A Tribute to David Shepard

Photo by Manoah Bowman, courtesy of Jeffrey Vance

In Memoriam: Film Preservationist David Shepard (1940–2017)
by Russell Merritt

In January of this year, we lost one of our own, David Shepard, beloved champion of silent and classic film. Shepard began at the wee age of twelve renting Kodascope prints to run at home in his newly acquired Bell and Howell projector. When rental houses began selling off their stock, he began to buy, and some of these 16mm prints became the basis of later restorations. At his various positions, from the American Film Institute to his own Film Preservation Associates, Shepard scoured the world’s archives and private film collections to uncover and restore cinema’s treasures. Without his efforts, many of the silent films that have been seen at festivals and repertory houses, purchased on the home video market, or streamed online simply would not be available. In loving memory of our friend, this year’s SFSFF presents the Magic and Mirth program, films selected by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films with Shepard in mind as well as this touching tribute written by another festival friend, Russell Merritt.
When I remember David, I think of high adventure, the kind that turns film reclamation into a series of quests, conspiracies, improbable partnerships, witty banter, and second story work. Take, for example, the way we met. It started with a phone call, when in 1976 he asked me to collaborate on a TV series featuring radio broadcaster and world traveler Lowell Thomas. To an academic like me, it all sounded exotic, in a homespun sort of way. David was calling from Iowa, sitting on a stack of Fox Movietone newsreels acquired from a Hollywood lab, which he was supplying to a PBS station in South Carolina. He wanted me to help him ghostwrite scripts for Lowell, which Thomas would review from his office on Park Avenue. Although the show was called Lowell Thomas Remembers, the great man didn’t have time to remember much of anything. So David and I banged out copy that gave Lowell something to recall from the 1930s. It was the start of a forty-year friendship.
David’s generosity and passion for film—especially silent film—have become legendary. In my case, he thought nothing of arranging for me to take his place at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which became the start of a lifelong collaboration with the Giornate. Or arranging for a visiting professorship at USC where we team-taught courses in film history. Or lending/giving away an infinitude of films and film paraphernalia. Did I need title cards for a farce I was directing? David had his vintage printing press ready at his headquarters in Panama City. Did I want to produce the Great Nickelodeon Show? If you happened to see it, those were David’s movies we showed, and the chances are that David was the projectionist.
None of this felt remarkable—it was typical of a man who spent his life cooking up adventures to bring vintage films back to life and sharing them with friends and appreciative audiences. He will be best remembered, I suspect, for his work in saving movies. As Leonard Maltin wrote in an eloquent tribute for his online journal, “If you’ve seen a superior print of a film by Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith or Murnau, chances are David had a hand in restoring it.”
By the time I met him, David was already a major force in film preservation. He had been hired as a curator by the newly-formed American Film Institute in the late 1960s and made his mark negotiating a historic deal with Paramount. When he was done, two hundred Paramount films were deposited in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress, and other great deals would follow.
Then there was his stint with the Directors Guild of America where, to borrow another phrase from Leonard, he did more favors for posterity. He created an oral history project to record the careers of veteran filmmakers, including his friends King Vidor, Henry King, Rouben Mamoulian, Gilbert Cates, and Robert Wise. In an all-too-rare gesture to bridge the gap between academia and the industry, David established an all-expense-paid weeklong summer seminar for college faculty to watch Hollywood at work—academics visited sets to study film and TV productions in progress and heard from production personnel. Sometimes the visitors attended panels, sometimes they met in private homes, as when David arranged for a get-together at George Sidney’s house in Bel Air to meet with veteran directors.
In between these phases of his career, he was also reshaping Blackhawk Films in Davenport. From 1973 to 1976, he brought Kent Eastin’s company into the first ranks of nontheatrical distribution. Blackhawk had long been known for selling 8mm and 16mm films to the home market; David turned it into a prime source for university and other professional libraries. I knew his Griffith Biograph restorations best (full disclosure: I helped). But the great stories were about how he cornered those sparkling prints of Chaplin Mutual comedies. He discovered them as reissues that Van Beuren made in the 1930s and set out to buy the studio’s entire library of cartoons, shorts, and B-movies simply to get his hands on them. At first he was ready to write off the rest of the library as slag, but when we started watching them (guests at David’s house never escaped without an evening of screenings), he discovered the joys of Van Beuren cartoons and declared that Blackhawk’s customers needed to see those strange Technicolor Rainbow Parades for themselves.
That was vintage David. He never distributed films that he wasn’t passionate about, no matter how obscure or noncommercial. He lost his shirt on Gance’s La Roue and didn’t do much better on Caligari or Griffith. As he put it, he could push more Laurel and Hardy in a month than he could sell Russians in a lifetime. It never mattered. He was particularly proud of his collaboration with Anthology Film Archives and Bruce Posner for the seven-disc collection of early American avant-garde film (Unseen Cinema), and of his work with Serge Bromberg on the brilliant and all-too-little seen French serial, La Maison du mystère (1922). Besides, he could always count on the Chaplin shorts. He named the cabin he built in the wilds of Northern California “Wit’s End,” but subtitled it “The House That Charlie Built.”
When home video arrived in the late 1980s, David started Film Preservation Associates and created a wide variety of new projects, too numerous to list here. But it was the high-water mark in his film distribution career. His releases meant not only first-rate prints of rare and classic films but also enabled him to recruit musicians from around the U.S. and Europe to accompany his reconstructions, making him one of the foremost producers of silent film music. If you have attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it is likely you have heard of Donald Sosin, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra, Stephen Horne, and Timothy Brock, among the many artists recorded on David’s DVD releases. Meanwhile, finding kindred spirits in Serge Bromberg at France’s Lobster Films and Jeff Masino at the Los Angeles-based Flicker Alley, he was able to build a durable company whose work continues. As I write this, Serge is completing a restoration of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings that David hoped would be unveiled later this year at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It has been ninety years since the film’s premiere, which was also the grand opening of the legendary L.A. movie palace.
The man behind all this was a wonderful friend, bristling with fresh, imaginative ideas. He was not only unbelievably generous, his gifts were as inventive as he was. As much as he loved movies and his ever-changing lineup of rescue dogs, he was equally passionate about all things mechanical, vintage projectors, cameras, bicycles, printing presses, trains, practically anything with gears or springs. One of his gifts I treasure most, certainly the one that sums him up best, is the Leatherman Skeletool, a multi-blade combination wire cutter, knife, bottle opener, screwdriver, and needle-nose pliers. I never use it without thinking of him. Like him, it is multifaceted, ingenious, full of sharp edges, and, above all, complicated.
Historian and author Russell Merritt teaches film history at UC-Berkeley and has cowritten two books on the films of Walt Disney.