As I have on an annual basis for years now, I spent several days last week doing research in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room at the Library of Congress. The use of the Library is shockingly easy, and I’m always fascinated by how few people are in the building generally, and in the Motion Picture division specifically. I think the most patrons I’ve ever seen there were five, and that was on a trip where three of us went down together for dissertation research. At any rate, basically all that’s required is that you send a list of titles a couple of weeks in advance, and when you arrive things are waiting for you on the shelves. For someone like me, this is only a few steps shy of heaven. The films I selected this time around included BIRTHRIGHT (directed by Oscar Micheaux in 1939), BACK PAY (Frank Borzage, 1922), YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN (William Wellman, 1926), THE CAPTIVE (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915) and THE STOLEN RANCH (William Wyler, 1926). There are a couple of important things which strike me about this list, so I thought it might be worth some brief rumination.
First of all, this selection conclusively demonstrates the ridiculous fallacy that “everything is available”. None of these five titles is available any other way. It always fascinates me when someone can’t comprehend that a huge proportion of our surviving film heritage is NOT at their fingertips, and likely never will be. Sometimes that’s because of rights issues, sometimes for lack of enough interest to make access financially possible, and frequently it’s for a combination of both. In many cases, going to an archive or a specialized film festival is the only way you’ll get to see a particular title, and that’s just the way it is. For a casual filmgoer the rule “out of sight, out of mind” may apply, but thank goodness that there are some options for those of us interested in further research.
I should also note that the Library is thrilled to be patronized. I originally requested two titles (Henry King’s THE CLIMBER from 1917 and Clarence Brown’s THE ACQUITTAL from 1923) for which LOC holds prints, but has no access copies. While that made those titles inaccessible for this particular visit, all I have to do is ask a couple of months in advance and they’ll create digital copies for future review. It’s a branch of the federal government that wants to help, and is good at what they do.
The other interesting part of my annual visit is the whole notion of people’s expectations about what I see on these expeditions. After any visit to an archive or film festival, people are apt to ask whether I “enjoyed” what I saw, or how “good” the films were. That’s not an inappropriate question, but more often than not the answer is that nothing is especially earth-shaking. In this instance, I chose five films by five major directors, and none of them remotely approached the best efforts of their creators. But that’s not the point. Viewing these particular works provides a perspective which is hard to come by. It’s all well and good to appreciate ubiquitous screenings of deMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS or Wyler’s BEN-HUR, but seeing what those directors were doing at earlier points provides invaluable context for an entire career. A sampling of less well-known work fleshes out notions of acting, editing, direction, etc. at a particular moment in the development of an individual filmmaker, and of the entire industry. That’s why the most important question you can ever ask a film scholar is “What have you seen?”. Every film is another piece in a very large puzzle, and watching as much as possible is the only way to see the bigger picture.
For the general record, here are a few comments on what I watched:
BIRTHRIGHT – Micheaux liked this T.S Stribling novel so much (as, supposedly, did Faulkner) that he made it twice. The silent version is lost, as is the first reel of this sound remake. In keeping with the director’s entire output, the film demonstrates a drive and ambition which is consistently undercut by a pervasive lack of skill in acting, editing and general filmmaking. The book itself is much more rewarding, though the film probably ranks on the high end of Micheaux’s surviving work.
BACK PAY – Frank Borzage is underappreciated, largely because his best work was in the silent era and was mostly unavailable for years (much of what survives is still difficult to see). This Fannie Hurst story was mostly silly, but the director included enough nice touches to make it worth watching. The photography in the first half is breathtaking as it details life in a pastoral small town, but when the disembodied head of one character keeps appearing to goad the heroine to rectitude in the second half it’s downright creepy.
YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN – Wellman hit his stride two pictures after this with WINGS (and had a really high batting average throughout the next decade), but he wasn’t there yet. This is definitely a novice work, about a third of which is footage of a stage act which is the backdrop for a ridiculous love triangle. It only comes to life for the first few minutes, and very briefly at the end. Otherwise one of his weakest pictures.
THE CAPTIVE – I will always argue that DeMille’s early works are compulsively watchable (through THIS DAY AND AGE in 1933), but this one was about average. Some nice exterior photography, and a skillful, slow buildup to the climax, all of which confirms his abilities without marking this as a work of genius.
THE STOLEN RANCH – Wyler apparently hated cranking out so many interchangeable westerns early in his career. This film proves he was correct in that assessment.
So that’s five more down, and thousands more to go…