Sun March 6, 2011

American Silent Films Repatriated, Thanks To Russia

Silent movies are flickering, fragile, ephemeral creatures. Printed on flammable nitrate film stock, they're often lost in studio vault fires and anonymous dumpsters — or sometimes they just disintegrate quietly into nonexistence.

Only about 20 percent of movies from the silent era survive in America today. That number increased just a little bit recently, when the Library of Congress received 10 long-lost films found and preserved by archivists in Russia.

And there's more where that came from. These 10 movies are the first of nearly 200 silent films being delivered to the Library of Congress from a Russian film archive called Gosfilmofond. That's right, American-made movies, saved by the Soviets.

"American movies were, in fact, distributed in Russia and the former Soviet Union regularly from around 1910 right up to the outbreak of World War Two," Patrick Loughney tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz. Loughney is in charge of the LOC's Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, and he'll be taking care of the returned films.

"These particular films that we're repatriating now were part of a cache of film prints that were held by the state school of cinematography," Loughney says.

The Russians used the movies to teach budding Soviet filmmakers the finer points of directing, lighting, editing and costuming. "They were training them in the techniques of how to make movies," Loughney says, "and American movies were among the best-made in the world."

Researchers can see the returned films now at the Library of Congress, but Loughney says more work needs to be done before they can be released to the general public. "Even though these were American movies, they all have Russian-language intertitles," he says. Intertitles are the title cards that pop up onscreen offering dialogue or plot points during a silent film.

While many of the stars of the recently returned films are forgotten today, some were big names at the time, like Wallace Reid and Ramon Novarro. Novarro later went on star in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, the most expensive silent film ever made. The films also give insight into the early careers of several significant directors, like Victor Fleming, who later helmed Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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