Silent Film Fans Make Some Noise To Help ID Forgotten Treasures

Jul 26, 2014
Originally published on July 26, 2014 1:06 pm

Deep in the archives of the Library of Congress' Culpeper, Va., film preservation center lie thousands of movies in cool, climate-controlled vaults. Hundreds are a century old or older, and unidentified. Their titles have been lost over the years and the library knows little about them, so it started inviting fans of early film to a yearly event called Mostly Lost to help figure out what they are.

And you know what? Those fans are rowdy.

"It's Alaska! Set in Alaska!" shouts Philip Carli, an accomplished silent film accompanist, as he intently watches a flickering black-and-white drama with about 150 fellow scholars and enthusiasts. They know only the film's year of release — 1925 — and the plot unfolding before them: a plucky female detective trying to bust a gang of bootleggers in timber country. The audience is encouraged to yell out possible settings, actor names and even car models — anything that might help identify the film.

And it works. Nearly half of the movies shown at the first Mostly Lost, three years ago, were eventually identified. Organizers Rob Stone, the library's moving image curator, and Rachel Parker, a curatorial technician, welcome anyone who cares about early film.

"We ask people to bring their laptops, their tablets, their iPhones, anything that has Internet," Parker says. "And just to bring their brains about anything they've learned about early silent film or early sound film."

This year's audience quickly pegged a mystical drama from 1919 as German — the shadowy, expressionist lighting and the Goth-meets-raccoon eye makeup helped give it away.

And, with the help of IMDB, silent film fan Liana Morales quickly identified the second movie shown as the 1912 French comic short Zigoto Gardien de Grand Magasin.

"Just a lucky break," Morales says modestly during a pause in the programming. At 29, she's one of the younger attendees. This is her second time at Mostly Lost, which she learned about on a group email list. At this point, she says, contemporary film feels, well, overstimulating.

"You're just bombarded by sounds," Morales says. "Soundtracks, explosions, et cetera. But with silent film, you have to use your imagination a little."

Using their imagination makes these fans feel more engaged with silent movies, says historian Glory-June Greiff. She's also drawn to the way the films provide a connection with the past. "These are things people laughed at 100 years ago and more," she marvels. "I mean, gosh, a shared experience with someone from a hundred years ago. How cool is this?"

Over the years, the vast majority of silent films have been lost to neglect or decay — 70 percent, in fact, according to historian David Pierce, who's worked with the Library of Congress to survey silent feature films. Still, the fact that thousands are buried in archives around the world is, to him, a source of joy.

"It's almost as if they're still making new silent movies," he says. "Because there [are] always films you haven't seen."

Let's face it: These movies are incredibly obscure. But they're also a keyhole to the past. They let us see real streets and real people the way they walked and lived a century ago. And those ghosts on the screen are wonderfully alive.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You might think a radio story about silent movies would only have a sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM PROJECTOR)

SIMON: That's a film projector. Remember that? This one's owned by the Library of Congress. NPR's Neda Ulaby recorded it on a visit to the library's conservation center in Culpeper, Virginia. Now, the facility has more than a million films stored in a climate-controlled vault. Hundreds of them are a century old or older, and much of the information about them has been lost. Once a year, movie fans are invited to the center to help fill in some missing details.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The Culpeper campus is gorgeous - a glass and stone building surrounded by wildflowers, open fields, soaring hawks. But everyone's inside in the dark, intent on a flickering black-and-white drama about a plucky female detective trying to bust bootleggers.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVENT, MOSTLY LOST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: So it's Alaska.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: So territorial - yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: It's set in Alaska.

ULABY: About 150 surprisingly rowdy silent film fans shout out any clues that might help identify this movie, even if it's just a setting, an actor's name or the make of a car. The event is called Mostly Lost. It's co-organized by Rachel Parker who works at the Library of Congress. She says anyone who cares about early film is welcome.

RACHEL PARKER: Just to bring their brains with everything that they've learned about silent film and early sound film.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Oh that's German.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

ULABY: The giveaway's the shadowy expressionist lighting and the heavy eye makeup. The actors look like goth raccoons. The crowd-sourcing continues with a sentimental family story about a bedridden child.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: It's too well lit to be much earlier than 1910.

ULABY: 1910, 1915 - one guy says look at what these Victorian women are wearing on their heads.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: I may go along with you, Joe. 1910, 1911. The hats are vast.

ULABY: The size of those lazy Susans at Chinese restaurants. Soon, just one or two movies in, we get our first positive identification.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: This is "Zigoto et Lecuyere." And that's from 1912. Lecuyere translates to the bottle.

ULABY: Points to Liana Morales from San Antonio, Texas. She's young for this crowd - only 29-years-old with a blonde streak in her black hair. While she was watching, she looked up one of the character's name in the Internet Movie Database and figured out the movie's title in just a few seconds.

LIANA MORALES: It was an accident, really - just a lucky break.

ULABY: This is Morales's second visit to Mostly Lost. She learned about it from a listserv. She's not a scholar or professional film person. She just loves silent films and thinks contemporary movies are a little over-stimulating.

MORALES: You're just bombarded by sounds - by soundtracks, explosions etcetera. But with silent films, you have to use your imagination a little.

ULABY: That draws some people into the story. When the silent film accompanists are not playing along with the movies, they're yelling back at them - like the one where a little kid with a big dog of falls into a river.

BEN MODEL: Don't tell me the dogs going to save him.

ULABY: Pianist Ben Model is one of three accompanists at the screening. He got into silents as a kid. Charlie Chaplin was his gateway drug. Model hasn't seen any of the movies he's playing along with today so he has to improvise.

MODEL: You just get into a zone where you're looking at the film on the screen and it goes into your eyes and the music kind of comes out of your hands.

ULABY: His hands get a break during the screening of an early sound picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

ULABY: Two flappers, Saucy and Button Nose perch on the back of a shiny black car with a ukulele. One of the great things about these incredibly obscure movies is you can see streets, people - how they walked and lived a century ago. They feel so alive. It's like looking through a keyhole to the past, says amateur historian Glory-June Greiff.

GLORY-JUNE GREIFF: These are things people laughed at 100 years ago and more. I mean - oh, my gosh - a shared experience with someone from 100 years ago. How cool is this?

ULABY: Because film is so new, Greiff says, we're the first people who can actually watch our foremothers and forefathers from 100 years ago moving around. In the movie onscreen now, a crowd of preening dandies in top hats wave bouquets at the back door of a theater.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 6: "Stage Struck" - 1922. There it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 7: Well, that took 30 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 6: Somebody in the back got it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 7: So this is state struck 1922.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 6: Wow. I'm impressed.

ULABY: Sitting in the dark, working to identify these movies - it's paying tribute to these ghosts dancing on the screen. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.