Mostly Lost 5: for those who love solving mysteries

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This past weekend, I attended the annual Library of Congress workshop on silent films in Culpeper, Virginia, where those who love solving mysteries are challenged with real mysteries. Specifically, the LoC shows three days of snippets of unidentified silent movies to an audience of about 125 experts, collectors, academics, and fans (like me!) in the hope that the group effort will nail down some facts about these orphans. 

IMG_0638The projector rolls and we see some bit of a movie–it could be as short as 6 seconds, it could be an hour (we don’t watch the whole thing in that case); it could be a comedy, a tragedy, a cartoon, a western, a foreign film . . . whatever it is, the members of the audience shout out clues and thoughts as they spot them. “The eye makeup looks German,” says someone. “No, the cuts are faster than Germans usually did . . . maybe it’s Danish or Scandinavian?” “The typeface in the titles resembles the sort used in Rex productions,” says a voice. “That looks like Dot Farley,” calls another. “1912 to 1914,” says a man behind me. “That’s an American upright piano on the right,” meaning it’s not likely to be a foreign-made film. “That’s Billy Quirk; he was a Solax comedian.” On and on . . . 

th-1About half the presentations are identified, meaning the Library of Congress now knows at least something about the title, the actors’ names, the date, the director, and the place where it was filmed. Three times someone in the audience was familiar enough with a particular location to identify the place as a park in southern California, a historic mill in New Jersey, and the ruins of Palmyra in Syria (recently destroyed by ISIL). Amazingly enough, I don’t get tired or bored sitting in the audience, even though I have very little to offer during this process. It’s fascinating listening to the experts working together to solve each mystery as it comes to the screen. 

What do I get out of this besides fun? I meet interesting people and I learn little things I can work into my stories, which are set in the 1920s when silent movies were at their height. Like: I can use the word “plane” for airplane, something I’ve been afraid to do until now. I know what a bus in L.A. looked like in 1925, with an open top deck with wicker chairs for passengers. Minor details, of course, but they bring the era to life. And best of all, I get to participate in genuine mystery-solving! This is my second year at Mostly Lost, and I hope to be back next year for another round. 

Identifying the Unidentified

images 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.”

UnknownFinding 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.” 

Published in: on July 12, 2015 at 8:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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