By BRETT ABRAMS
Because only 10 percent of the motion pictures produced in the medium's earliest days survive, the paper print collections of the Library are an especially important resource for the study of early films, as silent-era films increasingly capture the interest and imagination of scholars as well as the general public.
The Library's Paper Print Fragment Collection, which holds more than 3,000 motion pictures that came to the Library as copyright deposits in 1896-1939, consists of photographic paper on which contact copies of motion pictures appear. These fragments are invaluable because of the rarity of motion pictures produced in the early period. The collection, coupled with the Paper Print Collection, which contains complete films of the same period, makes the Library one of the most important sources for early silent motion pictures in the world.
As the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division's junior fellow under the direction of Patrick Loughney, this writer completed the cataloging and rehousing of the Paper Print Fragment Collection. The improved accessibility of these materials occurs as silent film experts and fans plan to attend the Domitor Conference at the Library next June. The Domitor organization meets biannually to examine motion pictures that major archives have preserved and to assess them for their cultural and historical information.
Work as a junior fellow involved building the database for the collection. This database contains the title and copyright number of each fragment, the amount of the original film that has survived, production information and a description of the condition of the material.
The size of the U.S. market in the early silent era provided an enormous draw for European companies as it does today. International scholars and those interested in international production will find a variety of important items within the collection. Portions of motion pictures from Georges Méliès and George Kleine illustrate scenery and other production values. Similar information can be gleaned from the 150 Nordisk and 25 London Film Co. motion pictures within the collection. The size of these particular holdings and other deposits by other foreign film companies submitted from 1912 to 1917 demonstrate the vitality and importance of international filmmaking through the early years of World War I. Another significant international item in the collection includes prints from Elvira Notari's motion picture "A. Piedigrotta" (1921). These prints could offer insight into the vision of this writer, producer and director credited as an inventor of neorealism.
Examining these print fragments illustrates the importance of women to the motion picture industry. Among the scenarists represented are Frances Marion, Edith Delano and Edith Ella Furness. Several women also directed, photographed or produced their own screenplays. Lillian Howarth has four motion picture features within the collection, while Angela Murray Gibson has one feature and four smaller fictional and nonfictional works.
Many of the early narrative motion picture producers from around the United States are well represented. The collection contains more than 400 Vitagraph motion pictures, ranging from two-reelers to Shakespeare, thousands of scenes from Edison's comedies and dramas and nearly 300 Biographs, with several written by Anita Loos, Edward Middleton and D.W. Griffith. Other materials include prints from the Selig Polyscope and Ivan Abramson companies and reels from both the New York Motion Picture and Universal film companies. These motion pictures offer film scholars the chance to expand their understanding of the relationship among genres, film styling and techniques. They could also spur observations regarding marketing techniques and box office success on a local, regional and national basis.
A few of these companies and several others were prominent in the production of actualities, non-narrative motion pictures about nonfiction subjects. Although the collection holds many Biograph and Edison actualities from the early 20th century, it also includes motion pictures that illustrate the work of several other companies that seized niche markets: The United Photo Plays company filmed travelogues of Asia; Burton Holmes and Oscar DePew depicted people and sights throughout the world; and the Winthrop Moving Picture Co. created exercise films.
The travelogues, such as the stereographs of the late 19th century, provide vivid documentation of peoples' lives and insight into the interests and perceptions of their makers. Other motion pictures show architectural and interior design preferences, fads and taboos. They illustrate trends and mistakes in fashion and accessories, and illustrate how choices about fashions, as well as food and diet, are linked with social status.
The paper print fragments also offer an invaluable window on attitudes about ethnic groups, races, gender and sexuality. Feature motion pictures, including "The Immigrants" (1915) and "Mr. Levitsky's Insurance Policy" (1908), present perspectives on the foreign-born during the peak of immigration to the United States (1890-1920). Works such as "The Colored Stenographer" (1909), "The Wizard-Blackson Fight" (1915), an animated production of the Jess Willard-Jack Johnson boxing match, "The White Man's First Smoke" (1907) and "Chinese Cook at Hance's Camp" (1905) illuminate perspectives on race in the midst of the Great Migration and Asian exclusionary laws. There are numerous motion pictures that present attitudes on both gender and sexuality as the era experienced growth in the female workforce and the final push of the women's suffrage movement. Among the richest for revelations on gender are "The Female Politician" (1908), "Henpecked Ike" (1912) and "A Wife's Devotion" (1908). Those presenting timely viewpoints on sexuality include "The Sex Lure" (1916), "The Unchastened Woman" (1918) and "A Cure for Bashfulness" (1908).
The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division is hopeful that these fragments will undergo extensive preservation soon. The division eventually plans to make selected portions of the collection available to the National Digital Library Program for dissemination on the World Wide Web.