Dorothy Gibson movie found

No, not the one you think!

But one of Dorothy Gibson’s films has been located and is now undergoing conservation by the American Film Institute. While confirmation of its condition is preliminary and its future availability status has not been determined, the survival of this one-reel motion picture is momentous for film historians and Titanic buffs alike.

Dorothy Gibson was the first American leading lady for the then powerful French-based í‰clair Film Company. Noted for her natural, restrained acting style, she was one of the first bonafide movie stars of the early silent period, when the "star" system was just being formulated. Her films were solid money-makers and she was considered the biggest asset for í‰clair when Universal Pictures initially opted to buy the company’s Fort Lee studios and merge their interests.

The discovery of this film comes at a crucial time, indeed. My book, Finding Dorothy, goes to press Nov. 23, and if I am able to include preservation information about it, the title will mean much more than I thought it could! (For more on Finding Dorothy, see under Upcoming Book News on Michael Tennaro’s website

The Dorothy Gibson movie that has been discovered is, as often happens in such cases, not at all one of her better films, as least to judge from press reviews. However, as all of Dorothy’s known films (at least 15) were believed to have been lost until now, "we’ll take what we can get," as the saying goes.

The movie is "A Lucky Holdup," a raucous little comedy released by í‰clair on April 11, 1912. It was one of three films that Dorothy rushed through in order to take the fateful European vacation that would land her on Titanic.

The story is a frenzied one, especially as it transpires in about 14-17 minutes, the average running time of one-reelers (according to a 1911 article). In the tale, Dorothy and her beau (played by dapper Lamar Johnstone, one of her regular leading men) find themselves caught up in a feud between their affluent families.

Their fathers, who are business partners, have come to blows over some deal and demand that the young lovers end their courtship. The couple refuses to do so and elopes somewhere out West. There the boy and girl are kidnapped by their stage driver who takes them to his mountain cabin and holds them for ransom. The young people send a letter with the thief’s demand for money to their respective parents, who unite in a common goal to rescue their children. How the film ends is not clear from reviews but a Billboard Magazine critic wrote that "the story is carried to a laughable conclusion."
The New York Dramatic Mirror reviewer agreed that "there is both humor and novelty in this little farce" but commented on what he considered to be some "rather bad photography" and a "want of spirit displayed by the actors."

It is perhaps ironic that this picture, the only one known to survive so far of Dorothy’s work, is one of only two of her films which was criticized for less than stellar acting. Her "reposeful," "charming," "winsome" manner is often singled out for comment in reviews. Not this one, however.

But it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just happy to know that Dorothy has truly been found and that someday soon we will finally be able to see her on screen for ourselves!

This, to me, is fantastic news. It is what I have hoped for for so long.

Jason D. Tiller


What a terrific find and it's wonderful to hear that one of Dorothy's films has survived all these years!

Thanks for sharing the incredible news.
>>This, to me, is fantastic news<<

I agree. A lot of our film history has been lost over the years, literally disintigrating in the cans where they were stored. That a film this old has survived is remarkable. Here's hoping that the conservation effort works out!
Oh, Randy, I know you must be on cloud nine over this! What fabulous news! If one film has survived all these years, I'm going to be optimistic that others could be found as well.

Hi, Jason, Michael and Kyrila!

Thanks for joining in my glee. As Jason says, it’s wonderful.

Of course, most die-hard Titanicos wish only to see the revered "Saved From the Titanic." Film archives get questions about it all the time, in fact. But I’ve always thought it would be great just to find any one of Dorothy’s movies. After all, she is the reason why we’re interested in the other anyhow.

The film that’s been found, by the way, Michael, must be in good enough condition to be restored completely as the work is being funded by an American Film Institute Challenge Grant. One of the films that was acquired in the same lot with "A Lucky Holdup" is being donated, after its restoration, to the Smithsonian Institution but probably Dorothy’s movie will go to the AFI’s repository of choice, the Library of Congress. I’m in touch with a contact there to see what’s going on right now.

Once the film is restored, I just hope a video dealer will see the importance of the film and be able to market it. It may well be the only Dorothy Gibson picture that ever turns up.

But like Kyrila, I tend to have high hopes that this means we are closer to the jackpot. If a minor film like "A Lucky Holdup" was kept all this time by a silent movie buff, somewhere, somebody has got to have "Saved From the Titanic!"

>>Of course, most die-hard Titanicos wish only to see the revered "Saved From the Titanic." <<

Don't think I'd confine myself to that, but it would be thrilling if a surviving copy were to turn up. One can always hope, but I won't hold my breath. I'm glad that even one of these films has survived.

Jason D. Tiller

Hi Randy,

I agree with what Michael said, it would be incredible if a copy of the "Saved From the Titanic!" were to turn up, but I don't want to get my hopes up too high either. I hope for the best though.

All the best in finding someone that will market the film. It would be quite something to see it!

Best regards,

Randy, was the film located through an individual who may have more in their stash or did a copy survive untouched in a warehouse. I'm always curious when objects turn up. How have they managed to survive and all. Congrat's on finding out about the film. Look forward to hearing more on this and on your book.
Hi, Vicki:

Good to hear from you. I have been meaning to be in touch and will be soon.

The film was donated by private collectors in California who, so I understand, gave everything they had that was in need of restoration to the AFI. I am told an L.A. Times reporter is onto them right now and may sniff out any more goodies. I am trying to get in touch with them myself for a quote on how they came by this film.

The survivability of these old nitrate films is an erratic thing. Most disintegrate completely in time but others, perhaps depending on climate, seem to pull through unscathed or with minor deterioration. More and more of these old silents are popping up. Recently another 1912 í‰clair movie, "Robin Hood," was found, restored and screened by the Fort Lee Film Commission.

Hope you’re well and I’ll email you later.

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Inger Sheil

Just goes to show that one should never give up hope - it's amazing what material survives, secreted away! A cache of letters, an old family photograph in a frame...or a long-lost film. Great news, Randy.
As Inger says, it is amazing what does survive. I am told by an archaeologist friend that quite a bit of what we have from BC times exists because the Romans were great collectors - they liked antiques in their homes just like we do, and being big travellers, took full advantage of the fact. So excavations of Roman dwellings reveal much older artifacts sometimes. I was surprised when I heard that, but I realize I shouldn't have been. It's only human nature.
More, unfortunately, is lost. My uncle (b. 1899) was a lighting cameraman until the 1950s and, I'm told, was a keen collector of early films. When he died in the 1970s, his widow returned to the UK from Brasil with a sparse selection of luggage which did not include his collection. I don't know what she did with it - she's dead now - and I doubt there was anything unique in it, but it is still a pity.

But things do turn up. Here in the UK a few years ago, three lost episodes of Dad's Army (a 1970s much-beloved sitcom) were found - maybe not great art, but Saved from the Titanic may not be either, but that's not the point. It seems that when videotape arrived, TV turned to using it - although it was vastly more expensive than 16 mm film, because it could be wiped and re-used. This led to the loss of many programmes. Actually, the lost episodes were not a victim of this practice as they were on film. They were found in a garden shed, still in their metal boxes, because a man who was dismantling an old studio found them in a skip, took them home and forgot about them. When he died, his daughter found them and, having read a lot of publicity about the lost episodes, gave them to the BBC. I've seen them - well worth finding - very funny.
Hey Inger, Monica and Darren!

Ing, it is indeed amazing what is out there ready to be found, which is as encouraging to researchers as it is to collectors!

Monica, your story of a comparatively recent loss and recovery proves that even the movies and TV shows we think must be already preserved, may not be at all. Even such big 1950s-60s films as "Rear Window" and "Spartacus" were very damaged and in danger of further deterioration until preservations did their magic.

Darren, I too have wondered what it would be like to see Dorothy in a moving image. But neither of us will have to wonder for very much longer!


As it turns out there is even better news about "A Lucky Holdup" starring Dorothy Gibson.

The American Film Institute has now confirmed that this film has ALREADY been fully restored by the Triage Film Lab and is actually available for viewing at the Library of Congress’ Motion Picture and Television Reading Room. Individual access copies — including a B&W 35 mm reference print as well as a tinted Digital Beta videocassette — can be screened by advance appointment. A theatrical projection print, however, is still at the Triage Lab undergoing final touches. It is believed that this will be used for a public screening in the near future, possibly hosted by the Fort Lee Film Commission

My publisher is in the process of purchasing a copy of "A Lucky Holdup" so that I can include a review of it for the book. This is an expensive and somewhat time-consuming process involving copyright and donor clearance and it may push release of our book back a month.

We are ready to go to press now, except for the addition of four very special images and crucial information from two other sources. This material should be received by us within the next 2-4 weeks, meaning we are on schedule right now. So if we encounter no problems in the copyright process with this movie and a rush order is put on it, we may still be able to meet deadline. If not, and we have to delay publication until we receive the film, I think you will agree that it’ll just be — dare I say it? — a very "Lucky Holdup!" J

Another thing -— our publisher is considering the possibility of marketing the film later. I think silent movie and Titanic buffs will appreciate the opportunity to see Dorothy Gibson in this rare picture. But without a distributor, it will reach only those who can manage to get to Washington to view it or who are able to spend hundreds of dollars to buy a single copy from the LOC.

I’ll keep you all posted as we learn more about this film!

Best of wishes to everybody.

Jason D. Tiller

Hi Randy,

That's terrific news, thanks for the update! If your book is delayed because of waiting for the film to be reviewed, it'll definitely be well worth the wait.
>>If not, and we have to delay publication until we receive the film,<<

I hope things can be expedited, but if this is the only further delay you run into, you'll be doing very well indeed. Book publishing is nothing if not a strange business and the schedule is usually the first thing to end up in the dustbin.

I think you'll find this remarkable find is one worth waiting for.