RIC president 'adopts' R.I. Historical Society film

From epics such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to slapstick the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the silent film era is often associated with Hollywood.

But a little known film fact is that some of these forerunners to the “talkies” were also shot in Rhode Island. Several local motion pictures were screened by the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) during its recent three-part Silent Film Series, and attendees also had the chance to take home a silent movie through the Society’s Adopt-a-Film program.

RIC President Nancy Carriuolo recently “adopted” one such Rhode Island film, “Block Island Swordfishing,” made in 1926, which documents the island’s swordfishing industry.

the images above and below are from the silent film "Block Island Swordfishing." (Photo: Block Island Swordfishing, 1926, Rhode Island Historical Society, RHi(X6)18)
Carriuolo and her family attended one of the Historical Society’s Silent Film Series events, and received a list of films that need digital access copies. After the copy is made, the original film is put away in storage and kept safe from handling and possible damage.

“I have long been interested in silent films, so I read the list with great interest,” Carriuolo said. “Silent films give us a window to peer briefly into long-gone times. RIHS’s films are especially fascinating because they were filmed in Rhode Island with either local actors or with local inhabitants engaged in interesting activities.”

Carriuolo made a $250 donation in honor of her husband Ralf's birthday and designated that the donation go toward preserving the swordfishing film.

She received a DVD of the film, which seemed an appropriate gift for her husband given that he is a fisherman, and this is the 350th anniversary year for Block Island, one of the state’s prime recreation spots.

Carriuolo said the DVD turned out to be the best present she has ever given him.

“We immediately watched the film several times, with my husband exclaiming over the size of the swordfish and the methods used in catching, transporting and packing the fish,” she said. “Meanwhile, I noted buildings I could recognize and the everyday fashions of the men, women and children watching the fisherman. Our son commented on the daring filming techniques used while the ships were cutting through the ocean and the very hard and dangerous work undertaken by the fishermen.”

Films made in Rhode Island during the silent film era are rare, as is original film from the 1910s and 20s in general, according to Karen Eberhart, special collections curator at the RIHS.

Eberhart explained that in the early days, film was made of cellulose nitrate, a highly combustible material. Fires in the studios and theatres were common, often a result of the films being mishandled. Nitrate film is organic, so it is natural for it to decay with time, although if stored under perfect conditions it can last a very long time, she said.

“Almost all the nitrate films at the RIHS have been preserved, thanks to grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation and individual donors,” Eberhart said.

The preservation process involves stabilizing the nitrate negative and printing it onto new 35mm film stock, she noted. The cost of preserving one film depends on the length of the film, but averages around $10,000. Digital access copies are then created to allow the public to view the films without damaging the originals or the new high-quality duplicate.

(Photo: Block Island Swordfishing, 1926, Rhode Island Historical Society, RHi(X6)18)
“We still have many films that exist only on 16mm acetate film stock,” Eberhart said. “Acetate is a more stable form of plastic than nitrate. However, it is still susceptible to damage when run through a projector.”

That is where Adopt-a-Film comes in. “We are encouraging interested donors to help us create DVD access copies of our stable but one-of-a-kind films so that everyone can enjoy them and the originals will stay safe from harm,” Eberhart said.

The RIHS Film Archives has 23 original films from the silent film era. “Ironically, the films at the RIHS today that represent the silent movie industry in Rhode Island survived due to neglect,” said Eberhart.

She explained that when Eastern Film Co. left Providence in 1915 they left behind a stash of films in its warehouse called the Old Park Brewery on McKinley Street in Providence. The films were abandoned and forgotten until a man named Harold Gordon purchased the warehouse and all its contents in 1945.

“That warehouse contained a treasure of 26 original nitrate negatives for films produced in Rhode Island and in California,” Eberhart said. “For most of them, no other copy is known to exist. We speculate that the California films were sent to Eastern Film by other companies for printing and distribution.”

The films survived but not without suffering some decay over the years due to the less-than-ideal storage conditions. Gordon donated the films to the RIHS in 1974.

The RIHS began collecting films in 1969 and now has one of the largest film collections in New England, with over nine million feet of film, according to Eberhart.

“Our collection focuses on films made in or about Rhode Island,” she said.

The largest part of the collection is news footage from local TV stations, but also included are home movies, documentaries, advertisements and feature films.

And, of course, “Block Island Swordfishing.”

“I am so delighted I was able to play a small role in the preservation of this film, now available for viewing at RIHS,” Carriuolo said. “I hope others will also consider helping to save these films that represent Rhode Island’s early role in the film industry.”

For more information on the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Adopt-a-Film program, visit www.rihs.org/grcolladoptfilm.htm.