- At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” program featured two intriguing presentations: The detective/technical work involved in finding and restoring the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks star vehicle The Half-Breed and the early development of synchronized movie sound technology.
‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’: Finding & restoring the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks movie The Half-Breed
At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” program began with film preservationist Rob Byrne documenting how the 1916 movie The Half-Breed was found and restored to its present condition.
Directed by Allan Dwan, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Alma Rubens, and adapted by Anita Loos from Bret Harte’s 1883 story “In The Carquinez Woods,” this tale of the American West was thought lost until various versions and excerpts began cropping up in some very unlikely places.
For instance, one surviving – but fast-decomposing – The Half-Breed print was found in 1978, buried in a swimming pool in the Canadian Yukon. Other prints were from later (and incomplete) rereleases, with different titles and some re-editing.
Rob Byrne told the by now familiar story of how a complete restoration is developed through painstaking work and lots of time before a final print can be made of the film as it was originally intended to be seen. This is a tale I never get tired of. It’s due to this sort of diligent work that we film fans are able to experience the, in my own words, “zeitgeist we are waiting for.”
In sum: Film preservation is part detective work, part luck, and all love for the projects.
Early sound technology
The second “Amazing Tales from the Archives” speaker was Céline Ruivo, curator of the Cinémathèque Française.
One of my personal interests is the development of sound and color in film history. Much to my delight, Ruivo explained the sound-on-cylinder system, which, at the turn of the 20th century, operated in a similar manner to that of Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc, which was developed much later at Warner Bros.
A film clip was shown of a 1900 sound-on-cylinder synchronization of a song from Edmond Audran and Maurice Ordonneau’s La Poupée (1896), performed by Mariette Sully at the Paris Opera. Although this sound process was not successful, thanks to that surviving clip we get a taste of what this opera looked like and sounded like at the time.
“Extraordinary ‘Amazing Tales'” endnotes
San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
Douglas Fairbanks The Half-Breed movie image: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“Extraordinary ‘Amazing Tales’: Fairbanks Movie Unearthed + Early Sound Technology” last updated in January 2022.