Nov 23, 2015

Orphans at MoMA: bonus film -- "Fred Ott Holding a Bird"!

New addition to the Orphans at MoMA screening, Tuesday, November 24, 7:00 p.m.

Ott with owlet. West Orange, New Jersey, 1894.

Fred Ott Holding a Bird!

I say it with an exclamation point because this is one of the earliest motion picture recordings ever made but has only become viewable in the last few days. The silent footage, shot in 1894, runs about 8 seconds but the story of how it came to light takes longer to tell.

Charles Musser's book Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography  (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997) assigns Edison production no. 20 the title [Fred Ott Holding a Bird]. Ray Phillips mentions the title in his book Edison's Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896 (Greenwood, 1997).  Unlike many other Edison incunabula, almost no documentation survives about this film. It is not in the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection. Placing it at number 20 in the chronology of kinetographic recordings is an estimate. Perhaps it was shot in March 1894. Paul Spehr, author of the definitive biography of William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, suggested (when I asked him) it is most certainly an early test film and perhaps one of the first (the first?) shot outside of the Black Maria studio.

Although the Musser book lists the film as extant, no one was sure where. [Fred Ott Holding a Bird] doesn't appear in the known Edison film compilations. However, I recently discovered by happenstance (via the UCLA Film and Television Archive's catalog) the title appears in something called, The Operator Cranked -- The Picture Moved: Glimpses of Some Pioneer Producers and Their Work, an obscure and undated 16mm compilation of silent films distributed by Blackhawk Films. (The only other holding mentioned in WorldCat: The library of Binghamton University holds a Super 8mm copy, running 15 minutes. That is hardly a random place for a small-gauge film copy of early cinema to appear. See Scott MacDonald's new book Binghamton Babylon: Voices from the Cinema Department, 1967-1977.) Mark Quigley at UCLA reminded me that the Academy Film Archive holds David Shepard's Blackhawk collection.

May Haduong confirmed that the Academy has a 16mm black-and-white print, duplicating negative, and a fine grain master, each a little over 400 feet in length. I then spoke with Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, who is also David Shepard's business partner. He generously offered to make a 2K scan from the best element, asking the Academy to include it in the next shipment of film materials being sent to Paris. He also reports that Shepard does not know how the Edison test film came to be part of a Blackhawk production.

Voilà! Thanks to Lobster, the Fred Ott bird-holding clip from The Operator Cranked will open the "Orphans at MoMA" screening alongside Fred Ott's Sneeze.

-- Dan Streible

* * * * 

Orphans at MoMA: Animation & Activism
Screening at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St. NYC)
Tuesday, November 24, 7:00 pm 

“Orphans at MoMA” is the affectionate name for the NYU Orphan Film Symposium screening the Museum includes in its film preservation festival, To Save and Project. The 13th edition of TSAP runs now through November 25, 2015. 

This year the annual collaboration between the Museum and the Symposium also celebrates the 50th anniversary of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Several Tisch programs -- Cinema Studies, Film & TV, Animation, and Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) -- are represented by alumni, students, and faculty. 

Academy Award–winning filmmaker John Canemaker, who heads NYU's Animation

Caricature of Richard Protovin,
courtesy of Tisch alum John McIntyre.
program introduces two films by his unit's founder, Richard Protovin (1945-1991): Straw Pib (1979), preserved in 16mm by the New York Public Library, and Fan Film (1985), a 35mm print from MoMA's collection. 

Kimberly Tarr* (NYU Libraries, Media Preservation Unit) and Kate Donovan (Tamiment Library) present photos and newly-preserved 16mm films (1937-38) shot behind the lines during the Spanish Civil War by Sgt. Harry W. Randall Jr., an American volunteer in the storied Abraham Lincoln Battalion and head of the photographic unit for the anti-fascist 15th International Brigade. The remarkable footage was preserved with the support of Rickard Jorgensen and Carol-Jeanette Jorgensen. The collection of Harry Randall: Fifteenth International Brigade Films and Photographs is part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) at NYU. 

Harry Randall, standing, left.
15th International Brigade Photographs Collection, Tamiment Library, NYU.

The Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture premieres two 16mm restorations. Eminent film historian and NYU Cinema Studies alumnus Charles Musser (Yale) and Walter Forsberg* (NMAAHC media archivist) introduce the recently uncovered Count Us In (1948), a presidential campaign short for the Progressive Party, produced by Carl Marzani's leftist collective Union Films. (The Marzani Papers are housed at NYU, but Count Us In comes from the Pearl Bowser Collection at NMAAHC.)
Filmmaker unknown. Frame courtesy of NMAAHC.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture also presents amateur film footage documenting the Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action community workshop, ca. 1965. 

Blake McDowell* (Smithsonian) introduces a rare amateur surrealist erotic film, Venus and Adonis (1935), shot around New York City by young filmmakers Harry Dunham and Jules Bucher. While researching his NYU MIAP master's thesis on Bucher, McDowell found that the Museum of Modern Art possessed a 16mm print, which includes the soundtrack Paul Bowles composed for the work. The Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center digitized the material for this Orphans at MoMA screening, perhaps the first time Venus and Adonis has been seen in nearly 80 years. Co-director Harry Dunham went on to make China Strikes Back (1937, edited by Jay Leyda, later an NYU Cinema Studies professor, and mentor to Charles Musser), and to shoot Too Much Johnson (1938) for Orson Welles. 

The program concludes with a second film edited by Jules (J. V. D.) Bucher. Men and Dust (1940) is a stylistically fascinating labor exposé made by the wife and husband team of Lee and Sheldon Dick. Named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2013, Men and Dust has had few screenings, but the National Archives and Records Administration has preserved the film and provides a 35mm print for this Orphans at MoMA show. NYU Cinema Studies PhD student Tanya Goldman, who has researched the career of the elusive pioneer woman documentarian Lee Dick, introduces Men and Dust. 

Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Symposium, hosts the program with Katie Trainor (MoMA Film Collections Manager) and also presents the recent Library of Congress reconstruction of the oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, Jan. 7, 1894. 

*Tarr ('09), Forsberg ('10), and McDowell ('14) are all graduates of NYU's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program.  Streible currently is the program's director.