David Shepard, one of the most important figures in film restoration and preservation, passed away on Tuesday, January 31st, after a long illness. I was proud to have known him, starting when we both started working for the American Film Institute’s Archives Division in 1968, soon after its founding. David was the AFI’s first film preservation officer, while I worked across town at the Library of Congress on the Institute’s catalog of American films. The AFI was tasked with implementing the government’s first concerted effort, in cooperation with the Library of Congress, to help rescue the country’s movie heritage. And it was obvious from the get-go, that David was the perfect person for the job. He was also an incredibly generous and compassionate person.
My involvement with his work at the AFI was minimal, though I recall briefly subbing for him in helping acquire what I believe was the Institute’s first acquisition, the first screen version of The Desert Song (Roy Del Ruth, 1929). I also recall being present when David unpacked Paramount’s studio print of E.A. Dupont’s Varieté (Variety) (1925). Looking at the first reel, it quickly became apparent it was the uncut American version, not the abbreviated Museum of Modern Art one; it was print that eventually became the basis for film’s restoration in Germany by the Frederich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.
Shepard’s involvement with film preservation and history went well beyond the AFI, starting with his involvement with Blackhawk Films, the most important provider of 8mm and 16mm classic films of the pre-video era, which later became part of his own company, Film Preservation Associates; as such, he became involved with the creation of numerous, high-quality DVDs, including Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921), Abel Gance’s La Roue (1922), Chaplin at Keystone (1914), Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915), Anthology Film Archives’ Unseen Cinema: American Avant-Garde Films 1984-1941, many D.W. Griffith films, etc., etc.`He taught film history at the University of Southern California and was director of its Louis B. Mayer Film & Television Study Center. David ran the Director’s Guild of America’s oral history program for some 10 years; his interviews with King Vidor and Henry King were eventually published in book form. (I vividly recall his presentation of a paper at a Society for Cinema Studies conference on how Vidor’s failed foray into independent production with Our Daily Bread (1934) contributed to the formation of the Director’s Guild.)
For more details on his life and career, there is a good bio posted by Ciné Salon at 20’s “In Dialogue David Shepard: American Film Preservationist,” which has links to several interviews with him. I also recommend blog posts by his friend, Leonard Maltin, and video producer Steve Stanchfield, who discusses Shepard’s role in rescuing Ub Iwerks cartoons. Finally, there’s this video tribute by Serge Bromberg, Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow from Ciné Salon at 20: