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Piecing Together Silent Films

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When most people think of silent films, a handful of classics starring Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton come to mind. But in fact thousands of silent films were produced before 1929. Less than a third have survived intact. 

Jennifer Bean

Jennifer Bean 

“Throughout the three decades of the silent era, well into the sound era, a nitrate-based film stock was used,” says cinema studies professor Jennifer Bean. “Nitrate is prone to spontaneous combustion and deterioration. It can turn gummy, almost tar-like. As a result, relatively little from the early years remains.” 

Bean has spent the past decade working to preserve what’s left. Sometimes a middle reel of a film is found, minus the identifying credits at the beginning and end. Bean looks for clues—familiar actors, newspaper articles from the period, screenwriters’ notes—to piece together missing details. She may recall previously viewing a film fragment with similar qualities and realize that it is part of the same film. 

“After years of viewing silent films, I have an unusual knowledge,” says Bean. “I can make connections. I can identify, piece together, and catalog films and film fragments. I’m a film archaeologist of sorts.” 

Bean’s archival work with silent films can be traced back to 1979, when an unusual discovery was made in Dawson City, a small Canadian town near the Arctic Circle. A backhoe digging into one of the town’s parking lots hit a cache of old films—more than 500 reels of silent film dating back to 1915. “Dawson City was a Gold Rush town that suddenly swarmed with 75,000 people,” explains Bean. “There was nothing much to do, so they watched films. In later years, the Chamber of Commerce dug a big hole and threw the films in. They just buried them.” Miraculously, the films were preserved due to the cold climate. 

Bean describes these films, which she now views at the Library of Congress film archives in Washington, D.C., as the “baseline collection” for her research. “These films raise questions and I work with other archives to fill in the details,” she says. 

Of great interest to Bean is how silent films capture a period of technological and social change in America. “The cinema of this period has something to tell us about the way that modernity emerged and changed our world,” she explains, “and it tells us this in a different way than art or literature, because it reflects what mass culture was interested in at the time.” 

Like today, the most popular silent films were “genre films”—comedy, action, adventure, mystery, or suspense films that followed a familiar pattern, film after film. But unlike today, nearly all of these films had women in the lead role, as the heroic figure or detective. “I see stuff in the archives like Grace Cunard, a very popular film star and director from the 1910s, leaping off the top of a building, then turning around and flattening the men chasing her,” says Bean. “There’s a bravado, a radical approach to modern forms of representation and identity, mingled with a playfulness.” 

Bean is currently writing a book on genre films, with gender as a central focus. She also is co-editing A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema and serves on the steering committee of The Women Film Pioneers Project, an international collective of scholars dedicated to preserving and restoring films written, acted, directed, and produced by women during the silent era. 

While the role of gender in these films continues to intrigue Bean, she says the real attraction is the challenge of piecing together a puzzle. “There’s the pure hedonistic pleasure of the find,” she says. “You are on the trail of something, and then bit by bit it appears, with the discovery of an article or a reel of film. Of course my questions are not always answerable, but the pursuit of cinema’s elusive past—like the pursuit of knowledge itself—is endlessly engaging.”