Early Bert Williams Film Added to the National Film Registry

19 Dec
Cabinet card image of American minstrel performer Bert Williams (1874-1922). TCS 1.1120, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

Cabinet card image of American minstrel performer Bert Williams (1874-1922). TCS 1.1120, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

The 2014 National Film Registry list has been released and among the films to be preserved is an early feature-length unreleased film by Bert Williams, a vaudeville performer, and the first African-American to headline on Broadway. Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), is thought to be the earliest surviving film featuring African-Americans and was lost for many years. Williams was featured in the first episode of Blackside’s documentary series on African-Americans in the arts, I’ll Make Me a World. In the episode Lift Every Voice, Henry Hampton explored the careers of Williams and his partner George Walker who were performing within a racist minstrel tradition, whilst still infusing their work with genuine elements of black culture.

A recent article in Sight and Sound told the story of how the seven reels of unidentified footage was discovered at MOMA in New York. The silent footage which contains multiple takes of a film featuring Williams and numerous other African-American performers was apparently never released. Iris Barry, the first film curator of MOMA had obtained the footage in 1939 from the Biograph studio. Williams’ partner George Walker had died by the time the film was being made, and MOMA has done extensive research on the film as part of their exhibit, 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History.

The footage is now being preserved and has been edited together and screened as well. The film which was titled Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day by the curators is a comedy featuring middle-class black characters at social events and fairs, and draws comedy and pathos from Williams’ pursuit of the leading lady, Odessa Warren Grey.

Ron Magliozzi, the curator at MOMA, was able to research the cast and crew of the film, many of whom were part of the Harlem arts community pre-1920.

It eventually transpired that much of the cast had emerged from a little-known group of Harlem artists who, for years, had their events (concerts, carnivals, exhibitions) covered in the Age. The curator finds this particularly exciting, with good reason: “It brings to the world’s attention this… small community that’s pre-Harlem Renaissance, and before the blues and jazz were officially identified as that. We’re talking about the ragtime period.” The process of discovering all the cast members remains ongoing. — Back to Black (Sight and Sound)

This discovery of outtakes and footage is a huge find for film history and helps show the contributions of African-American performers and filmmakers.

 

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One Response to “Early Bert Williams Film Added to the National Film Registry”

  1. paulydeathwish January 2, 2015 at 6:47 pm #

    Genius performer!

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