Reconstructing plots from lost films using film booklets

Collectors of paper movie memorabilia might be familiar with and even own a number of film booklets. These film booklets, generally published in Europe, contain film stills plus a condensed story of an American film. The popular Biblioteca Films or Los Films del Far-West publications, by Gato Negro in Barcelona, Spain, are commonly seen in places like antique shops, ephemera shows, or online auction sites. Often printed on newspaper-quality paper, these film books were acquired by cinema patrons in the lobby at the box office. While these film booklets are an intriguing addition to any paper film collection, they can also be used as a valuable tool in writing about a film plot – particularly if none is available through standard Hollywood trade or consumer publications, found at Lantern Media History. The writer may also have an account with Newspapers.com, but there is only minimal information such as cinema ads, showing notices, and a blurb about the movie itself in their database.

Say the writer needs to compose the plot for “The Desert Pirate”. The only source available is a film booklet titled “El Pirata del Desierto”. While the writer has a fairly good grasp of written Spanish – keeping in mind the film booklets from Spain are in Castilian Spanish, not Latin Spanish – can breeze through the reading of the booklet which is about twelve pages long, and come away with a grasp of the characters in the story and the plot. The writer can then type up the plot, include the character names, who appears in the film, who wrote and directed it too. Even a piece of dialogue from the film booklet might be included in the write-up along with the plot to stress a character’s persona. Any outside information, such as filming locations or other onset tidbits published in a newspaper can also be included. Most importantly, if original sources must be included along with the write-up, list the publication and film title it is for.

Researching for a new concept in writing

Approaching research for an article on a specialized subject is as important as writing the article itself. When it comes to research where multiple sources, dates, even identical titles are involved, checking and re-checking the facts must be done while making notes for the article to be written. For example, if research is being conducted on a silent film actor who made a silent film – and later on a talkie – bearing the same title, and a second actor made a silent film of the same title one year later after the first actor (it has actually happened!), confusion can arise. Likewise, knowing where to begin research on the silent film actor is important too. Did the actor in question get his start in live theatre, or in films? Was the actor credited under more than one name? This is just scratching the surface of the actor’s career work, not even delving into personal details such as birth date and birth location which can also at times conflict if there is no consistency of information across various sources.

Researching a silent film actor need not be confined to seeking out the best local university libraries and physically visiting them, poring over large texts for hours at a table. Thanks to the Internet, websites such as IMDB and IBDB (Internet Broadway Database) are usually helpful with research although at times can be incomplete (it has been said there is no such thing as a “complete acting credits record” in IMDB). However, they are a good start in becoming familiar with the work of the person being researched. Archives.org or Lantern.mediahist.org are two top websites containing primary sources for silent film research. Sources like Motion Picture Daily News and Motion Picture Magazine often contain information such as press releases, rare photo shots, film rankings and release dates.

From Motion Picture News Motion Picture News Nov-Dec 1925

While in the process of researching, concentrate on one aspect of the silent film actor being written about. Did this person specialize in stuntwork on silent film? Did the actor’s film studio and management promote these stunts as being the highlight of the films the actor made? If the answer is yes, then concentrate on those interesting facts, even if it is already general knowledge the actor in question got his start in Hollywood as a stuntman. Details like this can make for an interesting article, particularly if told in a narrative manner:

Even more daring stunts would follow in the next handful of [Tom] Tyler’s silent films. In “The Wyoming Wildcat” (Motion Picture News, Nov./Dec. 1925), Tom leaped off the top of a steep cliff into a rapid whirlpool below to rescue his love object, played by Virginia Southern. He managed to stay afloat of the watery trap, with the girl safely tucked under his strong arms, as he swam to shore and revived her, eventually winning her hand at the end of the story.

Press release and review from Motion Picture News Nov-Dec 1925

Once the article is completed, do not throw out the researched material. Chances are it can be referenced again in the future for another article with a different slant.