Long-lost American silent films are found in Russian archives
In a masterstroke of cultural diplomacy this past October, the Russian-American Working Group on Library Cooperation engineered an exchange of rare films between the Library of Congress and Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive in Moscow.
It turns out that Gosfilmofond has meticulously cared for nearly 200 American films given to them between 1910 and 1941, many of which are now the only surviving copies. Most films shot before 1950 appeared on silver nitrate stock, which was flammable and sometimes cannibalized for its silver content. Fires and theft destroyed 75 percent of the 200,000 silent films produced between 1893 and 1930 in the United States.
This October Gosfilmofond sent over copies of 10 titles, which include James Cruze’s 1919 movie Valley of the Giants, whose set piece includes a dramatic speeding train scene, and Victor Fleming’s The Call of the Canyon, featuring a complex love triangle that foreshadows the director’s future success with the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.
Staff members at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia, hope to restore the original English intertitles—the snippets of dialogue or description that pop up during scenes. “It’s a long process akin to an archaeological dig, because the original text has in most cases been lost,” explains Patrick Loughney, director of the Packard Campus. Work restoring these films may be complete in three years.
In return for the 200 “lost” films, Gosfilmofond and its affiliates will receive numerous American-made documentaries on people and places destroyed during the Russian Revolution, Second World War, and Cold War.