Although the collections of the NAVCC are rightfully associated with audiovisual content (after all, it’s in our name), we have a tremendous amount of paper records—well in excess of two million items. And for moving images, this documentation really runs the gamut: posters, lobby cards, photographs, festival catalogs, scripts, trade periodicals, press kits, and on and on.
One of the most fascinating paper collections we have is the copyright descriptive records. Motion pictures have been eligible for copyright registration since 1912, and those registrations are and always have been accompanied by some form of documentation. According to the latest Copyright Circular outlining the procedure for registering movies, in addition to a copy of the film, all submissions must be accompanied by a “separate description of the nature and general content of the work—for example, a shooting script, a synopsis, or a pressbook.”
Now, just because films have been sent to the Library for copyright since 1912 doesn’t mean we have those films—far from it, unfortunately. Until 1951, movies were printed on 35mm nitrate film stock. Nitrate is highly flammable and should be stored under proper environmental conditions of the type we have today at the Packard Campus, but in 1912, the Library had no such storage. So, companies would send in a physical copy of their film along with a description, and after registration the Copyright Office would return the film to the claimant while retaining the accompanying paperwork.
The National Film Preservation Board recently published a study indicating that of the 11,000 feature length movies made in America during the silent era (roughly 1912 to 1929), 70% no longer exist, even in fragmentary form. This is an astonishing and thoroughly depressing cultural devastation. And the fact of the matter is that a goodly number of those films passed through the doors of the Library of Congress.
Hindsight always being 20/20, I don’t fault our predecessors for following a policy informed by the resources and budget with which they had to work—we finally acquired some nitrate vaults in the mid-1940s—but oh, for a Wayback Machine!
For example, perhaps the most famous “lost” silent feature is London After Midnight, a 1928 MGM film starring Lon Chaney. The Copyright Office received two 35mm prints and a cutting continuity script on May 24, 1928, completed the registration, then promptly returned the prints to MGM and filed the continuity. The last known copy of London After Midnight was destroyed in a 1967 vault fire, but at least we still have that script.
Today, the copyright descriptions are stored in climate controlled vaults at the Packard Campus and are accessible in the Moving Image Research Center. Several years ago we digitized many hundreds of the microfilm reels onto which the descriptions were originally transferred, and we’re looking for ways to make those files available online. In the meanwhile, expect to see quite a few of them on future “Now See Hear!” posts.