Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

HSFA Detectives Solve Mystery Film Reel (or Almost) - Part 1 of 2

Older film may be shrunken or
brittle and should not be projected.
Instead, it is inspected over a light
table using manual rewinds. 
The roll of film arrived in 1993 from the Bishop Museum (Honolulu, Hawaii) along with some around-the-world travel film footage shot by Theodore Richards, an east coast transplant to Hawaii in 1889. Like all film, it looked ordinary enough but film doesn’t reveal itself too easily.  One has to look carefully at the contents over a light table, using hand rewinds to create a slowly moving series of still images. Once we rolled through the film, we determined that the images were of Japan and most likely from the early 1920’s—it had that “look” and the few western men shown were dressed in clothes that could date from the late teens or early twenties.  But how odd because the 17 minutes (440 feet) of film was composed of 12 distinct sequences that did not seem to relate to each other.  And to make it even more curious, the longest sequence seemed to be a silent Japanese samurai film.  What to make of this?  We tried researching Theodore Richards, who may or may not have made the film, and found two biographies in reference books (remember, this was before the Internet) that did not bring any clarity. There were no supplementary materials nor did Richards’ nephew, who gave the film to the Bishop Museum, have any information.  So we titled the roll of film “Japan: Promotional and Theatrical Footage, ca. 1927”, made a video copy and prepared a catalog record. But we never forgot this intriguing and charming film.

Fast forward to 2011 when early in the year Northeast Historic Film (Bucksport, Maine) announced the theme for their 11th annual July film symposium: Cabinet of Curiosities. It seemed the right time to “dust off” this film, which was one of our best curiosities. Indeed, it proved to be the perfect time, as we discovered thanks to a spring intern with a knack for bringing the right people together and a summer intern who was an indefatigable researcher.

16mm film showing date code, ▲ (1927), and splices.
At left, 'print-through' splice from original 35mm film
is slim and does not continue beyond the image.
At right, an actual 16mm splice spans the entire width
of the film and intrudes further into the frame.
We had already determined that the date code of the 16mm Eastman Kodak film was 1927, though as mentioned above, we suspected the date of original filming was earlier. We also determined that the film contained both 16mm physical splices and 35mm ‘print-through’ splices (see photo at left). The 35mm ‘print-through’ splices are important because they show that although the film we have is 16mm, most of it was originally shot and edited on 35mm and later copied to 16mm. Other footage appeared to have been originally shot on 16mm, so the roll that we had was of mixed origins and quality. Curious, indeed.

Our spring intern, Brian Real introduced us to Michele Mason, assistant professor of Japanese in the Department of Asian and East European Language and Cultures, University of Maryland, who kindly viewed a DVD and provided invaluable insight into the content while on sabbatical in Tokyo.  She identified Miyajima Island and the Itsukushima Shrine off the coast of Hiroshima, the Hotsugawa River, a Bon Dance, a possible wedding procession and, most exciting, the samurai film, Poisonous Snake (1928), directed by Futagawa Buntaro. This theatrical film appears to no longer exist, except for the few minutes found in our mystery roll of film. Prof. Mason also explained that she was not able to determine whether the women in the film were actual Geisha, other “professional” women (i.e., trained performers) or women dressed to look like Geisha for the film (see clip above).  As valuable and fascinating as her examination of the film is, still this did not answer the ‘why’ of the film.

Part 2 will be posted October 22nd.  Tune in then for tales of exciting discoveries made courtesy of The Internet, the Coast of Maine, and the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive.

Pamela Wintle, Human Studies Film Archives

No comments:

Post a Comment