Edward Guthmann, Special to The Chronicle San Francisco Chronicle December 7, 2010 04:15 PM Monday, December 6, 2010
David Kiehn has spent most of his life working in film-related jobs. But it wasn’t until he made a remarkable discovery – and was featured on “60 Minutes” – that anyone outside the film community took notice.
For years, Kiehn knew about “A Trip Down Market Street,” a 12-minute silent film, shot in San Francisco from a cable car. The Library of Congress dated the film to 1905, but Kiehn suspected otherwise. Studying weather reports, vehicle registration records and show-biz trade publications, he discovered that “Market Street” was in fact shot four days before the great earthquake of April 18, 1906.
Suddenly, the film took on a haunting poignancy: We now look at the San Francisco newsboys, the carriage jockeys and the women in elaborate hats, and know that many will soon be dead.
But “A Trip Down Market Street” wasn’t Kiehn’s only research coup. A historian at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, he’s identified several lost films and assembled the long-forgotten history of a silent film star in his 2003 book, “Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company.”
Kiehn, 61, lives with his girlfriend, Rena, in the Niles district of Fremont, where the Essanay company started making films in 1912.
It happens fairly frequently that I have an “Aha!” moment while researching a film. I’m trying to rediscover a lot of films, especially from 1910 to 1920, because so much has been forgotten. It’s a sad fact that a large percentage of silent films – 70 to 90 percent – are gone.
The great thing is that films are still turning up every day. A few years ago, the Netherlands Film Museum received a huge collection from a private collector. A lot of them were American films with Dutch titles, which makes it difficult to figure out the original title. They usually send me a story synopsis and photographs, and now they’re streaming video so I can see the whole film. I’ve identified quite a few films that people thought were lost forever.
I wanted to be a filmmaker when I started out in college. None of that really went anywhere, but I continued to have an interest in the history and the technology of filmmaking. I was a motion-picture camera technician at Adolph Gasser’s rental facility and Cinerent West for 20 years. I did film editing and sound recording.
The first time I did some serious research was in the early ’70s during the Buster Keaton revival at the Surf Theater in San Francisco. I went to see every one of his films more than once, and started researching information about the early short films he made with Fatty Arbuckle in 1917-1919. I started compiling a scrapbook of every single photograph that I could find from their short films, and went through trade magazines of the time to update their filmography, which wasn’t really complete.
My curiosity leads me through various methods when I’m approaching a subject and digging up material. When I was working on the “Broncho Billy” book, I was frustrated by how few photographs I could find in the usual sources like the Bancroft Library, the California Historical Society and the Oakland Museum.
So I started tracking down relatives of Essanay cast and crew people by reverse genealogy. I established a death date for an actor or technician by looking in the California Death Index, sometimes after confirming their real name in Census records. Then I looked up an obituary on microfilm in the local paper where the person died.
If I was lucky, the names of their children were mentioned, and where they lived.
If I continued to be lucky, their children’s names were listed in telephone directories and I would call them up to see if they were the right person. Often I had to go to the next generation, because the children would also be dead. This was all before most of this could be searched on the Internet.
I tracked down 50 families of Essanay personnel. From these families I discovered about 1,000 photographs and put 260 in the book.
I’m the historian at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. We’ve been showing silent films every Saturday night since January 2005, and we’ve become a gathering place for artifacts and information of the silent era. I do the programming for our Saturday shows, and I actually run the projector most of the time.
The more I study the people who pioneered the film industry, the more I respect their accomplishments. But I also see their humanity and how little different they were from people today. Like those involved with today’s innovations, they grappled with inventions and refined them beyond what anyone imagined.