Jennifer M. Bean

"Frozen in Time: Looking at the Dawson City Archive Collection, 1913-1919"




Well I wanted to start today actually with a story. It's actually a double edge story and it seems to be one of the kinds of trends in this conference and of the particular nature of the work we are all involved in doing that antidote and narratives become a part of the recovery process. In a slightly different way from some of the more the tragic stories we heard about lost films those, which have disappeared entirely. The numbers and static's of those, which will never be recovered. I wanted to start us off today with a more positive story. I also throughout the course of this talk am going to be showing a number of slides as I speak and I should say upfront that I put these slides together in a some what quick manor in order to come to this event and there are a couple of occasions where you will actually see my handwriting on some of the pieces that I have shown so I hope that doesn't distract you from the image too much. The story begins in 1896 and it takes place in a small hinterland of the Yukon called Dawson City just under the Artic Circle. In 1896, although it's a date we would often associate with the very early years of the cinema, in this story it's a case where by there were three prospectors adventurers who traveled to this outpost dipped their pens into the icy waters of a place called Rabbit Creek and discovered gold. Now within weeks of this gold find the word spread around the world. Hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people poured into the Dawson City territory the unemployed immigrants etc. and within two to three years over thirty thousand citizens populated this fairly outpost of civilization. Eighty year passed and the balloon town of Dawson City dwindles to about eight hundred. Not much was left and it was at this point that the Klondike National Historic Agency voted to restore its town to the turn of the century grandeur. So the began a restoration process, they had rebuilt a number of building one of which was called Girdie's diamond Salon and they were taking a construction crew, a back hoe to this vacant parking lot behind Girdie's Diamond Salon.


Parking lot that had one point been a swimming pool, before that had been an ice hockey rink and before that had been simply a pit in the ground. In 1979 as the construction crew began to break ground they came across 538 reels of particularly frozen 38mm nitrate film. Now within weeks of this gold strike, word spread rapidly and many archivist and historians might remember the degree to which a variety of agencies including the AFI the National Film Archives of Canada and others quickly gathered together and to try and attempt to begin to think through how this restoration project might take place. What do we do with 538 reels of partially frozen nitrate film? There was actually a good bit of media and press attention too and there were a number of catchy headlines that caught peoples attention such as ones that is one of my favorites There's Film In Them There Hills. Now within the context of this symposium I think that the Dawson City collection kind of exemplifies the notion of orphan films that we have been talking about. Particularly to refer you back to Paulo discussion on Thursday about those films in the post 1908 era were supposedly at this point no longer to be sold but to be rented and then to be returned to their home their studio. Well obviously with this collection of films discovered in Dawson City we have a group of orphans. A group of films that were sent to this hinterland and it didn't seem to be worth anyone's while to take the money spend the money to send them back. Perhaps the pony express wasn't working in quite the same way. At any rate they were left there deposited, rediscovered in 1979. Now there are a group of films there were ten reels in fact that the AFI held a special screening for within actually even before their preservation process was complete and these were again films that received a good deal of media publicity. These were films that fit kind of nicely into the cannons that we have today. There was for example a find of a 1915 film The Wild Fire which features Lillian Russell's only film appearance. The 1916 Douglas Fairbanks early film The Half Breed, the 1917 feature Pauly of the Circus that was produced by Goldwin. So there were a number of these orphans that kind of came to the publics attention almost immediately. What I want to focus on today and bring your attention to is actually a group, the bulk of the Dawson City collection, which are orphan films. Orphaned in double or triple ways I might say. The films that interest me the most from this collection are a collection of over a hundred relevant extant reels of early film series and serials. These are films, which I say are doubly or triply orphaned. On the one hand they are orphaned in another sense that Paulo mentioned on Thursday which is that they were discovered, they were preserved and then put back on the shelf in the vaults, neglected, the are housed at the Library of Congress. They have had little impact on our understanding of the history in the cinema in the 19teens. Triply speaking their orphan films in the third sense that Paulo mentioned which is that these are dismembered films. There are fragmented films. There are as I just mentioned a hundred reels approximately that were discovered. But there is not a single title of a serial or series film that was recovered entirely in tact. So for instance we have say 15 reels, 15 one reels of the possible thirty reels of the Lucille Love the girl of mystery, which is a univeral 1914 film. We have ten reels out of the original thirty-three that comprised the Molly King adventure detective vehicle of 1917, the seven pearls, with eight complete episodes of Pearl Whites performance in Pearl of the Army but we still lack the remaining six. We have three episodes of Adventures of Margaret, eight episodes of The Purple Mask, ten fragments of The Crimson Stain Mystery, ten reels of The Girl in the Game and so it goes on and on. Now what I want to do in the time that remains for me today is in some ways attempt to return these triply orphaned films to their rightful place in history. And to give us a reason for dealing with the questions that are raised by this level of neglected children. The task is a challenging one that I set for myself to the degree that the series and serial films have been somewhat critically ignored. But it's a task that I take up willingly because as I want to argue today serial film in fact are   not only simply relevant parts of the history of cinema in 19teens, but in fact form the Block Busters of the early narrative period. That they under write in fact the growth of mainstream commercial American cinema and particularly the under write the growth and inauguration of a number of modern film Genres. Now the film serial is generally understood to be born in 1912. When the Edison manufacturing company formed collaboration with McClure's Ladies World to produce a series of one-reel films collectively titled, What Happened to Mary? These were released in conjunction with the publication of each episodes story in the magazine. It was played a starred, rising film star Mary Fuller and the eponymous heroine story begins when her foster father attempts to marry her off to a suitor with whom she is not in love. Resolving to be independent rather than unhappy in love Mary runs away from the confines of her conventional family home and successive episodes follow her adventures as a working girl in the big city. Of course Edison's What Happened to Mary was not technically speaking the first film series or serial nor was it the first to feature an independent working heroine. As early as 1909 Carolyn released their Girl Spy series and Yankee came out with 15 consecutive episodes of The Girl Detective in 1910 but in the wake of Edison's sensational commercial success undoubtedly aided by innovative tie in such as a ten thousand dollar prize that was offered for anyone who could right the concluding episode of the series. Other newspaper, magazines and film companies quickly followed suit. Now ignited by the powerful merger of print and media technologies the serial phenomena of mid to late teens grew to closely resemble the high cost, high tech, high stakes mentality that as Thomas Shots has noticed has come to characterize what we think of as the new Hollywood era. In 1914 serials were praised for widening the horizon of the moving picture business and the unprecedented success of the adventures of Catheline which was adapted by a novel of the same title by Harold Mc Graph and was I should mention the first of the cliff hanging or the to be continued type of serial. The success encouraged the New York dramatic mirror to call the serial quote the best innovation of it's kind ever advanced to increase the interest enlarge the sales and stimulate universal curiosity and cash reciprocation of any thing ever advanced in the moving picture business. In deed Than Houser had one of the silent eras biggest commercial successes with their 1914 serial the Million Dollar Mystery. As Terry Ramsey reported a number of years later in 1927 looking back at the period and I quote the Million Dollar Mystery swept through the motion picture theaters with a success without precedent or parallel. The twenty-three chapters of the mystery played in about seven thousand motion picture theaters in a period when they're where about probably eighteen thousand such houses. Production costs of the mystery were in the vicinity of one hundred twenty five thousand and the gross receipts for the picture were nearly one million five hundred thousand-end quote. By 1916 every major studio and I'll nod to Steve here and say with the exception of Biography every major studio had anticipated serial production. Several companies such as the well known Pafa were releasing four to six serials per year and the serial film company as it's name suggests was formed exclusively for the forms of purposes of serial production. Although industrial rumors predicting the forms demise appeared around 1917 the serial was touted in such well known fan journals as Photoplay as that same year as quote the great money maker of the movies end quote and vidographic expanded also in 1917 to form a separate company very specifically and exclusively for serial production. In September of 1917 motion picture news included a special report for exhibitors on what they called the power of the serials. Claiming that only and I quote that not only the biggest companies are now offering continued stories end quote but also estimating that quote sixty percent of the theaters in the country is a conservative estimate of the number that will book one or more of these serials end quote. Of equal or perhaps I should say if not more significance especially for an industry that was increasingly driven by large scale physical gain was the over whelming appeal of serial of films in the international market. Frank Bruner in fact noted in 1919 and I quote there is no country nor population that does not clamor for serials. In India for instance, serials are about the only form of cinema product that the natives will flock to see end quote. I don't want to take up that terminology here but it perhaps should be addressed to some degree. These two slides here are part of a kind of a representative of what I was calling the high tech, high scale, high profit nature of the serials. Serials tended to take up two to three page spread in a variety of motion pictures. Well I seem to be sorry, missing one there. There we go. These are two from the exploits of Elaine. It was part of a three-page spread in motography. You have serials like the Red Circle which was a Ruth Roland vehicle in 1917 that for the first five weeks the studio bought up the back cover of the NY Dramatic Mirror as a way of advertising it's release. Even though as I am arguing these types of films dominated both the domestic and international market throughout the teens. I think that their neglect in historical and scholarly accounts is somewhat understandable. Primarily because there are not existing standards where by we can make sense of these films whether those standards are critical, historical or theoretical. Now there has been one attempt, a pioneering attempt that you may be aware of and that is Ben Singer's work that was first published in 1990 but is again a pioneering and very compelling attempt to account for this group of films. And Briefly, Singers argument is two fold. He argues number one that the serials represent a Genre that is a direct cinemanic descendent of lowbrow blood and thunder stage melo-dramas from the earlier part of the century. Secondly he using something about what he calls a sociological line of inquiry looks at a variety of different types of inner text that are dealing with what he calls a pervasive discourse on the new woman and thus begins to give us a sense of how these films were both representing and being targeted to the newly independent working woman who was forming a major part of the young film industry. I should take a moment and bow my head and acknowledge my debt to Ben, his work, his printed work but his gracious energies on my behalf in sharing some archival lists and helping me begin the process a number of years ago of looking at these films. But I would also say that with a group of films that is large, this pervasive a single account simply can not do justice to the complexity in the new ances of what we have and in fact what I want to argue in the time that remains to me is number one as we have seen or as I've briefly shown given the commercial viability of these films, it's quite safe to say that they were far more than independent working women who were going to see them, that in fact it was a rather wide cross section of the film going audience. Both in domestic arena and in the international arena. Secondly, what I want to pursue here briefly is I've come not to think of the serials as a Genre per say rather I think of the serials as a form of cinema and within this form has incarnated a whole host of what we now think of as modern film Genres and these would include the spy film the mystery film the action film the action adventure film mystery detective films crime films. So that within this form we have the possibility of exploring the birth to some degree of again a number, a very popular still popular modern film genres. Now of course there were a great deal of working women characters like Kalem's girl detective that I mentioned in Edison's Mary. Some of the earliest cycle of film series emphasizes the occupational hazards of girl's stenographers, detectives, and reporters. You can see this it's highlighted in a number of titles like the Dolly of the Dallies and The Perils of our Girl Reporters. To some degree these career girl dramas could be categorically extended to include among their number of variety of railway adventures. In which a female telegrapher is on hand to save an out of control locomotive in what common parlance calls the nick of time. These later films are particularly striking in that there central trope which features a young woman's heroic bravery on a railway, deviates significantly from the tenacious cliché that has lingered in popular and scholarly memory of that silent film maiden who is inevitably tied to the railway tracks. Admittingly in at least one episode of the hazards of Helen, which was a railway series produced by Kalem that ran for three years, there were 119 episodes. In at least one of these episodes the villain does tie the heroine to the tracks but she loosens the bonding wires of this semaphore with her toes, which causes the sign to flash danger, and the conductor stops the approaching train. Elsewhere the female telegraphers bodily determined escapes precede her final race to save the male in need of rescue. The fourth episode of the girl in the game, which starred Helen Homes and was produced by mutual in 1916, begins when a young telegrapher dashes off in hot pursuit of two hinch men who had stolen the stations payroll. Climaxes when she saves an officers life and concludes when she comes speeding back into the half demolished camp with the money and her safe keeping. Seen collectively I think the predominance of the career girl in these various films could suggest a certain generic continuity. But in fact when scrutinized carefully when we have a chance to actually look at the films themselves a few unifying elements actually appear. In the detective, girl detective types of films you have an architectural maze type setting. Lots of what could be called cheers gears lighting. A lot of closed shots angling in on the space behind hidden doors, on faces that reveal certain types of enigmas of hopefully do reveal some. Conversely in the real wave thrillers although they also have a working girl heroine you have very little close ups you have a very continuous developed genre patterns of editing, it's based on a triangulated pattern. Very quick action moving down a single local that of the railway track with a single and not very enigmatic question that is posed in the narrative and it is there is danger on the line, we must rush out as the young girl get on the train and save the day. So again we are really dealing with two quite different genre forms here. More over relative (tape fades) with Pearl White also an evervasant heiress who's dead set on having some adventures. You have by 1915 a film released the ventures of Margaret again released by Kalem and Margaret was built as a quote beautiful, wealthy refined American girl who believes in practical phralanthopy end quote. And her success set the stage for a cluster of films or a cycle that take up borshua women who engage in a variety of rather unusual types of social work. One of my favorites of this cycle actually also part of the Dawson City find is a 1916 film from Universal starring Grace Cunard and Frances Ford and Cunard plays a young wealthy heiress that set in Paris. She ends up being the queen leader of a band of criminals known as the Patches and sets about tearing up the Parisian landscape and houses and steals from the rich and gives to the poor in a kind of later day Robin Hood fashion. Though the presence of mythical figures such as Cunard Mask Avenger again call The Purple Mask although the presence of such figures posit might be the more obvious pleasures of vicarious fantasy or escapism present in the serials, these films were just as intimately concerned with topical issues and social concerns of the period. With the advent of World War I for instance brought with it a ubiquitous cycle of spy dramas or military preparedness films. We have for instance films like the Controversial Patria, which was produced by the Hurst Randolph Company. Patria is played by Irene Castle she is the daughter of the last of the fighting Channings who have been saving money and own a large munitions factory that has been designed to help protect the US government in times of war, anytime peace is threatened. So Patria takes on the adventures of attempting to foil the natharious plots of both the Mexican and the Japanese government agencies who are filtering spies into the US. Now one of the things you may be familiar with around Patria is that it did generate a great bit of controversy. Particularly because by the time of the films release, it was no longer acceptable to have a Japanese villains as villain per say. The serial was censored at the local level in a number of places and in 1917 president Woodrow Wilson demanded that the filmmakers withdraw the serial from exhibition, change it. They did so by simply changing the inner titles to say that these are actually not Japanese villains but Mexican villains. And re-released it even though you have now two forms of Mexican villains, one that looks Asian. Now that censoring case is very interesting in it's own right but for my purposes here, I think it expresses to us the degree to which serial films were tapping into and understood as very powerful and influential, mass cultural forms. Another film and let me briefly kind of move through these is another military preparedness spy drama that starred Pearl White that is perhaps one of the most well known of the serial stars. Pearl White made a film in 1916 called Pearl of the Army and again in which she plays a young woman who is defeating the silent menace of spies system that's infiltrating the US. In 1916 the US government army actually recruited Pearl White to stand in as their poster girl and Harry Christian Chandler designed this poster in which Pearl White is saying do you think I'd stay at home? In an attempt to appeal to young American men to go off and serve in the war. Although I don't have any evidence to suggest that a similar type of address to American men was included in the original serial print. Of the copy that we found in Dawson City there is an opening series of frames that have this warning addressed to Canadian men quote beware Canadians once the for invades America they will not stop there, Canada itself will be endanger of immediate invasion we representatives of the Canadian government have promised to raise 500,000 men up to date we have enlisted only 375,000 if we want the allies to conquer we must furnish the men we promised and at once. Watch this serial to see how Pearl White America's Joan of Ark works to defeat the silent menace. Now along with demonstrating the types of intestacies between the serials and topical and social concerns, this type of moment also gives way to understanding a certain level of generic mixing that can take place within the serials. In this case it would be a mixing of somewhat a documentary types of forms, fiction, and nonfiction blended together. Happens a good bit later in Pearl of the Army there is a moment where she is dealing with some electrical combustion issues some new type of bomb and there is an inner title that comes in and says you know that what she needs to do is talk to some of the greatest inventors and there is an insertion intercut in it of a part of a newsreel that has Thomas Edison and others grouped together chatting and then we return to the serial story proper. Along with that type of generic mixing there is a great deal of generic mixing that was well noticed by contemperary audiences you have serials that will take the heroin from land to land, exotic place to exotic place. The Perils of Pauline again is a very good example of this and we move from what we would say are various recognizable genre forms. She fights Indians in one, it's a western she fights pirates and seafaring villains in another, taking us to kind of an ocean adventure. There was a film 1914 again Universal it was Lucille Love, the girl of mystery and in this serial which there were 14 episodes Lucille travels around the world, she chases a villain in a sea plane in Manila to a south sea island, China, San Francisco, Mexico and back again to the US. In one other film let me just illustrate for you Alas of the Lumber land which starred Helen Homes in 1916 was reported by a reviewer from variety as a serial that was quote set in the lumber lands of the Northwest and end quote. But quickly qualified that description noting that a serial quote rarely confines itself to one set of locations the average one jumping half way around the earth before the finale. Now this group of, this last cycle that I have been demonstrating is one that I actually tend to think of as action adventure films. And a part of the interest here is on the various exotic locals. Again, quite distinct from the railway films. One local, one quick action. Given the limited scope of this panel I am going to need to cut my time short here although I haven't yet had the opportunity to share with you the wealth and the richness and the complexity of all the films that are available. Let me end however by stating that what I hope I was able to do today was to respond to a comment that I believe actually Chris made yesterday about the importance of doing the kind of contexturalizing work of orphan films. That it's not simply that we can preserve a film and expect it to speak for itself but there is a way in which we need to understand what kinds of historical cache various orphan films have for us. This is the task that I set for myself today. One that I hope that was to some degree persuasive and I want to close with a plea of sorts I suppose a request for advice or opinion, in that one of the projects that I hope to take up in the coming year is a way of having these films find a circulation in our own homes. I am thinking about documentary types of films perhaps a DVD format, perhaps a TV special, etc. In any degree to which you might have opinions or advice about how such a project might take place. I would be quite willing either to respond to that during the Q&A sessions or maybe later at a break. Thank you very much for your time.