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Hard-Won Victories: Solving the Mystery of Some “Mystery Photos”

What a long, strange trip it has been. Some time ago, when I offered to help a colleague try to identify some super-obscure movie stills I had no idea….

It started almost three years ago. The Moving Image section of the LOC had just acquired a vast collection—30,000 photos!—of (mostly) movie and TV stills from a former collector/vendor from the New Jersey area.  Thankfully, of the 30K pictures, the overwhelming majority of them were properly, correctly, identified and foldered.  But about 1,000 were loose and unlabeled.  The staff of the division then went to work.

(For a full recounting of this process, please see my previous blog: “The Trail (and Trial) of the Mystery Movie Photos.”)

Of the unidentified 1,000 or so photos, we were able to successfully ID about 800 inhouse. But those final 200!  Unable to ID them ourselves, we then turned to crowd-sourcing, via this blog.  Twenty different times we posted collections of unknown stills and appealed to America for its assistance.  And America didn’t disappoint!

To our surprise, and great gratitude, many people throughout the country adopted our problem as their problem and took on the task of ID-ing some of these super-obscure pictures as a personal pet cause. They took them and ran with them—taking them to Reddit, to their Facebook pages and sharing them among friends and family.

Sometimes to find the rightful name, to “solve” the picture, it took just one person, sometimes it took a whole lot of people. Here’s the behind-the-scenes tales of some of our most unique images and how we discovered just who—or what—they were.

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE

You see this group? We went, literally, around the world before we learned the identities of these folks.  For about half the people I showed this picture to in the beginning, they said, “They look English!”  (How one “looks English,” I never contemplated.)  But it was a lead I nevertheless followed, sending e-mails across the Atlantic to every Brit TV fan group site and every would-be Monty Python wannabe I could find.

Beloved UK actress Pauline McLynn was a popular choice for the lady on the far left. After I asked one British TV aficionado if then, perhaps, this picture was of McLynn and the rest of the cast of McLynn’s 1990s Brit-com “Father Ted,” the online responder asked, “Are you mad?!”

To which, I responded, “No, just American.”

Another early poster though thought that two of the people in the picture looked like two well-known German TV sketch performers. So, after posting that possibility, suddenly I found myself on all sorts of German-themed webpages and fansites, hoping that my Google translation to German was at least basically serviceable.

Eventually, though, I was told “Nein.”

Finally, someone from the other side of the pond, noticed the fire escape visible in the back of the picture and noted that fire escapes are more of a US thing than a worldwide thing. This brought us back to the US.

For those who didn’t think the group was British, they sure thought that the lady at the far right was former “AfterMASH” actress Brandis Kemp. As Kemp began her career on the 1980s ABC late comedy sketch show “Fridays,” many suggesters then decided to try to shoehorn in the identities of some of Kemp’s one-time “Fridays” co-horts onto the faces of those in the picture–without success.  Finally, the Library reached out to Ms. Kemp herself and she informed us that the lady in the photo was not her.

Still thinking it must be some sort of comedy troupe—one morning I dashed the scan off to Carl Kissin, the longtime purveyor of a NYC improv group called Chicago City Limits.  Carl took it from there, sharing the photo with some of his friends and former improv-ers.

Finally, a friend of Carl’s, an actress, said that the woman on the far right was a former co-star of hers named Georgia Harrell. Harrell appeared in some 1980s-era movie comedies and once did a guest spot on “Perfect Strangers.”

That got the ball rolling…. It took the assistance of a few others before we got in touch with Ms. Harrell who informed us that this was her and her co-stars in a circa 1982 NYC improv toupe named Captive Audience.

From left to right, then, the group is: Beth Rake, Philippe Ruskin, John McCarthy, and Ms. Harrell; Brendon Elliot is in the back.

Ah, mystery solved!

“THE GREAT AIR ROBBERY”

If it took a village to solve the “Captive Audience” picture, it nearly took a whole city to solve this one.

It’s a distinctive image to be sure, a terrified woman seemingly underground and being menaced by a “monster” wearing a gas mask and some long johns. Surely anyone who had ever seen this movie couldn’t forget it…could they?

After it was first posted by the LOC in September 2016, an early commenter assured us that this image was from a French film he had once seen. So, that, for a time, sent us all down a French-centric rabbit hole.

But…a couple of others looking at the photo, said that the background had to be the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system of San Francisco.

Then…the appearance of the woman in foreground—especially her heavy eyebrows—for many brought to mind the work of eccentric, legendary avant garde filmmaker George Kuchar. The late Kuchar spent the majority of his career in the Bay Area!   AHA!

But… various Kuchar scholars, when consulted, could not place the image to any known Kuchar work.

Soon, a couple of truly dedicated San Franciscans took on the challenged of this photo. They reached out to the BART system—was a permit ever obtained to film something there?—and to the San Francisco Film Office.  From there, the picture made its way to local newspaper, the “San Francisco Gate,” and then to local TV station KTVU, who ran a morning newscast story on this mystery picture.  (Me:  What have we started?!)

Luckily, watching the news that morning was a woman who works with the long-running SF theater company the San Francisco Mime Troupe. She recognized the woman in the photo as Mime performer Andrea Snow.  She then alerted others who had been with the Mime Troupe longer who were then able to ID the production.

This, then, is a publicity shot, taken in the 24th/Mission BART station, but not for a film, but for an original stage show titled “The Great Air Robbery.” It was staged in 1974 in San Francisco.  Ms. Snow co-wrote the script and, today, remains active with the group.

Perhaps the only question that remains about the photo now is how this picture made its way across the country and landed with the original collector in New Jersey…? Alas, that’s a mystery that we will probably never solve…

FRANCES WALLER

After exploring and abandoning many good guesses for this photo like Patsy Cline and Maxene Andrews, it finally took some modern-day science to unearth the identity of this almost 70 year-old photo.

Often for press photos sent out to newspapers across the country in hopes they’d be reprinted, information about the photo (the name of the performer, title of the program and where/when it was airing, etc.) was printed on a piece of paper and attached with glue to the back of the original photo. Unfortunately, for our purposes, often these pieces of paper got torn off or lost along the way.  But, for this particular still, the description was adhered long enough for some of the text to bleed (as you can see) onto the lower third of the image.  Luckily, at the Library of Congress, we have a way of reading things like that.

So we sent the still to our preservation lab who, using a spectral imaging system, was able to decipher some of the faded words. This is what it said:  “From: J. [?] Thompson Company, 420 Lexington Avenue, New York” and “[?]aft Television Theatre, December 22, 1949.”

That “—aft” is “Kraft Television Theatre,” an early and long-running TV anthology program. Thanks to that title, and the date, we were quickly able to zero in on this mystery woman.

The lady in question is actress Frances Waller. She appeared on this late 1949 “Kraft” episode titled “New Broom.”  She did some stage work in New York and toured in some plays before, seemingly, retiring.  If you look her up on her IMDB, you will see that her film and TV career was very short—she has only two credits listed, with “Broom” being one of them.

“SWEET TORTURE”

These two shots—both from the same film–bedeviled me for the longest time. It became something of an obsession and also one that I thought I’d go to my grave before I ever saw solved.

This one was particularly frustrating as we had many clues. For many film stills, the initials of the film’s title (say, like “GWTW” for “Gone With the Wind”) or the initials of the subject (say like, “MM” for Marilyn Monroe) are printed in one of the lower corners of the photo.  This pic, very clearly reads “SC” in the corner and, in theory, that should have given us a major advantage in determining what film it was from.  Not only that, but the woman’s dress and her knee-high boots (in photo number two, for example) clearly bespoke of the late 1960s or early ‘70s.  So we had an era and something of a title.  How hard could this be to ID?

You’d be surprised.

After I tried and gave up on this being from the US film “Shock Corridor” (and I tried believe me!), and decided it wasn’t from the notorious film “Sugar Cookies,” either, for months, I stewed. And for every film poster I saw, every movie I saw playing on TV, I immediately double-checked in my head, “Are its initials ‘SC’?!”

Finally, a full year (or more) after it was first posted on the blog, a foreign film fan, said that they thought these images were from a 1971 French film titled “Les Aveux Les Plus Doux” which translates to “The Sweetest Confessions”!  But….unfortunately for me, when the film was imported into the USA, it first underwent a title change and became known stateside as “Sweet Torture.”  No wonder, then, I could never link it up with the “SC” initials!

***

As of this writing, there are still about 60 images that have yet to fully ID.

We have long ago given up the idea of ever “solving” every last one of them; some of these individuals are just too obscure. (Had it not been for the gift of modern technology, I doubt we ever would have solved the Waller photo.)

But, because we don’t like leaving a job unfinished, we will continue to hold out hope that more of these images will, in time, be seen by just the right person who has the answer. (To my great surprise, so far no one yet has contacted me to say, “Hey, that’s me!” or “That’s my mom!,” etc., as surely many of the people or their heirs are still very much around.)

To me, these photos, and the people in them, linger like lost souls, that, at the very least, are entitled to the dignity of an identity. And you may wonder why it matters at all if so many of these people are so obscure.  Because even the “obscure, the “unknown,” shouldn’t be forgotten.  At the Library of Congress, we hate to see anything be lost to history.

***

As mentioned, some of our photos are still in need of “solving”; they can be found at the three following links:

Who Am I? (Part 1)

Who Am I? (Part 2)

Who Am I (Part 3)

 

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