Top of page

“Mostly Lost” and the Art of Film Forensics

Share this post:

The following is a guest post from Rachel Parker, a Processing Technician in the Moving Image Section.

“Welcome to the Packard Campus Theater. Please power up your laptops and portable devices and be sure to speak loudly enough during the film so that everyone can hear you.”

Thunder the Marvel Dog in Phantom of the Forest (1926, formerly Unidentified James Mason Clip and Theater Promotional Trailer) from the University of California, Los Angeles, identified in 2013

Not a usual pre-movie show request, is it? However, it’s the order of the day at “Mostly Lost,” the Library’s annual silent film archeology workshop which I help organize with Moving Image Curator Rob Stone.

On July 17-19, the Packard Campus Theater will be the site of the third installment of “Mostly Lost,” which violates all the rules that a theater demands of its patrons by asking attendees to talk during the screenings, preferably frequently and loudly. At “Mostly Lost,” films that are unknown, misidentified or under-identified are screened for an audience of film archivists, scholars, students, and anyone else with even a passing interest in film and/or cultural history. Our attendees arrive knowing nothing about what will be shown, but with the anticipation of a fun and mysterious journey. Think of it as “film forensics,” where information about a title can be gleaned from visual clues such as automobile models, license plates, Coca-Cola bottles, and clothing styles.

Howdy Judge (1926, formerly Unidentified Tarisa No.1 Silent Comedy) from the Library of Congress, identified in 2013

Why is a gathering like “Mostly Lost” even necessary? Back in the silent film era, studios usually did not want their prints back at the end of the distribution run, figuring the film was no longer commercially viable. Sometimes these abandoned films wound up in the hands of collectors, who would splice together their favorite scenes into a new reel. Because the films didn’t belong to them, the collector would cut out identifying credits and intertitles to obscure a title’s origin (yes, film piracy is a more than 100 year old phenomenon). In addition, the very act of projecting the reel occasionally caused the credits to be mangled. The head and tail end of any given reel of film is the most vulnerable to damage, not only from projection but also from physical decay. Consequently, many film archives and modern-day collectors have films they can’t identify, and “Mostly Lost” welcomes contributions from all of them.

For example, in addition to selections from Library’s own collection, we’ll be showing films from the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY), the University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Center (Columbia, SC), the EYE Film Institute (Amsterdam), Lobster Film Archive (Paris), the Royal Belgian Filmarchive (Brussels), and several personal collections. You never know what will turn up. Last year’s films included actuality footage of a chess match with people dressed as the chessmen, a silent film shot in Pennsylvania featuring baseball star Honus Wagner, and a 1927 DeForest Phonofilm with William Frawley—beloved as retired vaudevillian Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy—doing a real vaudeville act with his wife Edna.

Daddy Ambrose (1919, formerly Unidentified Ambrose Comedy) from the Museum of Modern Art, identified in 2013

Because silent films were never silent, “Mostly Lost” features three amazing musicians—Philip Carli, Ben Model, and Andrew Simpson—to provide piano accompaniment, improvising music for films they’re seeing for the first time. Rob Stone serves as a roving master of ceremonies, wandering around the theater with a microphone to repeat any information so that everyone can hear it. I sit in the back of the theater with a laptop, frantically typing any information that attendees call out or relay through Rob about what is on screen. And it’s not only movies we try to identify. We’ll have binders in the theater lobby full of unidentified film stills. During coffee breaks, attendees can flip though these binders and write down identifying information.

The first day of “Mostly Lost” features a few special programs so that attendees can report back something more than “I have no idea” to questions about what they saw at the workshop. This year we’re offering a tour of the Packard Campus as well as presentations about the early years of Technicolor, the Paper Print collection, Serge Bromberg’s tales of amazing discoveries entitled Retour de Flamme, a demonstration by Andrew, Ben, and Philip about the creative musical decisions they’re making on the fly while accompanying films they’ve never seen before, and screenings of obsolete film formats such as 28mm, 9.5mm, and the Vitaphone sound system.

[Unidentified Seaman-Caldwell Families No. 045110] from the Library of Congress
For those who prefer a less chatty film-going experience, our regular evening screenings at the Packard Campus will feature newly preserved—and fully identified—films where all that we ask is for patrons to sit back and relax…silently. On Thursday, July 17, we present Linda (1929), a late silent directed by Dorothy Davenport, preserved earlier this year by the Packard Campus film lab; Ben Model will provide accompaniment. Philip Carli plays for the East Coast premiere of Douglas Fairbanks in The Good Bad Man (1916), restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Cinémathèque Française and the Film Preservation Society, on Friday, July 18. The closing program on Saturday, July 19, takes place at the beautiful State Theatre in downtown Culpeper. Andrew Simpson and the Snark Ensemble will provide accompaniment for a varied and entertaining selection of comedy shorts. All evening programs begin at 7:30 pm.

For more information or to register for the event, visit Registration closes on July 1, and we hope to see you there!



  1. Fantastic!!!!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.