Print tramps to new home


A print of "The Great Dictator" that Hitler himself might have watched is among the thousands of historic films that the Library of Congress is moving halfway across the country.

The print of the Charlie Chaplin classic skewering the Nazi leader is among the 120,000 reels of nitrate film that the Library is moving from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to its new storage facility in the foothills of Virginia (HR 9/5).

The "Dictator" print is part of a larger batch of U.S. materials that the German federal archive turned over to the Library, which is finding a new home in a converted Cold War bunker near Culpeper, Va. The Packard Campus, named for benefactor David Packard, was completed last year, but moving the delicate nitrate archive will take until the fall.

"Hitler saw 'The Great Dictator' twice," Library of Congress nitrate vault manager George Willemann said. "Whether he said anything about the film was never recorded."

Hitler really wanted to see it, though; with no American film distributors left in Nazi Germany, the movie had to be smuggled through Switzerland for him to view it.

Willemann can't say for sure whether the Library's print is the exact one Hitler watched. It came from the right place and the right time, though. "It's too good a story," Willemann said. "It must be at least partially true."

Joining the Hitler print on the trip east is a negative of a little anti-Nazi propaganda film — "Casablanca" — as well as prints of such Universal monster pictures as "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff and "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi.

Because of their flammable nature, nitrate films require special handling procedures to avoid accidents that could destroy them.

"There's a perception out there that it could explode at any moment, and that's not true," Motion Picture Conservation Center chief Ken Weissman said. "It's definitely something you have to respect and pack carefully. It's not TNT or gunpowder, but it does require special handling."