By Geo Ong
Last week on a whim I accidentally managed to be part of an historic night. I had been scouring the film listings of my favourite cinemas as I do often, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music there was listed a programme called ‘Serge Bromberg Treasures.’ The name meant nothing to me and, had I been busier, I would have moved on. But my curiosity clicked the link and led me to a film still of Charlie Chaplin, from 1916′s The Pawnshop, balancing a plate of donuts in the kitchen with his costar, Edna Purviance.
It turns out that Serge Bromberg is a film preservationist. His French company, Lobster Films, works to restore and preserve the lost and receding films of the silent era. A large part of Bromberg’s collection revolved around the early short films of Charlie Chaplin, and Bromberg was eager to show a few new restorations with an American audience in Brooklyn.
Of course, I found all that out once I was there. The single thing that persuaded me into attending the event was the promise of Chaplin films shown on a big screen. I didn’t care which ones they would be; as long as he was there, I would be, too.
But I was in for much more than I expected. The passionate Mr. Bromberg spoke excitedly about the new restorations he’d be showing us—ones for The Pawnshop, Easy Street (1917), and the Little Tramp’s first ever appearance, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)—all of which had never been shown with such crispness to American audiences before.
If I remember correctly (I hadn’t been taking notes because I just didn’t know!), Bromberg claimed that around 75% of all films made during the silent era were currently lost. In comparison with today’s technology, the thought is ludicrous. But we sometimes forget that many of these films are approaching one hundred years in age. This is essentially what gives Bromberg, Lobster Films, and other film preservationists their purpose. In an interview with the arts website French Culture, Bromberg said, ‘Now that we’ve spent all this time reconstructing the films, they can be showed as if time had not passed.’
Bromberg’s restoration of The Pawnshop isn’t yet available online, but another version of the film is, and I am still eager to share it because then you’ll at least enjoy some version of what I did, just by accident.