English professor and film preservationist Scott Simmon breathes life into early cinema


(Originally written for Steve Magagnini’s Journalism class, UC Davis, November 2011)

It’s hard for Scott Simmon to contain his enthusiasm for movies. He bounds around his spacious English department chair office in Voorhies (guarded by his assistant, Mary, and a bowl of candy) grabbing books he’s written about early Westerns and the great director King Vidor and his latest DVD box set, Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, thumbing through them fondly and pointing out highlights. From the box set, he recommends Mantrap, a 1926 romantic comedy.

“Clara Bow is so irresistibly charming,” Simmon says, grinning excitedly and offering to lend the DVDs. His gusto is infectious, and it’s easy to see why New York Times critic Dave Kehr described Simmon’s work as an “engaging combination of showmanly flair and scholarly responsibility.” Simmon can appreciate the characterization.

“I’m a proselytizer. It pleases me to show this stuff off,” he said.

But for his passion, Simmon got into film almost by accident. Born in San Francisco and raised in Orinda, Calif., he got his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in English at UC Davis, in 1972, ’75, and ’79, respectively. He changed majors four times, wavering between psychology, sociology, and theater before settling on English – disappointing his parents, he jokes, and forcing them to “raise money for my unemployment.”

Simmon wrote his dissertation about Ulysses, or, as he describes it, “fat novels and how they got that way.”

“The real trick is that you write about books that are so long and complicated that the dissertation committee will not read them and be too ashamed to admit they didn’t read it,” he said.

While finishing up the dissertation, Simmon moved to Washington, D.C., with his girlfriend at the time, who had gotten a job as a librarian in the Library of Congress. But instead of applying for academic jobs, Simmon began working in the Library’s film archives (the largest in the world with 300,000 titles), filing film cans and other photographic records. Then, a new position opened up.

“When [silent film actress] Mary Pickford’s third husband, Buddy Rogers, came along and gave us $10 million to turn what was formerly the staff screening room into a public theater, I was the one to volunteer to run it,” Simmon said. “My cinematic education was hauling Reel One of every movie off the shelf to see if it was good enough to foist onto the public.”

Simmon was the director of public film programs and ran the theater, which was free to the public, from 1983 to 1988. He chose which films to show – anything he wanted, he said, because admission was free and people couldn’t complain – and was in charge of all aspects of the theater.

“There’s a Peter Sellers movie called The Smallest Show on Earth, which it kept reminding me of because I would take people’s tickets and then I’d go down and introduce the movie and I would quickly run to the projection room to play projectionist,” he said.

The Library of Congress gig was followed by teaching stints at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State before Simmon returned to UC Davis full-time as an English professor in 2002.

But Simmon stayed involved in early cinema, and in 1993 he curated the first-ever series of archival films released onto video. While the National Archives preserve most films, Simmon personally restored Within Our Gates, from 1919, which was the first film directed by an African American. The job required him to translate the film’s subtitles from Spanish to English, since only a Spanish-language print survived.

Simmon worked with his wife, Annette, to write two reports for Congress, Film Preservation 1993 and Redefining Film Preservation, which were published and helped formulate the national film preservation plan in 1994.

Since 2000, Simmon has worked with the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), a nonprofit based in San Francisco and directed by Annette, to curate and release four Treasures DVD box sets. Each contains close to a dozen hours of silent and black and white films with commentary by film scholars, new musical scores, interactive features, and a booklet of contextual information written by Simmon himself. The logistical work involved in coordinating each aspect of the set is exhausting, Simmon said, but without his efforts the films may never be made public.

“I feel a responsibility because when I started doing this I thought the Archives would pick up and start doing this on their own, and they have to an extent,” Simmon said. The problem, however, is that copyrights to the films are held by studios, while the physical film is owned by the Archives. Neither side is able to release the films on their own. But because Simmon operates through a nonprofit, the NFPF, he can sidestep copyright fees and release the films to the public for free, with profits returning to the Archives.

“There’s black hole of film history,” Simmon said of the early years of cinema. “If we don’t work to get these out they’re going to be unseen.”

And Simmon just wants these films to be seen. He co-founded the Film Studies major at UC Davis and regularly teaches English 161, a two-part film history course that begins with silent and black-and-white films that most of his students have never heard of before. Some, he is often surprised to find, have never even seen a black-and-white film before. But in his class, he hopes to show students that early films are interesting and worth watching.

“I think they’re as entertaining as current ones but more revealing because they’re just such a window into another time and place. It’s a time travel you can’t do otherwise,” Simmon said.

Jeff Lambert, assistant director of the NFPF, first met Simmon at San Francisco State, when he was a student in Simmon’s film history class. He said Simmon has a talent for handling all kinds of personalities and solving any problems that arise, and said his work in film preservation is remarkable. And he’s not a bad teacher, either.

“He was a great professor,” Lambert said. “He showed the intersections and contextuality of the films really well.”

Kelby Wood, who graduated from UC Davis last spring with a degree in film studies, said he enjoyed taking English 161A with Simmon last year. He thought Simmon chose thought-provoking films, and appreciated his laid-back lecturing style and sense of humor.

“Because she starred in three or four films on the syllabus, he joked and called it the ‘Barbara Stanwyck film festival,’” Wood said.

For his part, Simmon simply seems content to share his passion for cinema, whether through teaching, his work in film preservation, or chatting in his office. When asked what his favorite movie is, he thinks it over for a moment, unhurried.

“Coming from San Francisco, Vertigo is hard to beat. But it switches,” he says. Then he cocks his head and smiles. “What films have you seen recently?”

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