2005 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award: National Film Preservation Foundation

The Thieving Hand (1908)

Musical Accompaniment Michael Mortilla and Jon Mirsalis on grand piano

Special Article by David Kiehn
 
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents its 2005 Haghefilm Award, for distinguished contribution to the preservation and restoration of world film heritage, to the National Film Preservation Foundation.
 
In 1997, Congress created the National Film Preservation Foundation as an independent, nonprofit organization to help save America’s film heritage. The NFPF organizes, obtains funding for, and manages collaborative projects that enable film archives — large and small — to work together on national preservation initiatives. In the past six years, the NFPF has developed grant programs to help libraries, museums and archives preserve films and make them available for study and research. They are the publishers of two DVD boxed sets: Treasures from American Film Archives and More Treasures from American Film Archives, consisting of films from the first four decades of motion pictures. The NFPF has also published The Film Preservation Guide: The Basics for Archives, Libraries, and Museums, as well as an international database for locating silent films. As of October 2004, the NFPF has supported film preservation in 37 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, making more than 800 historically and culturally significant Films available to the public. These films range from silent one-reelers by Thomas Edison to avant-garde animation. A grant-giving public charity, the NFPF is affiliated with the National Film Preservation Board of The Library of Congress, and depends solely on private contributions. To learn more about the NFPF, please visit www.filmpreservation.org.
 
In honor of the National Film Preservation Foundation, we present a selection of rare shorts that can be found on their two DVD sets, Treasures from American Film Archives and More Treasures from American Film Archives.
 
INTERNATIONAL NEWSREEL: VOLUME 8, ISSUE 97 (1926)
(International Newsreel Corp. Distributed by Universal Pictures Produced by William Randolph Hearst Preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive)
The newsreel became part of the moviegoing experience beginning in 1911. Just like television today, the newsreel brought the events of the world to local viewers. In their heyday, newsreels were issued twice a week by the major studios. Pathé, Paramount, MGM, Vitagraph, Selig Polyscope, Warner Bros., Edison, Fox, and Universal all had newsreel divisions, sometimes in partnership with newspaper companies like the Hearst and Tribune organizations. With the introduction of television, movie newsreels were slowly pushed out of the picture, and one by one the studios dropped their newsreel divisions until the last one, MGM’s News of the Day, closed its doors in 1967.
 
Most newsreel prints didn’t have a long life once they had been exhibited; they were usually burned to recover the silver in their emulsion. The original negatives, meanwhile, were cut up and catalogued for use as footage in documentaries, so millions of feet of newsreel footage still exist, but only in fragmented form, in various stock footage libraries. Consequently, very few newsreels have survived intact as originally released; Issue 97 of International Newsreel is among those rarities. Typical of the format, it contains “genuine news” footage of flooding in Great Britain, “event footage” of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, a “sports segment” on horse racing in Tijuana, and a “human interest” story about a dog and her puppies.
 
THE THIEVING HAND (1908)
(Vitagraph Company of America. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton with William Shea as the beggar and Paul Panzer as the wealthy man in top hat. Preserved by George Eastman House)
Although proper credits are difficult to determine before 1910 (credits weren’t listed on films until then), The Thieving Hand was likely directed by J. Stuart Blackton, who along with Albert E. Smith and William Rock founded the Vitagraph Company in 1896. Blackton liked the comic trick-effects films of the Paris-based director George Méliès, who used techniques like double exposures and dissolves. But the two filmmakers differed markedly in style: whereas Méliès’s films were stage-bound in the tradition of a magic act, Blackton’s took to the streets, providing a more realistic setting for the effects. The Méliès films, as amazing as they were, began to find less favor as time went on, while Blackton’s work moved away from tricks and toward conventional storytelling.
 
C-V NEWS: FILMING GREED IN DEATH VALLEY (1923)
(Vanderbilt Newspapers Inc. Preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive)
This extraordinary newsreel excerpt documents the filming of a key sequence in director Erich von Stroheim’s master epic Greed (1924). Begun as a Goldwyn picture, Greed was released, albeit in a truncated version, a year later by the newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. Stroheim fought to preserve his vision of the Frank Norris novel McTeague as a 40-reel, eight-hour journey into madness and death. No one died during the making of the film, but madness of a sort was certainly part of its makeup. Stroheim’s literal translation of the book prolonged the production schedule into nine long months, concluding the next year with a nightmarish battle against the studio which resulted in the cutting of his film down to a scant two hours.
 
Although the complete film may never be seen, these behind-the-scenes newsreel shots are now preserved and vividly reveal the hardships sustained by the cast and crew as they faced the summer heat of Death Valley in order to bring the stunning realism of Greed to the screen.
 
GUS VISSER AND HIS SINGING DUCK (c. 1925)
(Produced by Theodore Case. Directed by Theodore Case or Earl I. Spondable. Preserved by George Eastman House.)
Sound was not new to the movies in 1925; several companies had released films with singing and dialogue tracks in previous decades. The failure of past systems was mainly technical: recording machines (basically a cylinder phonograph) had a time limit of three minutes; acoustic recording methods sounded as if they were projected through a megaphone (which in effect they were); and the sound couldn’t be amplified to an adequate level in large theaters. Theodore Case’s system solved all of these problems by photographically printing an electrically modulated signal directly onto the film. It became the standard for movie theater sound until the advent of digital recording. In its late experimental stages, Case used the process to recorded several vaudeville acts, including Gus Visser and “The Original Singing Duck,” both of whom remained in vaudeville. Case, however, sold the rights for his system to the Fox Film Company, which immediately made use of it in their Movietone newsreels.