I have been very lucky to work with historical film materials, mainly silent movies with nothing more known than just a title. Identifying scenes and context of the digitized footage, although time-consuming, has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my archival career.
John Van Antwerp MacMurray’s films of China, 1925-29
American diplomat John Van Antwerp MacMurray, who served as minister to China at a time of civil war, captured local people and scenery in 26 silent 16mm films. With the help of a Chinese staff member at Princeton’s East Asian library I was able to identify particular locations and scenes, including the departure of naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews and his excavation crew from Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), a trip along the Yangtze River, and a train trip of the diplomatic corps to attend the reinterment of Sun Yat-sen in Nanking in 1929.
Films in the Princeton University Archives
Most of the digitized footage at Mudd Manuscript Library concerned materials in the Princeton University Archives, which I put on the University’s YouTube channel and described in a blog. Among the collection was a number of ‘class films,’ shot during students’ senior year to commemorate their Princeton experience. The silent movies capture old traditions and Princeton lore, from the ‘flour picture’ in the 1920s to the ‘nude Olympics,’ caught on camera by the class of 1986.
Student life at the Curtis Institute of Music, 1940s
Among the materials that were donated to the Curtis archives were 8mm films depicting scenes of student life, shot by a student before and after World War II, when he was drafted for service in the army. Names and scenes on the footage were identified with the help of the donor and surviving alumni. An excerpt of the film was featured in a blog post of student life in the 1940s.