In the week leading up to the the premiere, the California Historical Society, at its headquarters in central San Francisco, hosted a lively talk on The Last Edition. An inquisitive audience listened as film historian David Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, and Rob Byrne, lead restorer on The Last Edition and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, gave an introduction to the film and the work undertaken in bringing it back to the screen.
David Kiehn describing Emory Johnson’s on-screen career at at the California Historical Society
David spent time discussing the background and work of Emory Johnson, the film’s director and co-writer. A first generation native of San Francisco, Emory spent his first years in the city, where his father owned a bathhouse on Center Street. Following the destruction of the bathhouse in the 1906 earthquake the Johnson family relocated across the bay to Oakland. Emory went on to study architecture at the University of California, Berkley, before a chance encounter provoked a turn to film work. Driving one day, Emory happened across a shootout involving a stagecoach and cowboys, a scene being shot by the Essanay Film Manufacturing company, out of its studio in Niles, California. Intrigued, Johnson talked his way into a position within their crew. Later, Emory was to move infront of the camera and appeared in several of the popular Broncho Billy films Essanay produced. As an actor Emory enjoyed moderate success, appearing alongside stars such as Mary Pickford in 1918’s Johanna Enlists, and Wallace Reid in Alias Mike Moran the following year. Emory’s interests in bringing stories of working people to the screen saw him return to production in the next few years, working alongside his mother Emilie who had begun developing stories for filming. Their first collaboration, In The Name of the Law, appeared in 1922. The Last Edition, released three years later was to be their 6th such collaboration.
Following David, Rob described his first encounter with the nitrate print of The Last Edition at the EYE Film Instituut in the Netherlands. While the first few moments of the film exhibited the deterioration typical to the unstable nitrate film stock used in film production of the time, this damage was largely restricted to the first section, making the restoration work to come significantly easier. The opening shots also indicated one of the principal attractions of the film – its documentary value of the locations used in the shooting around the San Francisco of the mid-1920s and the views within a real working newsplant.
This print – the only one known to still exist – provided a particular challenge to the restoration of the work, as Rob explained. One of the silent era’s strength for producers and distributors was the ease with which new intertitles could be substituted for those in the original, facilitating easy export to foreign markets. The Dutch print of The Last Edition contained over 170 intertitles in the archaic Dutch used in the Netherlands of the 1920s (unfamiliar to modern Dutch speakers) all requiring careful translation to return the film to something in keeping with what may be imagined of its original US release. Dutch linguists worked alongside film researchers to establish a re-translation into the vernacular of US English of the 1920s and the language style employed in surviving Emory Johnson productions. This Dutch print also saw characters’ names changing – for example, Tom McDonald becoming Dan McDonald – necessitating research in contemporary trade publications to identify original character names.
Unfortunately it was discovered that this Dutch print was missing a little over 5 minutes of running length compared to its original US release, with only one cut, for ‘excitement’ when a man is looking at a woman’s legs, specified by the Dutch censors.
Rob Byrne highlighting Dutch censorship of The Last Edition and suggesting the section of the film in which the cut was made
The research involved in performing restoration work such as this helps to bring to light aspects of a film’s production history which might otherwise slip away. The Last Edition‘s police chief was identified as San Francisco’s police chief of the time, Dan O’Brien. During the chief’s appearance, photographs of his son, silent film star George O’Brien, are clearly visible on the wall of his office. Discoveries such as this help to embed the work within the particular context of its development in San Francisco’s history and its links into wider film history.
Rob brought the event to a close, remarking on the final stages of the The Last Edition‘s restoration – the creation of new film prints deposited with EYE in the Netherlands and the Library of Congress, and available for exhibition. The mementos each attendee found on their seats of 10 frames from the film were made from the same film stock on which these prints will be preserved. Creation of these physical film prints remains the only reliable strategy for the long-term preservation of film heritage, and, stored correctly within an archive, should still be around in 500 years. These prints, which include a number of pages of text on the film stock explaining the work of the restoration team, will provide the best means for future audiences and researchers to examine the The Last Edition, and understand the work performed in its restoration.