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  • Writer's pictureDebra M. Dudek

Searching for Silent Screen Ancestors and Studios

Does your family link back to the world of silent screen acting? You could be in for a surprise! During the early eras of film making, nearly 11,000 movies were made in places such as New York City, Chicago, California, and New Jersey, and if your ancestor was living in an area where films were made, there may be a possibility they were involved with the creation of cinema projects. What’s the daunting part of this research? According to the Library of Congress, nearly 75 percent of America’s silent films have been lost or destroyed, which is a relatively bleak number. But there’s still hope everyone, as there are several amazing resources you should check out right away!

Without the credits, and other items found in each film, where can you begin your search? You need to visit a fantastic site called Media History Digital Library, which has posted a prolific collection of trade and fan magazines from 1903 – 1963, all of which are searchable and available for download from Internet Archive.

Although each magazine or publication is listed individually, you have the option of searching by an ancestor’s name. Good news, there are lots of pictures credited to actors and actresses alike! If your ancestor was involved with the movie business, but their film has been lost or destroyed, take heart. Try using Media History Digital Library’s magazine collection and and the Silent Era Presumed Lost Film List should help you find out more information on individual movies and their writers, creators, and support staff to aid your research.

On a happy note, let’s take a look at this ad for the Oz films found in Motion Picture World in published 1914. The advertisement lists each film, the film creator, the address of the film company, and provides a few advertisement graphics of the Oz brand.

By searching Internet Archive, I was able to find a copy of The Patchwork Girl of Oz available for free, as well as a Wikipedia page listing the film credits, cast, and production notes. The ad also describes two additional Oz Films available for theaters, The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. These are great little films, and as Frank L. Baum wrote the screenplays for all three films, they are of great interest to anyone who loves the Wizard of Oz series.

Batman, Transformers, and Ferris Beuler maybe the best known films shot in Chicago today, but the city has a much older connection to the movie industry. Before there was Hollywood, there was Essanay Studios. Never heard of them? Reaching back to the early film period of 1907-1918, Essanay Studios in Chicago, the firm grew to one of the largest film companies in the world. Charlie Chaplin started his career in 1915 at Essanay Studios and shot his first full feature film entitled His New Job. After losing Chaplin to another studio, and facing a full onslaught of legal battles and money problems, the studio was sold and later merged to a new company called, V-L-S-E which would eventually absorbed by Warner Brothers.

You can find out more about the Essanay Studios as well as the other Silent Film sites around Chicago by watching a Mysterious Chicago virtual tour hosted by Adam Selzer. All his tours are well researched and engaging, and you can watch his wide array of his programs from your phone, computer, or smart TV as live sessions and recordings via Facebook. I highly recommend Adam's Art Deco, Chicago neighborhoods, and After Hours tours. Don't miss his live virtual Pub Crawl tours, which are truly a lot of fun! All the virtual tours are free, and don't forget to drop Adam a tip via Venmo or Paypal at the end of the program.

As a complete side note, the Library of Congress American Memory project hosts a fantastic collection of early Edison Motion Pictures, and my favorite so far is a 25 second advertisement for Admiral Cigarettes. I can’t be sure, but I think there’s a cameo by the Village People in the film. What do you think?(Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating the use of cigarettes or smoking by including this in my blog. I just happen to think this is a very entertaining advertisement from the days of early film.)

Do you have a silent screen ancestor? I’d love to hear from you!


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