- Film History Marches On!
When I was a graduate student at NYU, I spent most Monday evenings at the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society. The locale, at the time, was a large rented loft space off Union Square, and the audience members were all hard core FOOFs – “Friends of Old Film,” as the late Elliott Stein dubbed them. I was happy to see the films, but knew almost nothing about this man Huff, beyond his authorship of a 1951 book on Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, the rarity of Huff’s accomplishment for that period was lost on me for many years.
Then one day in the early 1970s I stumbled into a used book store on Hollywood Boulevard and scored a complete run of Hollywood Quarterly [1945–1951], one of the most impressive journals ever to go down the black hole of film history. HQ had published a translation of Georges Sadoul’s essay on G.A. Smith and the Brighton School, and in the “Correspondence” section of their January 1947 issue I discovered Huff working over Sadoul as if he were pulling wings off house flies.1 Seizing on Sadoul’s admission that he had not seen any of Smith’s films (the prints of which were “lost long ago” was the hasty explanation), Huff excoriated his French rival for depending on second hand references and shaky plot summaries extrapolated from catalogue descriptions.2 It seems that Huff claimed to have actually seen a few of the works in question and insisted that a historian should keep his mouth shut unless and until he could speak from primary evidence. Huff not only knew the films, he also seemed to know all the secondary literature, quoting knowledgeably from his French and German rivals.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The argument soon turned to Edwin S. Porter and Life of an American Fireman. Not because Huff wanted to set up Porter against the Brighton bunch, but because he wanted to highlight the superiority of “my own research experience”. In true Indiana Jones fashion, Huff had figured out that the Library of Congress might be holding copyright deposit material relating to early motion pictures, and in 1942 managed to get into the vault.3 Howard Walls was the man with the keys, but it was Huff who knew what they were looking at. And the most important find was Life of an American Fireman.
After running through a shelf load of citations from (discretely unnamed) scholars on two continents describing “Pour la premiere fois … les actions paralleles”’ and “parallelismus in der montage” of Fireman, Huff triumphantly announced that there was no such thing in Porter’s film, despite all the wishful thinking.
“There was not even cross-cutting when the people were rescued. While the fireman carrying the wife presumably climbs down the ladder outside the window, the shot of the interior remains on the screen until, after a long pause, the fireman reenters to rescue the child. Then, on the exterior, the rescues are repeated as the fireman goes through the same actions again!”.4
I learned a few things from this brief essay, not all of them related to either Georges Sadoul or Edwin S. Porter. First, although Huff described himself as “assistant professor, motion pictures” at New York University, we certainly didn’t learn anything about him or his work while I was there (the reasons for this, academic and otherwise, are too involved to get into here). But the research program he described seemed exactly right to me – check everything, be wary of received opinion, and get your hands dirty working with primary materials (literally so; in a letter to Seymour Stern he described “a rat as big as a cat” sideswiping him in the “filthy and smelly” paper print vault).5
So why didn’t anyone else seem to know this [End Page 363] essay? Even at a time of heightened interest in Porter, Brighton, and the development of film editing? It ran for three pages in the leading American film journal of its day. It was edgy, argumentative and well-sourced, taking to task a scholar of international repute and drawing attention...