Silent Film, Orphan Film: Saving, Studying, and Screening Neglected Cinema

Special Article 2011

A fragment of Wallace Reid’s otherwise lost western The Tribal Outlaw (Bison 101, 1912). The charming eight-minute narrative that tries to explain the inspiration for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1909). William and Irene Finley’s playful wildlife film, Chumming with Chipmunks (1921). These are some of the orphan films showing throughout the festival, preserved by archivists and scholars who recognized these motion pictures for their documentary and aesthetic values. What is an orphan film? Simply put, it is a work either abandoned by its legal owner or whose copyright status cannot be determined. Yet a growing alliance among archives, artists, and academics conceives of any film that has suffered neglect (physical, cultural, historical) as an orphan in need of adoption if it is to be saved, studied, and screened. “Orphans” come from a realm of motion pictures more populous than the conventional movie kingdom. They include newsreels, outtakes, amateur films, test reels, kinescopes, trailers, and promotional, local, and experimental films, as well as early silent narratives and even fragments recovered from works so far removed from their original context as to be nearly indecipherable (see Madison News Reel, screening before The Nail in the Boot).
In the very late 20th century, about the time San Francisco was launching its Silent Film Festival and welcoming the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) to the city, “orphan film” became a colloquialism among archivists. As early as 1992, UCLA restoration expert Robert Gitt told the Los Angeles Times that archives were recognizing orphan films as the new and bigger challenge for film preservation. A year later, the phrase peppered the public hearings that preceded the Library of Congress report, Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan (1994), which formally categorized orphan films as the at-risk problem children for archives. In 1997, the NFPF began to champion films “outside the scope of commercial preservation,” funding preservation of and access to all kinds of nearly forgotten motion pictures.
Then, just before the 20th century expired, the first Orphan Film Symposium was held at the University of South Carolina in 1999. The event brought together 90 archivists and preservation experts with film historians, scholars, and curators, as well as media artists who make new work out of archival footage. In the ensuing decade, each biennial symposium has grown larger and more international than the last. In 2006, New York University adopted the Orphan Film Symposium, integrating it into its year-round Moving Image Archiving and Preservation master’s program.
Silent cinema is a core part of the orphan film phenomenon. The oldest films suffer most from physical deterioration. Silent movies are often no longer under copyright and therefore available for archives, researchers, collectors, and artists to do with as they please. Silent films pique the interest of cinephiles across generations and those fascinated by the four decades of history recorded in these mute time capsules. A look at the program from the first Orphan Film Symposium indicates the importance of silents to the movement. The Museum of Modern Art showed its restoration of D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1912) and its restoration-in-progress of Oscar Micheaux’s rediscovered The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920). The Library of Congress screened samples of its 35mm renovation of the Paper Print Collection and gave a presentation on how they were being curated for Internet access. Scholars presented papers on serials in the teens, pre-1917 Russian films later overshadowed by Soviet productions, and films sponsored by communities in North Dakota to encourage migration to the state in the 1910s and ’20s.
The Two Orphans
(Selig, 1911) also screened at the 1999 inaugural symposium. This three-reel melodrama cum American film d’art had been recently preserved by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Images of its 35mm frames showing nitrate decay still circulate to represent the urgency of film preservation. The film’s source was a popular 1874 French play, Les deux orphelines, most notably made into D.W. Griffith’s epic feature Orphans of the Storm (1921), starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Griffith was at least the sixth filmmaker to adapt the story. The rest of the known adaptations have apparently ended up in orphan film heaven: William Haggar’s Duel Scene from “The Two Orphans” (1902, U.K.); a 1907 French Pathé version; Selig Polyscope’s lone survivor from 1907, starring Kathlyn Williams; another Pathé adaptation, released in the U.S. as Motherless (1910); Fox Film’s 1915 feature-length Theda Bara vehicle; and a completed German production (1920–21) that disappeared when Griffith himself bought the rights and kept it out of distribution so as not to compete with his big Gish picture.
But silent film as “orphan” is not just about what we have lost. Instead, the orphan film movement shares the philosophy promoted by San Franciscan Rick Prelinger, a collector of thousands of ephemeral films (including the wondrous 1924 Tribune-American Dream Picture), that archives are not where films go to die but are resources for continuing renewal and reconsideration of the past. A practitioner of this creed is the New York-based media artist Bill Morrison, who has become an unofficial cine-poet laureate of orphan films, drawing attention to silent-era nitrate film and its decay. His short The Film of Her (1996) uses dozen of fragments that survived only as paper prints deposited for copyright at the Library of Congress. In this experimental narrative, he transforms the LOC’s Howard Lamarr Walls into a cinematic dreamer motivated to locate an unnamed film of a woman he once saw in his youth. Morrison’s work with archives culminated in the 2002 feature-length Decasia, a collection of beautifully decaying fragments, which garnered a large audience unprecedented for an avant-garde work, aiding the cause of film preservation.
After more than a decade of filtering films through the orphan rubric, “orphanistas” agree that these works are valuable beyond the kind of entertainment offered by commercial features, silent or otherwise. Most are short, predominantly nonfiction, and often fragmentary. Newsfilm, footage made for newsreels, is another type of orphan film. It survives in millions of pieces around the world, most of it unpreserved. Five pieces screening at the festival come from the Fox Movietone News Collection at the University of South Carolina, three of which were preserved in partnership with the Orphan Film Symposium. Some are rare glimpses of historical figures, including the not-yet-famous Charles Lindbergh, filmed because he was delivering Fox newsreels via airmail. Two presidents’ wives also make appearances. Mrs. Harding, “Cameraman”? (1922) makes a joke of the First Lady operating a 35mm camera, while, in Coolidge Trapshooting (1928), Grace Coolidge “shoots” her husband with a Cine-Kodak 16mm home movie camera. Such films offer delightful surprises and always expand our historical knowledge. As with Music for the Silent Newsreels (1930), they can also serve as primary documents in the history of silent cinema itself. Collectively, orphan films comprise an eclectic and vast body of works, one that creates new views on what cinema was, from the silent era on.

Chosen by Dan Streible, these fragments, newsfilm out-takes, and other celluloid treasures screening at select programs throughout the festival represent only a portion of the kinds of orphan films out loose in the world. Each of these was shown before a feature program at the 2011 SF Silent Film Festival.
Fox News Story C1282: F.W. Murnau and George O’Brien Leaving Paris for Berlin (August 31, 1927) Outtake courtesy of University of South Carolina, Fox Movietone News Collection, 3 minutes
Fox News Story 4641: Mrs. Harding, “Cameraman”? (April 8, 1922) and Fox Movietone News Story 1-535: Coolidge Trapshooting (December 1, 1928) Outtakes courtesy of University of South Carolina, Fox Movietone News Collection, 1.5 minutes
Fox News Story B1998: St. Louis to Chicago Airmail (April 10, 1926) The cameraman’s four-year-old son delivers a box of newsfilm to the pilot—a then-unknown Charles Lindbergh. Outtake courtesy of University of South Carolina, Fox Movietone News Collection, 4 minutes
Origin of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (Edison, 1909) A narrative enactment of the composer’s inspiration for his famous sonata. Courtesy of Library of Congress, AFI Collection, 8 minutes
Fox Movietone News Story 5-484: Music for the Silent Newsreels (March 11, 1930) Sound film of pianist Harry Rosenthal playing for different types of silent-era newsfilms. Courtesy of University of South Carolina, Fox Movietone News Collection, 4 minutes
The Tribal Law (Bison 101, 1912) Action-packed fragment from an otherwise lost Wallace Reid film. Courtesy of University of South Carolina, Elmer Richardson Collection, 6 minutes
Chumming with Chipmunks (Goldwyn-Bray Pictograph, 1921) William and Irene Finley’s playful wildlife film. Courtesy of David Shepard, Film Preservation Associates, 5 minutes
Tribune-American Dream Picture (1924) The winning entry in the Oakland Tribune and American Theatre contest for the most unusual dream was made into this short film. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prelinger Archives, 7 minutes
Madison News Reel (c. 1932) A mysterious, clever collage with homemade intertitles referencing citizens of Madison, Maine. Courtesy of Northeast Historic Film, 3 minutes
Dan Streible directs the Orphan Film Project and its biennial symposium. He is associate professor of cinema studies at New York University, where he also works with its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation master’s degree program.