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How Our Great-Grandparents Saw the Movies

By Ronica Roth | HUMANITIES, January/February 2004 | Volume 25, Number 1

When moving pictures left the penny arcade and were shown in theaters, they were done in short segments in a constant loop. Customers paid a nickel to watch as long as they liked.

A decade later saw the arrival of the feature film. Nickelodeons still showed shorts, but they were the prelude to a main drama that was accompanied by a piano or orchestra. Some of the most popular features traveled beyond the big city theaters, remade into simpler operating formats to take on the road. The new format was 28mm, a precursor to today's VHS or DVD. As film technology changed--adding color tinting, better lighting, and more sophisticated cinematography--experiments like the 28mm format were left behind.

These films will be seen again for the first time in sixty years when the George Eastman House restores 108 titles from 1911 to 1918. The project is one of nine Save America's Treasures grants administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"By being able to preserve a substantial portion, we can understand how our great-grandparents saw films in the turn of the century," says Paolo Cherchi Usai, Eastman's senior curator of the motion picture department. Cherchi Usai notes that viewing the collection will help scholars understand the silent cinema industry in the teens. He hopes the films can be evaluated within the context of their time, rather than by today's standards.

"We see the films as 'primitive' simply because that cinema had no sound and our cinema has sound or different acting styles or different color," Cherchi Usai explains. "We are using our criteria to judge as primitive something that was high-tech. The acting style differed not because they were bad actors, but because they were adhering to the theatrical style of the time."

The collection shows a young Harold Lloyd in Lonesome Luke, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, an early documentary "actuality film," and a film of the young woman once billed as "the most beautiful woman in the world," Olive Thomas.

In a rags-to-riches career, Thomas left Pittsburgh and an early marriage to become a store clerk in New York City. There she won a beauty contest that landed her in Ziegfeld's Follies and brought her to the attention of Hollywood producers. Thomas became immersed in the Hollywood scene, making seventeen films in four years and marrying playboy Jack Pickford, brother of actress Mary Pickford. At twenty-one, Olive died in Paris of poisoning. Speculation as to whether it was accidental or not led to a tabloid scandal.

Her popularity lived on for a while, partly through the redistribution of her films, such as Madcap Madge, the second of the seventeen movies she made. Thomas described the hoopla about Madge to a magazine reporter in 1920: "My fan mail is large--exceedingly large--and the one picture remains the favorite. Fans haven't forgotten it even after three years." Madge was so popular that within months of its theater debut it was re-released in 28mm format, the only version that has survived. Now, with the preservation efforts of the George Eastman House, Madge will get a third life and perhaps a new generation of fans.

"The 28mm format was a home movie entertainment apparatus for the middle classes, but also good for rural areas," Cherchi Usai says. The 28mm projectors used hand cranks to create light without electricity. It meant that people all over the country, not just those in urban areas would see these movies. Middle-class audiences, who often shied away from mingling with the lower-class crowds at the theaters, could watch these films in the privacy of their homes.

"This collection is a repertoire of a vast catalog of moving images made for private consumption," Cherchi Usai says. These are the very first examples of films that were given a second commercial life by being printed onto 28mm film stock for home viewing.

No one has had the equipment to view this type of film since the forties. "The odd format is like a dead language," says Cherchi Usai. He says the films' odd format has been both a blessing and a curse: on one hand, no one could show the movies and thus further degrade them; on the other hand, no lab could copy 28mm footage into 35mm format.

For six decades, the films have sat in storage, waiting for transfer to newer and more stable stock. In the 1990s, the Oxberry Company developed a wet printing gate able to make the transfer. Using this technique, the George Eastman House will treat the poorest films to make them pliable, redimension them to 35mm, and create a 35mm preservation negative and release print. The new prints will be made available to scholars and the public in the George Eastman House study center and the Dryden Theatre.

The 28mm films are not the only films experiencing a revival. Congress created the National Film Preservation Foundation, which has preserved and made available more than 525 so-called orphan films, those no longer owned by a major production company. Now in the public domain, they include documentaries, silent-era films, home movies, avant-garde films, newsreels, and independent works. "Oddly enough, the very fact that these films--and all orphans--have survived is nothing short of a miracle. It is said that 80 percent of films made before 1950 were destroyed."

In the early twentieth century, film was considered similar to a newspaper: it was disposable. When a movie no longer made money, it was destroyed, like throwing away yesterday's newspaper. When sound came, silents disappeared.

With the development of acetate film stock in 1951, the old nitrate films, which could explode inside the can, were destroyed as a safety measure. Thirty-five mm versions remained, partly because projectors remained available; but for the 28mm movies and the 9.5mm that followed, there eventually was no viewing apparatus and no incentive to keep them.

The George Eastman House project will be a pilot for making obsolete formats retrievable, says Cherchi Usai. As he sees it, this sort of project will always be needed, as the migration to new formats make previous ones obsolete. "Someday there will be a laser disc preservation project," he says.

About the Author

Ronica Roth is a writer in Denver, Colorado.

Funding Information

The George Eastman House received $380,000 to preserve and re-dimension seventy-five thousand feet of 28mm film.