Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rescuing Our Slient Film Past

The Thanhouser family should be honored by this nation for rescuing the films their ancestor made between 1909 and 1918. The tiny independent studio in Milwaukee made about 800 films in 9 years, mostly the 12-15 minute one-reelers that dominated the day.

Probably 85% of silent films are lost. No one thought to preserve them. Plus they were highly flammable. So the vast majority were thrown out, unloved and unwanted. Thanhouser himself tossed his collection in the 1920s. But some prints survive. And more than we think in the end. New findings are happening all the time. The Thanhouser family has located about 200 of the films--that might be only 25%, but 25% is a lot.

What's important about this is not just film history. It's U.S. history. As a scholar of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, I have found these silent films the best single teaching tool in the world. I can talk about urban issues, the women's suffrage movement, immigration, etc., until my lips turn blue. And I think the students are interested. But put on a film like "How They Rob Men in Chicago," a short that shows both a robber and a cop cleaning out a poor guy walking down the street, and students get it in a whole new way.

This was a period before there was a way to make a movie. People were figuring it out as they went. Restrictions on what you could put on film remained in a nascent stage. So people did some amazingly crazy things in these films--things you could never get away with today. They put society and societal values on the nitrate. So not only are these early films important parts of film history, they are a window to a lost past. All movies are perhaps, but by the 1930s, the big studio systems had taken over, film had been bowlderized by the Hays Code, and audiences had begun to expect certain ways of telling stories. This doesn't mean film noir doesn't help us understand the late 1940s, but it takes a lot more analysis to make sense of it than it did in 1912, when they just made comedies making fun of women's suffragists, showing both great humor and also the increadible sexism of the day.

You can buy the Thanhouser collections here
. It seems that only 1 is available through Netflix, which is unfortunate.