watch these later films I could make some grand generalizations about the Alexander Forbes aesthetic. Here, then, is Alexander Forbes’ earliest 16mm film.

[Clip 5—footage of skiing] note: very frantic motion and scenes shot while on skis

Pretty clearly, then, it is the technology of the camera which was determining the static style of the early films.

Forbes continued shooting 16mm until at least 1938 and we have already been given his 16mm footage of skiing, an air show, kayaking, and canoeing and an ice skating show in Boston, as well as commercial prints of the Hindenburg and Donald Duck.


To conclude, I want to step back and consider the broader question of home movie preservation. Recently I’ve been asked (and I’ve been asking of myself, as well), what is the ultimate point of preserving home movies?

The tone to this question isn’t the same as it was several years ago when it seemed like people who cared about amateur film had to always be on the defensive and justify every decision. Now, though, at least among archivists and increasingly among audiences it seems like we’re finally getting to the point where home movies are pretty much accepted as being worthy of preservation and consideration. It’s time for the next step—now we have to keep moving on up to the next level and figure out ultimately what to do with the all of these films we’re storing and preserving.

For the past four and a half years, in this job and in my previous one, I’ve had a remarkable amount of input into the preservation decisions—sometimes it’s scared me just how much. This past spring I had to give a presentation to archivists on prioritizing films in their collection for preservation, based upon a case study of a recent NFPF grant Northeast Historic Film had received. I made up the usual list of elements which go into this formula: condition, trying to choose a variety of films based upon genre, subject matter, ages, formats, potential uses... but then at the end I added one subjective factor: “liking the film,” because I realized that in the end, the particular film I was discussing was chosen in a large part just because there were a lot of shots in it I just liked. This wasn’t just a capricious decision because it was made jointly by [colleague] Andrea McCarty and I for a lot of valid historical reasons, and obviously the NFPF thought that they were valid, too, since they did give us the grant. And in the end I felt justified because it turned out that a lot of other people liked the film, too.

Still, I felt slightly awkward telling these archivists that something as subjective as a film’s emotional resonance should be reason to preserve a film. I kept thinking, though, of something which Bob Brodsky had talked about at the AMIA conference in Portland in 2002—about how films, particularly home movies are made up of a series of gestures, and ultimately it is those gestures which influence what we get out of a reel of film. Obviously it’s not the type of thing you can put in a grant application: “This film should be preserved because there’s a really nice shot where Irving Forbes rides towards the camera on his tricycle,” but more and I more think that’s a really valid element.

As I was working on the preservation plan for the Forbes films I kept asking myself: “am I asking for thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money so that a family can watch its home movies again?”. And the answer was usually: “yeah, I kind of am.” Obviously there were a lot of other historical reasons which justified their preservation—specifically the 28mm format and the extremely early date of the films, but for me the reaction of the family was very important, and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. As archivists, we don’t really talk about the personal element much because we’re usually putting films in a broader social and historical context and I don’t know how many times I’ve talked about home movies as “cultural records” or something along those lines—and I do completely believe in that, but it tends to make them sound so dry. More and more, though, I feel like the best audiences for home movies are the families—the same people who gathered in living rooms decades ago to watch the reels that had just come back from Kodak. Ultimately, maybe it is the hundreds of VHS copies of home movies that I made of people’s home movies while I was here at NHF that will be the most important thing I did.

Looking back at the Forbes collection preservation, although it was the historical anomaly of the films having been shot in 28mm which initially made the job interesting, but in the end because the films were 28mm I couldn’t do the usual thing of do a quick transfer, send the family a VHS tape and forget about it. It forced me to get much more involved with the films and also the family, more than any other single collection I’ve worked with, for which I am very grateful.

Please direct any questions about the Forbes Collection to