WASHINGTON – The Russians arrived carrying a wooden briefcase branded with the double-headed eagle of Russia’s Great Coat of Arms.
They handed it over to the Americans.
“This is amazing to find that Russian film archivist have preserved these films,” Grant Harris,the Library of Congress’ head of European reading room,said.
According to a study conducted by the National Film Preservations Board in 1993,less than 20 percent of 1920s feature films have survived in complete form.
Many of the surviving pictures have been discovered sitting quietly in foreign film archives across the globe. It is these copies the Library of Congress seeks to bring home.
“The loss of such a high percentage of films from the silent era is due to neglect or fires and sometimes outright destruction,” Patrick Loughney,chief of the library’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center,said.
Loughney described nitrate film as organic,much like food. It needs refrigeration to remain stable. Otherwise,it becomes brittle and begins to decompose.
Nitrate film is extremely flammable,and many films were lost in accidental fires. At times,entire film vaults and theaters have burned down. Many more silent films were lost when,in the same way new car models replace old ones in car dealerships,silent films were pushed out of storage to make room for talking films,Loughney said.
Alexander Vershinin,director general of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library,and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington kicked off the event by signing a transfer form for the first 10 silent films to be repatriated. A second form set up an agreement for future transfers of the remaining silent films in Russian archives.
Although it is not clear how often or in what quantity they will be sent over,initial research by the Library of Congress estimates up to 200 movies produced by U.S. movie studios have survived in Gosfilmofond,the Russian state film archive. In an interview,Billington said it might be closer to 300.
Vladimir I. Kozhin,head of management and administration for the president of the Russian Federation,personally presented Billington with the museum-quality briefcase containing the 10 individually packaged and branded computer hard drives containing digital copies of the original films.
In the tradition of both countries,Russians and Americans tapped wine glasses in a toast to seal the ceremony.
“It was a token of their esteem and appreciation for what Dr. Billington has done for Russian libraries and archives,” Loughney said.
“It means good communication and respect to each other. It means cooperation,” Nikolai Borodachev,director general of Gosfilmofond,said through a translator.
Early works by the directors of “The Great Gabbo” and “The Wizard of Oz” are present in the first batch of repatriated films.
“It’s like recovering lost canvases by Picasso or Monet,” Loughney said.
The intertitles – the screens between scenes that narrate these silent stories – are in Russian. The next step for the Library of Congress will be to find the original scripts and restore the intertitles to English.
These films,including “Your’re Fired” (1919),directed by James Cruze,and “The Call of the Canyon” (1923),directed by Victor Fleming,will be available for public screening within a month.