Oldest surviving film of black actors found
African-American actors Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams are seen in rushes shot in 1913 by Biograph Studios. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has announced that the previously-unidentified footage, recently studied by curators at MOMA's Film Archive, is believed to be the oldest surviving film featuring black actors.
Seven reels of untitled rushes, found among the 900 negatives that were acquired by the museum following the closure of Biograph, will have their world premiere in the exhibition, "100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History," at MOMA's Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Lobby Galleries, beginning Oct. 24, 2014.
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Although black actors had appeared in movies as early as 1909, none of those films still exists. (In fact, up to 90 percent of all films from the silent era are considered lost.)
By researching old publicity photos, sheet music, and period articles (including from Harlem’s black daily New York Age), MOMA's curators were able to identify most of the actors, including members of such groups as the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association, and the black vaudevillians' fraternal organization, The Frogs.
Pictured in a scene from "Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project" (from left) were the musical theater and recording artist Bert Williams, Walker Thompson (center, standing), and John Wesley Jenkins (seated at right).
Left: Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey.
Born in the Bahamas, Bert Williams (1874- 1922) was one of the most popular black vaudeville comedians and recording stars at the turn of the century. His 1903 production, "In Dahomey," was the first black musical to open on Broadway, and in 1910 Williams was the first black performer to star in "The Ziegfeld Follies."
Williams later appeared in two 1916 shorts which he also directed, "A Natural Born Gambler" and "Fish."
Odessa Warren Grey, during filming of the "Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project."
From left: Bert Williams, Odessa Warren Grey, an unidentified actor, and Walker Thompson.
No script, intertitles or production credits for the "Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project" had survived. By examining the footage frame-by-frame (including hiring a lip reader to determine the dialogue), MOMA's film curators reconstructed the planned film's narrative as a comedy concerning Bert Williams' character (a member of a black social club), with elements of romance, dancing and larceny.
Bert Williams woos a beautiful young woman (Odessa Warren Grey) at a fairground, in a scene shot for the "Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project" (1913).
Abbie Mitchell in a scene from the "Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project."
The only written reference to the footage was found in an August 1914 obituary in the New York Age for Sam Corker Jr., a member of the film’s production crew. It stated, "Last fall he employed a large number of colored performers for the 'Lime Kiln Club' series of motion pictures produced by Klaw and Erlanger in which Bert A. Williams was featured."
[Marcus Klaw and A.L. Erlanger were theatrical producers who also filmed some of their plays. The Lime Kiln Club was featured in a popular comic strip of the day.]
In addition to narrative scenes, the rushes also include footage of black cast members and white crew members on location. Exteriors are believed to have been filmed in Englewood, N.J.
Pictured at left: Bert Williams and director Edwin Middleton.
Also seen in rushes: T. Hayes Hunter, who directed at least three dozen films beginning in 1912. His most famous was one of his last, the 1933 Boris Karloff horror film, "The Ghoul."
The newly-assembled footage for "Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day Project" will have its world premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Oct. 24, 2014.
For more info:
"100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History," at MOMA (Oct. 24, 2014-March 2015).