How does one identify unidentified silent films? That was the question in my mind as I sat down in my seat in the Culpeper theater at my first Library of Congress “Almost Lost” workshop. (They don’t call it a conference because, they said, they expect us to work!)
I quickly learned as I heard the experienced members of the audience shout out their thoughts. No silence for the silent movies! Some people could identify a studio from the font used in the titles; others called out the names of actors and actresses (occasionally receiving a rebuttal: “no, it’s not”). A camera flashing past a street sign helped on several occasions to identify the place where the movie was filmed. Those who knew their cars were a big help: they could call out the make, model, and date of almost any vehicle that appeared in the picture. And twice, the camera panned an office wall with a calendar on it, which allowed someone to say, “What year did May first fall on a Saturday?” A few taps on the computer answered that question and, Bingo! we had the year. Last but not at all least, that indescribable feel that pervaded a film’s overall appearance caused some experts to call out, “Look like a pre-Griffith Biograph.”
Finding copies of missing films is a race against time, because of chemical decomposition every day, and fires. Why weren’t more saved? Here’s what the famous director Frank Capra had to say when he was asked that question.
“Nobody thought they were important enough to save. You know, the films we were making in those days were just nickel and dime affairs. They were like today’s newspaper–you don’t save today’s newspaper. And when they were finished, nobody expected to ever see them again.”