During the height of the silent movie era, “A Fool and His Money” took the Thousand Islands area by storm when part of it was filmed in the region in 1920. The feature film, starring Eugene O’Brien, was one of about 11,000 silent films produced.
Few of these films remain today, including “A Fool and His Money,” and that is a loss for our culture.
The films, said Stephen Leggett, program coordinator at the National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress, offer “an invaluable and necessary way to record culture which would otherwise disappear.”
In 1988, Congress created the National Film Preservation Act, which also established the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board and National Film Registry. Its goals include selecting films for the registry each year and studying survival rates of films produced in the U.S.
In 2013, the Library of Congress produced the report, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929” by historian and an archivist David Pierce.
The report includes a database and the first comprehensive survey of the survival of American silent feature films. It contains information on the nearly 11,000 U.S. feature films released between 1912-1929, and holdings information about 3,300 of those titles for which elements are known to exist.
The silent film era, Mr. Pierce wrote, “established the language of cinema ... these films with their recognizable stars and high production values spread American culture around the world.”
“The silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternate form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the
sound films that followed,” Mr. Pierce wrote in the 2013 report. “Few art forms emerged as quickly, came to an end as suddenly, or vanished more completely than the silent film.”
Mr. Pierce discovered that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed.
In 1920, the brutal cold of a north country winter tested the talents of filmmakers and their equipment as the well-known actors of the time were filmed.
“A Fool and His Money” was produced by the Selznick Picture Corporation, which went out of business in 1923. Scenes for the film, directed by Robert Ellis, were shot around Dark Island, Hart Island and Wellesley Island. The film is based on the 1913 novel by George Barr McCutcheon. He’s best known for the novel, “Brewster’s Millions.”
The movie’s plot, according to the files of the Watertown Daily Times: “America’s foremost author buys a castle in Austria in his quest for a quiet place with a romantic atmosphere which will furnish him with the proper atmosphere for his writings. A number of his American friends and a count, whose parents formerly owned the castle that he bought, come to visit him.”
The act of filming some scenes, the Times reported, was an adventure tale in itself. The actors were not easily flustered.
“There was an expanse of half mile of ice and water to be crossed before the scene of the action was reached,” The Times reported. “The ice had broken up in the channel and it was necessary to make the trip in ice punts, which needed experienced river men to guide them.”
Twenty people needed transport, on three ice punts which at the most could hold three people.
“Even the moving pictures actors of the longest-standing who have taken part in a most every conceivable kind of scene and faced many difficulties, had to admit that doing the ‘George Washington crossing the Delaware’ stunt was a new one on them,” the Times wrote.
The film’s director, Robert Ellis, said, “If people could only see that on the screen and see how hard we have to work to get some of the scenes they view on screen, it would give them a new appreciation of the pictures.”
Other difficulties faced during filming: hands “turned blue with cold” and one day the film crew faced a temperatures of minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit. “The weather was so cold that one camera was broken — by exposure, probably,” the Times reported.
Other incidents, according to the Times:
n “A character called Axel, whose name is Eric, fell through the ice ... This was not part of the play. He stepped in an air hole and was submerged before rescued.” Eric was brought to a local home, where his health was aided by “some anti-18th amendment (liquid) lifesaver.”
n Management of the film company presented baskets of food “to a number of poor families.”
n Mr. O’Brien, the leading man in the film, offered a silver cup to the winners of a basketball game between Watertown High School and Alexandria Bay High School, a game specifically played for the entertainment of the film crew.
n A Jan. 17, 1920 headline: “‘Super’ Actors Freeze Ears: Selznick cast suffers while making movies at 20 below.”
n An assistant cameraman, on Jan. 13, 1920, also fell through the ice and took a $600 camera ($1,180 in today’s value) with him. The cameraman was rescued. The Graflex camera went to the bottom.
n One of the actors in “A Fool and His Money” was 7-foot-7-inches tall Frank Dowling, “not only the tallest man in the movies, but there are few in the United States that can equal him in height.” He declined to join others skating.
n “... one morning last week the whole cast had to walk 3½ miles over ice with the thermometers about 10 below zero because the ice was not thick enough to support the automobiles that had taken them part of their journey,” the Times reported.
“A Fool and His Money” is one of the films listed as missing in the 2013 report by the Library of Congress. In 1925, a new version, a “talkie,” was made by Columbia Pictures. The Library of Congress also has no record of that film.
Mr. Leggett, the program coordinator at the National Film Preservation Board, said the list compiled in the report is particularly useful when it’s found by an institution that a silent film it discovered had been listed as missing.
“It provides a finite universe of titles to watch out for,” Mr. Leggett said.
For example, he said that the movie “Upstream” by renowned director John Ford was discovered in the New Zealand film archive by an American archivist visiting there.
“This is not uncommon,” Mr. Leggett said. “Non-U.S. archives understandably focus first on preserving their own national collections and so might not be aware an American title is their collection is considered lost.”
Mr. Leggett noted another example which also illustrates the randomness experienced in discovered films:
“An American archivist was visiting a French archive and noticed a stack of film cans titled ‘Unknown,’” Mr. Leggett said. “He presume that meant his French colleagues did not know the title; turns out the cans contained reels from the 1946 film ‘The Unknown.’”
The film preservation expert said there are some reasons why the silent films weren’t saved as a routine.
“There was no real financial incentive to do so before the advent of cable channels,” he said. “Video in the 1980s made the back libraries profitable to reissue.”
Mr. Leggett said the reason many silent films exist only overseas is because the prints and negatives were shipped by boat to Europe, Australia and other countries and it was too expensive to bring them back.
“No one really knew the proper way to store films back then, plus nitrate film stock is combustible and many titles were lost in fires,” Mr. Leggett said.
Some films were destroyed to reclaim the silver content whenever the price of silver got high, he said.
“Some studios such as Disney and MGM did a great job of preserving their titles from the beginning,” Mr. Leggett said. “But a lot of what survives owes to luck, since nitrate fires were a problem during the nitrate era.”
The actual film created during the silent era wouldn’t disintegrate over the years, Mr. Leggett said.
“Modern-day film stock if properly preserved and stored in cool-and-dry conditions can last hundreds of years according to some longevity modeling studies done,” Mr. Leggett said. “ Even nitrate film stock (the predominant film base prior to 1950) can last over a century. The Library (of Congress) has several original titles past the century mark.”
When a silent film is discovered that was thought to have been lost, it’s a cause for celebration at the Library of Congress and its National Film Preservation Board.
“Anytime an archivist or someone else makes a discovery, another piece of the cultural puzzle has turned up — a cause for celebration every time for the latest survivor,” Mr. Leggett said.