Offbeat ‘Orphan’ Films Flicker Across NYC Cinemas

Preservationists, archivists, curators, scholars and collectors celebrate the unclaimed and the curious.

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An 'orphan' film from 1931 featuring film footage of Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa on a Hollywood lot. Photo: Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A horse swims the choppy waters of the Golden Gate. Two scorpions mate. Einstein visits a Hollywood lot. These are the kind of offbeat films that have been shown in NYC in the past year. They are also dubbed “orphan films” because they may not have an identified rights holder and lie staunchly outside the commercial mainstream.

Orphan films include industrial, governmental or educational films as well as outtakes, newsreels, found film, home movies, incomplete works, censored pieces and unreleased footage.

“Liberally defined, orphans are any films that have been neglected historically in any way,” said New York University Cinema Studies professor Dan Streible, who created the Orphan Film Symposium in 1999 to showcase such films.

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There were two orphan film programs this year in NYC: a two-evening gathering held Oct. 14 and 15 at Film Forum, and a multi-day symposium last April at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in Queens.

At Film Forum, other program organizers included Bruce Goldstein, its Director of Repertory Programming, and Elena Rossi-Snook of the Reserve Film and Video Collection at the New York Public Library.

The program featured orphan films shot in and around NYC. They included an 1899 film of a train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge; the 1904 opening of the NYC subway; a field day at the Polo Grounds that appears to have included Annie Oakley shooting (to raise money for the Actors’ Fund); a silent newsreel of a horse that fell into a manhole and was rescued; and a newsreel about a terrorist bomb that went off in Lower Manhattan in 1920, damaging the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank. In one clip promoting a Shirley Temple film, there were scenes of a parade of babies that included a young girl impersonating Mae West. There was also a short film about the making of the 1970s film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

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Possibly the most stunning movie shown, however, was a three-minute film from 1931 with Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa, in an old automobile on a Hollywood lot. In that film, the physics genius pretends to drive the motionless car as the background screen changes — here, going up the clouds; there, in front of a waterfall; then in front of a nightclub.

The recently appointed film archivist at the Rhode Island Historical Society, Becca Bender, discovered the film in a metal can labeled “Einstein Nitrate Base” in the archive of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, while on an internship there. “Finding this charming film was like hitting the jackpot,” Bender told me earlier this year. “It is a completely unexpected way to see Albert Einstein.”

Einstein and his wife had traveled by boat through the Panama Canal to California, where he visited Caltech, lunched with movie mogul Jack L. Warner and attended the premiere of City Lights in black-tie with its director, Charlie Chaplin.

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The Film Forum screenings were aimed largely at the general public. But at MOMI last April, a conclave of preservationists, archivists, curators, scholars and collectors also came out to see orphan films.

The theme of that three-day event was “love.” As Streible explained to me, some orphan film categories — works by religious groups, erotica, advertising and patriotic films — lend themselves to the theme. “All amateur films are about love of some kind,” he said.

Matt Soar, a Concordia University professor who specializes in film “leaders” — the numbered countdown before the start of many older films — highlighted the theme by screening a short compilation of leaders from films with the word “love” in their titles, including one from an episode of TV’s I Love Lucy. Leaders sometimes appear in popular culture: “They are used gratuitously in bad ’80s music videos,” he said.

Leaders can also help projectionists to identify prints, to synchronize sound and to know when to change reels. “They’re a little corner of film history that has been overlooked,” said Soar, who became interested after using them at a residential filmmaking workshop in Ontario.

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Also at MOMI, Allyson Nadia Field, a professor at University of Chicago, and Dino Everett, archivist at the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image archive at University of Southern California, showed a 25-second film of what they believe is the earliest film of two African Americans kissing. Everett, who says that he found it on eBay, used a vintage hand-crank projector to screen it. “I chose this not because it was the best projector,” he told the attendees, “but because it fit in the overhead bin on the plane.”

In addition, there was Oliver Gaycken, a professor at the University of Maryland, and Sarah Eilers of the National Library of Medicine, discussing a cache of educational films used to teach physicians and psychologists about sexual dysfunction in the early 1970s; Jennifer Peterson of Woodbury University speaking about films that evoke a love of nature; and Andrés Levinson and Paula Félix-Didier of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires showing a reconstructed silent western. There were also the early films of Jim Henson, widening our appreciation of the master puppeteer beyond his Muppets.

Many who traveled from afar to attend that three-day symposium in April said they had done so out of unalloyed love for these wildly eclectic films.

Perhaps the most intriguing presentation last April was by Brazilian documentarian Paola Prestes Penney. She screened a work by Herbert Duchesnes, a German architect and art history lecturer who fled Nazism and moved to Brazil in 1940. Penney said that Duchesnes
“did a lot of sweating in the Brazilian summer, but never lost his strong German accent or European wardrobe.” He also made home movies, some involving dance. He would show them to his students using background music that included Johann Sebastian Bach, John Cage and Frank Zappa. “Yes,” Penney said, “ou teacher introduced [Frank] Zappa to us —  and not the other way around.”