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The Trail (and Trial) of the Mystery Movie Photos (Or, Who Is This?)

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It all began innocently enough.

As part of my job working for the National Recording Preservation Board, I assist with the annual announcement of the National Recording Registry. Last year, when Bobby Darin’s recording of “Mack the Knife” was added to the Registry, I researched the Moving Image Section’s collection of film and entertainment stills to find one of Mr. Darin for our press announcement. We have an enormous number of stills—probably more than a million—and we’ve acquired them in various ways over the years, mostly through gift and purchase.

The particular photo collection I searched was purchased from a nostalgia dealer. The collection is impressive in size. It’s been estimated that it has 300,000 images in it and fills 26 full-size file cabinets. But when I went to this collection and pulled out the folder for “Bobby Darin,” the photo of the man looking back at me was not Bobby Darin. In fact, I didn’t know who it was. Nor was it marked in any way.

Eager to right this wrong, I quickly scanned the image and sent it to a handful of friends whom I figured could help. They did not disappoint. Rather quickly, one of them shot back the right answer. (For those keeping track, the Not-Bobby-Darin photo was later ID’ed as fashion designer Don Loper, who, by the way, looks NOTHING like Bobby Darin. Google it.)


Once correctly identified, I took the photo to a co-worker who had spent a good deal of time rehousing the collection. I turned it over to him with an explanation, and he told me that there was, in that same photo collection, a whole treasure trove of other unknown, unidentified photos. Would I be interested in taking a look? I said sure, I have a pretty good eye for obscure performers from TV shows no one else has ever heard of, so why not? And then he brought me four giant plastic bins each filled to the brim with various 8x10s. What had I gotten myself into?

The photos came from all eras. Some were color; some were black and white. There were “head shots” of actors, both major and some considerably minor. I saw stills from films that maybe I had seen years ago on some Saturday afternoon. But some didn’t look familiar at all.

At first, it was quite fun. Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Some I knew just by looking while others sent me to IMDB to confirm a title or a spelling. From another co-worker I learned of the secret language of film still codes. In the lower corner of many films stills—especially those made during the major studio era—there is a (usually) four-digit number that references back to a specific film. There are reference books indexing these identification codes, and fortunately we have them in our library.

Lovely but still unknown. (UPDATE:  THIS WAS ID’ED IN 2020.  IT IS MARTA BRENNAN.)

Figuring out many of these alpha-numerics was like getting the key to the Holy Grail! Or, at least, to finding out which Hopalong Cassidy movie a particular still was from. But cracking other the codes were sometimes tricky. Sometimes codes got repeated, sometimes they were inconclusive. Hence, it became necessary to spend time on Google and even eBay looking at photos of costumes and backdrops to see if I could find a visual match. Along with the codes, I began to understand more of the secret language of publicity stills. For examples, photos measuring 8×10 were usually big screen products, but those the next size smaller (approximately 7×9) indicted that they were probably made to promote a TV title or something for the stage.

By the time I was done with this next level discovery, I had identified close to 500 of the formerly “unknown” photos. The ones I didn’t know, I deposited into an empty bin adorned with a giant question mark. Eventually, though, this “?” bin overflowed with stills and I realized I was going to need a little help.

I set up a special “Photo ID Station” in the center of the Moving Image Section radial area. On a large table I placed two file trays—one for the “unidentified” photos, one for the “solved” ones. Festooned about were several pads of Post-It notes, some pencils and several pairs of archival gloves. I invited all staff members to have at it. The collective “eye” of Packard Campus staff surprised me as they quickly knocked off well over a hundred of the stills through knowledge and diligent detective work. After a couple of months, however, there were about 200 stills that we couldn’t quite place. Our next step was to solicit help from non-Library employees.

When I pulled my friends Mike Heintz, Steven Thompson and Dr. Robert Kiss into the process, they astounded me with their knowledge and ID skills and they successfully knocked many off of the “Who?” pile.

Then it was on to a wider group.

Once a year, the Library of Congress hosts the annual Mostly Lost Film Identification Workshop where 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. I scanned all the unidentified stills and, like the staff ID station I set up earlier, left photocopies of these mystery stills out in three-ring binders. About a dozen stills were positively identified.

Now that I had scans, I ran them through various online “reverse image” search engines. But while and Google Images helped knock out a few, the success rate was pretty low. From time to time I would contact someone directly. For example, when a colleague spotted actor Eddie Deezen at the very edge of a crowd scene, I reached out to Mr. Deezen via Facebook. A few days later, he identified the film as Laserblast (1978) and said it one of his very first credits. Another time we easily recognized Jerry O’Connell in a still but couldn’t ID the film, so I wrote him on Twitter. Mr. O’Connell kindly identified Joe’s Apartment (1996).


“Other people I contacted weren’t so famous but just as surprised. On the back of a sepia-toned still of a distinguished looking man, someone had scribbled a note referring to the Syracuse Symphony. I phoned the Syracuse Symphony but the woman I spoke to didn’t know too much about the symphony’s history so she referred me to a retired musician named Stuart Raleigh. I called Mr. Raleigh and it turned out the photo was of him!

So when I finally exhausted all internal resources, I turned to crowdsourcing via the Now See Hear blog. After a series of conversations with our Office of the General Counsel to make sure that putting unidentified stills online would pass legal muster, I posted the first six of still 100+ unknown images into an inaugural blog post titled Who’s That Lady? We invited everyone, anyone, to offer suggestions and theories.

The week after that that blog posting, we followed those six images with another six images under the equal-opportunity heading Who’s That Gent? After that, it was less of a question and more of a command with a series of six more stills I titled Name That Movie! As of this writing I’ve written sixteen posts with a few more being planned.

The stills we are posting are not easy to ID. By the time they make it to Now See Hear they’ve already been seen by a lot of knowledgeable film fans. Still, over the weeks, it has been both amazing and heartening to see how quickly and how much people respond. And while a few suggestions are decidedly off the wall, most are very viable and often correct. To date, of the 110 pics we’ve posted so far, exactly half have been positively identified!

Thanks, America!


Along with the three photos above that are still awaiting an identity, a few photos at each of the following links are in need of solving.  Click on them to see.

Photo Blog #1:  Who’s That Lady?

Photo Blog #2:  Who’s that Gent? (4 out of 6 solved!)

Photo Blog #3:  Name That Movie! (5 out of 6 solved!)

Photo Blog #4:  Musical Mysteries (5 out of 6 solved!)

Photo Blog #5:  Unknown Horrors

Photo Blog #6:  Small Screen Oddities (4 out of 6 solved!)

Photo Blog #7:  International Unknowns (5 out of 6 solved!)

Photo Blog #8:  Mysterious Silents (4 out of 6 solved!)

Photo Blog #9:  Portraits of an Unknown Woman (3 of 10 solved!)

Photo Blog #10:  The Films With No Name (7 out of 8 solved!)

Photo Blog #11:  The Kids are Unknown (5 out of 10 solved!)

Photo Blog #12:  Reel Mysteries (5 out of 10 solved!)

Photo Blog #13:  Men of Mystery (4 out of 10 solved!)

Photo Blog #14:  More Musical Mysteries (2 out of 10 solved!)

Photo Blog #15:  The Executive Guess (1 of out 10 solved!)










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