Professor Helps Rescue "Lost" Asian American Silent FilmHistorians in the News
tags: film, popular culture, Asian American History
A 1914 Japanese-American film was thought to be lost to time until a professor figured out the decaying reels were in a vault.
Professor Denise Khor of Northeastern University discovered a rare piece of movie history while she was doing research for a book about film culture. The reels she found in 2016 were believed to be the only known copy of “The Oath of the Sword.” It is among the earliest Asian-American films, historians said.
“It was a sheer miracle that this print survived,” said Khor, a professor of Asian-American and visual studies.
Preservationists needed to act quickly to save the nitrate film from decomposing. If they didn’t, the movie would join the roughly 80% of silent films believed to be lost forever. But the rescue process would be grueling and expensive.
Over the next seven years, a series of events saved “The Oath of the Sword” from obscurity and brought it back to the big screen. Khor and a group of historians and preservationists are set to show the film in Los Angeles on Sunday for its once-improbable 21st-century premiere.
Here’s how it happened.
Khor was doing research for her film-culture book when she found stray mentions of “The Oath of the Sword” in old news clippings. But the 1914 film was nowhere to be found.
Film studios usually only made a few copies of every silent movie, said Anthony L’Abbate, a preservation manager at the George Eastman Museum, a photography and film museum in Rochester, N.Y.
“The Oath of the Sword” was released in 1914 at the beginning of the U.S. silent-film heyday, according to historians. Films were often under 30 minutes long and played in black and white.
Silent films began dying out after the first sound film debuted in the late 1920s. Few of the silent films survived. Many studios trashed their reels, L’Abbate said. Some studios burned them when they needed fuel for on-screen fires.
The reels are valuable today because there are so few of them. Some studios later pushed to save those made by notable directors, historians said.
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