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Greg Wilsbacher, a curator at the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections, shows off the large collection of military films in the Lt. Col. James H. Davis Film Vault on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — Stored inside retrofitted, climate-controlled ammunition bunkers at Fort Jackson lives 7 million feet of film. 

The bunkers are cool and dry, important conditions to keep the fragile nitrate film from disintegrating, or worse — combusting into flames. 

These make up the bulk of the University of South Carolina's Fox Movietone News archives, which happen to turn 100 years old this year. 

"It's really quite precious," said Greg Wilsbacher, a curator at the university's Moving Image Research Collections. "It's considered one of the most important libraries of American film that's survived."

While Fox Movietone News may not strike a familiar chord with millennials, older Americans remember the news reels as an ever-present part of the movie theater experience. 

The black-and-white (and then color) clips offered a glimpse before the start of a feature film of news from the world over. The stories — at first silent, and then with sound — were captured by hundreds of cameramen hired by Fox to cover the most important events of the day. 

Those clips were spliced together to create short news reels that were shown each week before the start of a movie. Several decades' worth of outtakes from that footage now belong to USC. 

There's a clip of Josephine Baker on a trip to Holland in 1928. There are outtakes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's vacation to Hawaii in 1934. You'll find scenes from a 1923 Austrian dog race, from the Allied push in Normandy, footage of Adolf Hitler inspecting German naval officers, and highlights from some of the earliest Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades. 

There are astronauts and beauty pageants. Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. And a Broadway beauty named Miss Bee Jackson practicing Charleston's namesake dance alongside the Jenkins Orphanage Band in 1926. 

"Everything that we think of as news, they would cover," said Wilsbacher, who said William Fox officially launched his news reel business in September 1919. "He just threw a ton of money at this project, hiring staff all over the world."

The very earliest footage in the collection was filmed Aug. 16, 1919.

It features cameraman Harry Birch, his wife Lucille and their son William strolling in Chicago, looking at a window display of wooden shoes. The clip is silent and was only intended as a demo reel. These scenes were never used in a finished product. 

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Dana Bolton digitizes analog film at the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

All told, it would take more than 2,000 hours to watch every minute of the Movietone archives at USC. 

"The Movietone gift was a big deal," Wilsbacher said. 

The donation was made in 1980 when Twentieth Century Fox agreed to give $100 million worth of their Movietone footage to USC.

For years, the film had been deteriorating. 

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Film Curator Greg Wilsbacher shows a clip of Josephine Baker on a trip to Holland in 1928. The footage is part of the Movietone News film archive at the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A 1977 New York Times article reported the footage was in poor condition and that Fox, with help from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., was scrambling to transfer the images from nitrate film to acetate. 

"The 20th century is the only century for which there is a photographic record, and the newsreel camera was the means for it,” Harold Potter, Movietone's sales manager, told the Times. “We're not getting history by hearsay on newsreel — we're getting it firsthand. Think of a schoolkid hearing and seeing Roosevelt, or Arthur Conan Doyle or George Bernard Shaw.”

Within three years of that restoration effort, thousands of hours of footage was donated to the USC. U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond facilitated the gift. 

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Laura Major works on restoring old film reels at the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"It was a huge collaborative effort at high levels of state politics," Wilsbacher, the USC curator, said. 

While Fox originally intended to give approximately 70 million feet of film to USC, the collection now stands at about 11 million feet. The general public may view material free of charge at the Moving Image Research Collections, but USC, which owns copyrights for the footage, charges licensing fees for commercial use. Ken Burns' Florentine Films is a frequent customer of the Movietone News archives, Wilsbacher said. 

The collection has been digitized, and is searchable online, but most of the original film is held at Fort Jackson. At one point, the university proposed building a $40 million library to house the archives. The building never materialized. 

In 1980, former USC President James Holderman told The News and Courier the Fort Jackson bunkers seemed to be working out well. 

"Hopefully, someday, we'll have a building for it," Holderman said, "but right now it's fine where it is."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

Lauren Sausser is the Features Editor at The Post and Courier. She also covers health care issues in South Carolina.

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