Silent movies have always spoken to David Kiehn (B.A., ’73).
While studying film history at SF State, he grew so enamored with Buster Keaton’s comic genius he watched every one of the star’s films.
Two decades later, he threw himself into researching the Bay Area’s brief moment as a center of the silent movie industry. His efforts resulted in a book and helped found a museum, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont where Kiehn serves as historian.
"There is something so intriguing about silent films," he says. "They’re a window into the past."
But sometimes the past isn’t what it appears. In 2005, Kiehn became fascinated with "A Trip Down Market Street," a 12-minute journey through San Francisco long estimated to have been made in the fall of 1905. The film is a rare slice of life. As the camera rolls down the street, horse-drawn wagons crisscross buggy cars, neither showing a care for the pedestrians in top hats and bustles.
Little else though was known about the movie -- the kind of blank spot Kiehn loves to fill. But old newspapers had made no mention of the production. So Kiehn started to play detective, noticing, for example, puddles on the street even though it was bone dry in September and October 1905. Kiehn then realized that the shadows, the ones that led researchers to assume the movie was made in fall, would have been present in the wet spring of 1906.
And that would explain the license plates. California had just started registering cars and when Kiehn tracked down the tags seen in the movie, he scored again. Two of the cars were registered in early 1906.
All that proved secondary as Kiehn dug up an April 28, 1906, edition of The New York Clipper, a film-trade magazine advertising "A Trip (Down) Market Street."
"We have the only pictures of any value ever made of San Francisco," reads the advertisement. "This film was made just one week before the complete destruction of every building shown in the picture."
Kiehn hadn’t just dated the film; he had revealed it as a window into the final moments before the cataclysmic earthquake of April 18, 1906. It was like witnessing a dance on the Titanic.
The discovery received limited notice at first, but when Kiehn’s girlfriend noted it on a YouTube clip of the old film Kiehn started getting calls from across the country. Interest even reached producers of "60 Minutes."
In August, Kiehn spent the day with veteran newsman Morley Safer, interviewing for a segment that aired in October. As Kiehn told Safer, "It just seemed like it was an important film that something must have been written about it someplace. And why not try to figure it out?"
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