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  • Reclaiming “Lost” FilmsThe Paper Print Fragment Collection and the American Film Company
  • Colin Williamson (bio) and Dana Driskel (bio)

It is undeniable that digital technologies are dramatically reemphasizing the importance of film archives to the study of early cinema. Large-scale digitization of film elements, such as the Turconi Collection Database, and of periodicals, such as the Media History Digital Library, is expanding access to the early history of the cinema. As new collections of materials are being discovered and others are becoming newly available, expectations about how deeply we can explore this history are changing. For film scholars, the implications of these changes are significant as cinema studies transitions from a celluloid past to a digital future.

Recognizing that the vast majority of silent films are lost, unsalvageable, or deteriorating rapidly, noncelluloid objects are increasingly central to understanding this period. A major resource from this perspective has been the Paper Print Collection (PPC) at the Library of Congress. The collection consists of complete visual representations of films that were deposited at the Library as the copyright records for films made primarily between 1894 and 1912. The paper prints hold a prominent place in scholarship on early cinema in part because Kemp Niver’s seminal catalog, published in 1967, brought the collection firmly within the purview of film historiography.1 The understandable interest garnered by the complete films in the PPC, however, has contributed to the obscurity of an equally rich archive of related copyright materials known as the paper print fragments.2 As Packard Humanities Institute director Patrick Loughney explains, unlike the complete records of films in the PPC, the less familiar paper fragments consist “of selected positive images printed from each scene of the original camera negative on short 35mm photographic paper strips.”3 Here “fragment” does not refer to specific “incomplete” archival prints of films but rather a method of submitting static images to the Library for the purpose of copyrighting individual films.

Understanding precisely what fragments were submitted from year to year and by whom is difficult because of the significant amount of terminological confusion surrounding them. References to “fragments,” “prints,” “copies,” “reels,” and “rolls” all crop up in the language used to describe the copyright system and its components. However, some of what was expected for copyrighting is clarified by the actual copyright application form instructions for submitting a “Motion Picture Photoplay” following a 1912 change in copyright law:4

To secure copyright registration in compliance with the provisions of the Act of August 24, 1912: 1st, The Title; 2nd, A Description of the photoplay; 3rd, (2) ____ Prints taken one from each scene of every act.

The submitter supplied two copies of each fragment submitted and hand-entered the number of images (“prints”) sent. If the instructions were scrupulously followed, the number represented the number of scenes and title cards [End Page 125] contained in the complete film. At a glance, the forms suggest stylistic differences in the films submitted—for example, thirty images submitted for a one-reel film versus seventy-five for a one-reeler from the same year.5

Another resource for understanding the fragment system is the Copyright Record Books, large bound volumes in which submissions were hand-entered. These books reveal that film producers sometimes submitted full nitrate reels after 1912 instead of paper fragments. This method flooded the copyright office with 35mm films, the storage of which became quite ponderous. The proximity of the paper fragments to the highly unstable nitrate reels in the storage process figures heavily in the survival rate of the elements that were submitted. This might account for the fact that, for example, only about forty-one of Universal’s fragments have survived, and only a single roll represents Essanay.

Because the fragments are the visual component of a complex copyright process, they include information—for example, the staging and blocking of action, lighting, special effects, and the contribution of leaders and dialogue titles to the flow of a given narrative—that is otherwise unavailable in the summaries submitted or advertisements and reviews published in the trade papers. This portion of the PPC thus serves as an invaluable resource for mapping early cinema...


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