It happens fairly frequently that I have an “Aha!” moment while researching a film. I’m trying to rediscover a lot of films, especially from 1910 to 1920, because so much has been forgotten. It’s a sad fact that a large percentage of silent films – 70 to 90 percent – are gone.
The great thing is that films are still turning up every day. A few years ago, the Netherlands Film Museum received a huge collection from a private collector. A lot of them were American films with Dutch titles, which makes it difficult to figure out the original title. They usually send me a story synopsis and photographs, and now they’re streaming video so I can see the whole film. I’ve identified quite a few films that people thought were lost forever.
The first time I did some serious research was in the early ’70s during the Buster Keaton revival at the Surf Theater in San Francisco. I went to see every one of his films more than once, and started researching information about the early short films he made with Fatty Arbuckle in 1917-1919. I started compiling a scrapbook of every single photograph that I could find from their short films, and went through trade magazines of the time to update their filmography, which wasn’t really complete.
My curiosity leads me through various methods when I’m approaching a subject and digging up material. When I was working on the “Broncho Billy” book, I was frustrated by how few photographs I could find in the usual sources like the Bancroft Library, the California Historical Society and the Oakland Museum.
So I started tracking down relatives of Essanay cast and crew people by reverse genealogy. I established a death date for an actor or technician by looking in the California Death Index, sometimes after confirming their real name in Census records. Then I looked up an obituary on microfilm in the local paper where the person died.
If I was lucky, the names of their children were mentioned, and where they lived.
If I continued to be lucky, their children’s names were listed in telephone directories and I would call them up to see if they were the right person. Often I had to go to the next generation, because the children would also be dead. This was all before most of this could be searched on the Internet.