Meet The Community Of Preservationists In Search of Lost Movies

Where do movies go when the lights go out?

Putting the weirdness of this pandemic-afflicted year aside, if they’re recent, feature releases, they usually follow a predictable path, moving from theaters (maybe) to VOD services, streaming outlets, and physical media then television then kind of hanging out in one form or another, usually just a click away. The vagaries of the current streaming environment sometimes create some weird gaps and the 2008 Universal Studios fire spotlighted the fragility of our cultural legacy even in the digital age, but the chance of, say, Fifty Shades Darker or Hot Tub Time Machine 2 simply disappearing are pretty slim. Online, YouTube, and other services have created an outlet for seeming ephemera — from cat videos to fan films to old coffee commercials — to live for an apparent eternity. Digital preservation presents its own challenges, but much of what’s now released will likely remain with us, whether we want it to or not.

It’s easy to look at what’s still available and feel satisfied that it’s enough, that you’ll never run out of movies to watch, and that what’s available represents a full-enough picture of film history. But not for everyone. Some see only what’s missing, and how those missing pieces might change the way we think about film and the world as a whole.

Sometimes a mere 29 seconds can upset history. And sometimes that 29 seconds arrives in a garbage bag. Dino Everett works at the University of Southern California’s Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, a job that sometimes means sorting through a lot of junk sent by well-meaning people who think they might have stumbled on an important find in their family attic. But not always. A few years ago, Everett received an unpromising package from Louisiana, an unwanted batch of movie reels someone had acquired in an estate sale, that reframed a key element of film history.

“It literally arrived in a garbage bag, shoved into a Priority Mail box,” Everett says. Despite the packaging, the contents quickly proved intriguing. “I opened it up and I was like, huh, there’s all this nitrate. And I started looking through it and I noticed that it was really early stuff. Early, turn-of-the-century films were never more than fifty feet. So there were all these little tiny rolls and they were all from around the turn-of-the-century.”

These included a “Something Good – Negro Kiss,” one of many films made in response to Thomas Edison’s 1896 film “The Kiss,” but one with a difference: it’s the first known filmed kiss to feature a Black couple.

Everett knew he had found something important, but he wasn’t sure what. Though unseen in years and assumed to be lost, Something Good – Negro Kiss was known to exist and cited as having been released in 1903 or 1907, but no one had laid eyes on it in a long time — maybe over a century — or knew exactly when it was made.

“Somebody writes something and then you just cite them. And so if they got it wrong, then it just keeps getting cited with the wrong information,” Everett says. “That’s how incomplete and inaccurate histories propagate.”

Physical evidence suggested the film was made earlier, and to get to the bottom of the story Everett reached out to University of Chicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, an expert in African-American cinema, who helped date the film to 1898 and trace it to the Chicago studio of producer William Selig.

It’s unlikely that Selig and the performers — later identified as Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle — knew how significant their joyous kiss would look over a century later, not just because it featured Black actors but because it featured a depiction of Black affection free of the stereotypical depictions that served as the norm in the early days of film (and, of course, have lingered well beyond those years). That any such depiction existed, however, might never have come to light if Everett hadn’t opened that garbage bag and sought out Field to figure out what it meant.

The rediscovery of a film like Something Good – Negro Kiss is a cause for optimism about what else might be out there waiting to be rediscovered. That doesn’t make the statistics any less alarming. Films began to disappear seemingly from the first moment the Lumière brothers projected their first efforts in 1895. At the height of the silent-era feature production in America, which spanned the years 1912 through 1929, the film industry produced nearly 11,000 features. Per a Library of Congress report, only 14% survived in their entirety in their original 35mm format (with another 11% surviving in foreign release prints and/or in other formats). The blame belongs both to shortsightedness and chemistry. Studios seldom believed films had any life beyond their first run in theaters and what films did survive their neglect survived on nitrate, an extremely volatile substance (as anyone who’s seen Inglourious Basterds knows).

Loss isn’t limited to the silent era, either. Early talkies sometimes suffered the same neglect, which helped lead to the creation of film archives to preserve the cinematic past. The coming of television and, later, home video gave Hollywood new sources of income, and a new reason to look after its history, but the feature film industry only accounts for part of film history. There’s another, even less tended-to history in the margins.

“I’d consider one of my jobs as a historian and scholar to be rediscovering forgotten films and helping them to have a second life by helping to identify and preserve them, and then sharing information about them with both other scholars and the general public,” says Marsha Gordon, film scholar and the North Carolina State University’s Director of Film Studies. That often requires some detective work.

Famed for Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss, and other two-fisted classics, director Samuel Fuller worked as a crime reporter, pulp fiction novelist, and soldier before directing his first feature, 1949’s I Shot Jesse James. Gordon helped bring to light what Fuller called his “first film,” “V-E +1,” the silent 16mm footage Fuller shot while serving in the infantry unit that liberated the Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia (an event Fuller depicted in his autobiographical 1980 film The Big Red One). Gordon sought out the footage with the permission of Fuller’s surviving family and, in 2014, her efforts led to its inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Gordon doesn’t take all the credit, however, saying “I feel like I was part of a group effort to preserve this film: starting with Fuller’s decision to film and keep this important record, to his family’s decision to entrust his personal films to the Academy Film Archive, to archivist Snowden Becker who first told me that Fuller’s amateur/personal films were there, to archivist May Haduong who helped facilitate access over the years, to the selection committee for the National Film Registry, and so on.” But if it weren’t for the efforts of like-minded scholars, enthusiasts, and family members, it might still be gathering dust. “This film was never lost, mind you,” she continues. “It was sitting in storage waiting for someone to find it and care enough about it to do something.”

So was “Felicia,” another film added to the National Film Registry in 2014 that Gordon helped bring back to light with the help of others, (including Field). The 13-minute 1965 film features an interview with Felicia Bragg, a high school junior who describes her life in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Filmed just prior to the Watts Rebellion of August that year, it features Bragg describing both the day-to-day details of her existence as the child of a single mother who works a series of odd jobs to support the family and her hopes for a better future.

If Gordon never met independent archivist and preservationist Skip Elsheimer, however, she might never have seen it at all. Elsheimer runs A/V Geeks, a North Carolina-based website/film archive/digitization/exhibition business that, as Elsheimer describes it, he fell into by accident. “It was a hobby that went way out of control,” Elsheimer says. It was around 30 years that I was going to state surplus auctions and buying old equipment, like old printing presses, CPR dummies… I tried to get riot gear, but that didn’t work out. But I started getting some A/V equipment like VCRs and TVs. And in that, I got a 16mm projector and I was like, ‘Huh, this is interesting. I’d like to get some films to try to run through it.’”

That led to the first of many purchases, a lot of 500 reels Elsheimer acquired for $50 that included drivers’ ed films and educational films about atomic safety, pregnancy, and alcohol and drug awareness. More acquisitions followed, including lots of thousands of films acquired from schools getting out of the 16mm business and making way for computer labs. A fan of Devo and Mystery Science Theater 3000, Elsheimer found entertainment value in the old films, and started exhibiting them in person and, later via DVD and online. He later came to see them as intriguing and revealing in other ways as well.

“I have a couple of films that are just complete mysteries,” he says. “I can kind of guess what they are based on what was written on the can. One, in particular, is called ‘Ohio Power Company Vets Party 1951.’ And it’s like a home movie, kind of. It shows a bunch of people going into this event hall. Then there’s this weird kind of initiation ritual that takes place involving chickens and all sorts of other weird things. And then they have a banquet at the end. And I have no information. At all. […] It documented something, but I don’t, I have no other information about where it was and what it was.”

Beyond the occasional treasure like “Felicia,” which played as an educational film in schools before falling into obscurity, Elsheimer sees tremendous historical value in his collection, which now stretches to 30,000 titles and counting. “‘Ephemeral’ is definitely how I would describe a lot of this material. It definitely had its niche time and place and audience,” he says. “But the value comes when you take it out of those contexts and you start noticing things that maybe the filmmaker didn’t realize they were recording: the place, the time, how people dressed, how people talked, how people viewed things like gender, race, class — those things start coming out. You know, a film about math might suddenly tell you a lot about how we view gender.”

Left unseen, however, and those moments in time threaten to disappear for good or be overwritten by the films that survive that perhaps don’t tell the whole story of their era. The image of a Black couple smiling and kissing one another doesn’t undo the stereotypes film has helped perpetuate, but it forces viewers to view the era in a different light. One teenage girl observing life around her reveals 1960s’ Watts in ways historical records alone never could. And whatever was going on at that power plant in Ohio surely deserves its own kind of investigation. That’s why some refuse to let the past rest and to write off unseen films as a loss that can never be recovered. Or, as Gordon puts it, “Films aren’t usually lost. They are just forgotten.”