Amazing Tales from the Archives: Orphan Films at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

by Danny Fortune

Jeremias The Fall of Jerusalem Eugen Illes
Eugen Illés' The Fall of Jerusalem

The 16th San Francisco Silent Film Festival first morning program, “Amazing Tales from the Archives - The Archivist As Detective,” presented the many problems identifying “Orphan Films” – unlabeled pieces of footage discovered in vaults or estates.

The first example of such an orphan film was an excerpt from a movie determined to be Eugen Illés' 1922 German period drama Jeremias / The Fall of Jerusalem. Among the techniques discussed, preservationists look for clues as to the country of origin and date of release. Lip reading may reveal the language that was used. In more contemporary settings, they look for license plates, road signs, automobile designs, clothing and hairstyles that may give clues to the year of production.

We then watched Vitagraph's 1913 one-reel drama, A Heart of the Forest, directed by Ralph Ince and preserved by Lobster Films. The short film's plot is simple: When an Indian man, Young Eagle, falls from a tree, he is taken in by white settlers. In return for their kindness, the Indian saves the pioneers from a surprise attack and bravely dies in his attempt. As with these short films, the action comes quick and details that make up the characters are sketchy. 

Photo via alamotheatre.org

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