CONCORD, NH (AP) — “Missing Millions” is a 1922 silent film with a darkly prescient title — like the vast majority of that era, the film all but died out over the next century, survived mostly by lobby cards.
The cards, barely larger than stationery, promoted early Hollywood movie romances, comedies and adventures. More than 10,000 of the images once hung in movie theater foyers are now digitized for preservation and publication, thanks to a deal between Chicago-based collector Dwight Cleveland and Dartmouth College that began when he met a professor of cinema at a university conference in New York.
“Ninety percent of all silent movies have been lost because they were made on nitrate film, which is flammable and explosive,” Cleveland told The Associated Press. “What that means is that these lobby cards are the only tangible example that these movies even existed.”
The cards, traditionally 11 by 14 inches (28 by 35 centimeters) and arranged in sets of eight or more, displayed a film’s title, production company, cast, and scenes that could give an idea of the plot. . Movie trailers only became common practice with the advent of the era of the film “studio system” in the 1920s, said Mark Williams, associate professor of film and media studies at Dartmouth and project director.
Often displayed on an easel or framed and meant to be seen up close, lobby cards promoted films currently showing, as well as upcoming attractions.
Today the cards, many of which are over 100 years old, play an even bigger role, reflecting the stars, styles and storytelling of a bygone era. The legacy of “Missing Millions,” released by Paramount Pictures, for example, hinges on an image of actress Alice Brady and her accomplice, who plot to steal gold from the financier who sent her father to prison. Brady made the transition to walkie-talkies, but that film and a number of others she made during the silent era are lost.
Cleveland, a real estate developer and historical curator, became interested in maps as a high school student in the 1970s. His art teacher had collected a few, including that of Lupe Velez and Gary Cooper from Western romance from 1929, “Wolf Song”.
“I just fell in love with the color and the deco graphics, and this romantic embrace, and everything about it, which was incredibly appealing,” he said, “and it just screamed “Take me home! “”
According to an article by Josie Walters-Johnston, reference librarian in the Moving Image Research Center at the Library of Congress.
In the 1920s images became more photographic and featured details such as decorative borders and tinting. They lasted for decades, with production of lobby cards ending in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Walters-Johnston wrote. But in 2015, the practice was revived when Quentin Tarantino released a special set for his western, “The Hateful Eight.”
Cleveland has shipped boxes from its collection to the Media Ecology Project in Dartmouth, where a small group of students are tasked with carefully removing each map from its protective sleeve to scan and digitize it. The students, brought together by Williams, also create metadata.
Williams said the project – which kicked off in September and is expected to wrap up later this fall – will provide insight into how movies have been promoted and what kind of design features have gone into marketing a movie. a given studio, among other information that would be difficult to find.
“We will be able to restore access to a really fundamental visual culture related to these different artists, studios and genres,” he said.
Williams said the project is invested in both cultivating new knowledge and raising awareness of the endangerment of media history.
“People, they tune into YouTube, and they think media history is inexhaustible and eternal. And both of those statements are wrong,” Williams said.
When the films now considered lost or incomplete were produced, the shelf life of the art form was short, Williams said. It was only over time that people began to appreciate cinema as an important art form and a force of popular culture worthy of preservation.
The lobby cards validate the existence of a range of films – from major studios still in existence and smaller ones that only lasted a few years – and commemorate what Williams described as “a huge number of stars – many of whom have been forgotten. ”
“There is so much media that is in danger of disintegrating, of literally turning into dust,” he added, extolling the importance of “historic, vulnerable, ephemeral and extraordinary material” on the way out.
Cleveland had also donated 3,500 silent-era Western lobby cards — featuring stars such as William S. Hart, Jack Hoxie and Buck Jones — to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He arranged their loan to Dartmouth for the project.
When complete, the lobby map collection will become part of Dartmouth’s Early Cinema Compendium, which will include 15 collections of rare and valuable archival and scholarly resources. The compendium, which will be published online as part of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will also include more than 7,000 sample images from old and mostly lost American films, as well as access to more 2,500 archive films in the genres of early cinema.
The ultimate goal, Williams said, is “that people who are fans or casual fans or true academics have access to this material and generate new interest in it.”
Cleveland – certainly not a casual fan – once had an archive containing 45,000 movie posters from 56 countries. He wrote a book, “Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters,” in 2019. In addition to the Dartmouth project, his collection of lobby cards served as the basis for a women-focused New York exhibit that were prolific filmmakers, writers and producers during the silent film era. He is preparing a book on the subject.
“I loved finding, preserving and cataloging these historical records,” Cleveland said.
With Williams applying IT, “it just takes him into a whole different realm going forward with the metaverse and everything,” Cleveland said. “I feel like I was sort of stuck in nostalgia, if you will, and now I feel like I’m being thrust into the future with him and that’s a very exciting prospect.”