The Library of Congress presents: Almost Lost

FullSizeRenderAnd they truly are “almost lost”–only about 20% of the silent movies made in America survive. The Library of Congress is the largest repository for them. Every year for four years, they have put on a workshop at their building in Culpeper, Virginia [near Washington DC], where film historians, experts, collectors, and the general public (me!) are invited to spend three days watching snippets of unidentified silent movies. The goal is to identify them, by recognizing the actors or settings or style or date made.

I attended my first workshop last month and it was, to say the least, a hoot! Although I don’t have enough expertise to have made any profound contributions, I had a blast and learned a good many things that I can use in forthcoming Roaring Twenties mysteries.

One thing I learned is that the era of silent film features lasted a very short time, from 1912 to 1929. During those few years, about 11,000 silent features were made in America. Film historian David Pierce, who gave us a very entertaining lecture, has counted 2,749 titles that survive in complete form and another 562 that are incomplete. The rest are lost, due to carelessness (the movies seemed to have no value at the time), chemical deterioration, fire (the film was highly flammable), or thrift (the films contained traces of silver which had some value when melted down).

IMG_0142The workshop’s format is simple: in the mornings there are a couple of scholarly presentations followed by lunch, and then an afternoon of viewing bits of film, some just a few seconds long, others might be 14 minutes. The evenings are taken up with screening important silent features–that much is open to the general public. The workshop audience of about 125 people sits ready to shout out their observations: “Looks like early Pathe,” or “That’s Harry Depp,” or “No it’s not,” or “That looks more like Australia than southern California.” Twice we caught a glimpse of a calendar on an office wall, and someone shouted, “What year did December 1 fall on a Sunday?” A dozen computers clicked away until one 11-year-old boy called out, “1912,” and we had identified the film’s date.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, the opportunity to attend comes around again next June. The cost of the workshop, $60, covers three very nice lunches. Watch this space for news about the 2016 event. I’m hoping to attend again. Maybe next time, I’ll even make an observation!

 

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Published in: on July 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. That sounds just amazing. I have no problem believing you had a great time 😉

    I briefly reserched the industry for my AtoZ Challenge last April and I was surprised to discover that the 1920s and 1930s are still the period of major film output in the US. Sounds amazing.


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