In early 2017, University of Southern California film archivist Dino Everett was looking through the school's archive when he rediscovered an 1898 nitrate reel that showed a powerful image, rare for that era: a Black couple kissing.
It’s 29 seconds of genuine affection—they kiss, they hug, they sway, they kiss again—filmed at a time when cinema was replete with racist caricatures and stereotypes. Dino reached out to Allyson Nadia Field, an associate professor in the University of Chicago’s cinema and media studies department.
Together, they set about identifying and dating the picture, “using a combination of material evidence from the film stock itself, perforation holes, print throughs and both his expertise as an archivist and my work as a historian,” Allyson said. “So that took a while.”
Fast-forward to Dec. 2018, when the film, identified as William Selig’s Something Good — Negro Kiss (starring Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown) was added to the National Film Registry.
It went viral. Barry Jenkins tweeted, Viola Davis shared it on Instagram. The video made history over a century after it was filmed.
Reflecting on the overwhelming response, Allyson notes, “On one hand, people, especially a lot of African-Americans, saw an image that they thought didn’t exist. It’s like filling a void in a visual culture. When so much of what we know of silent cinema portrays African-Americans in incredibly dehumanizing ways, this, I think, serves as a really important counterimage to that.”
“And then the bittersweetness came,” she adds.
“One Twitter commenter said, ‘The nation could have had this all along, but instead it gets cursed with The Birth of a Nation.’ This idea is that the sublimated, submerged history only now came to light, that it skipped the 20th century. Part of my interest in it is the alternate narrative.”
Allyson’s work focuses on intersections of the archive and African-American film history. After becoming an Academy Film Scholar in 2019, she’s working on a book that rethinks “the emergence of American cinema and the inflections in minstrelsy in it.” The book is a deep dive into Something Good and its afterlives. “It’s about reconsidering these familiar objects, but also taking into account newly rediscovered films,” Allyson added.
Now, the National Library of Norway appears to have something of a companion piece to Something Good—giving even more context to this iconic film.
In the early ’90s, the library received a reel from Leksvik, a small municipality in central Norway. It had been stored in a barn until the fire brigade said it posed too high a fire hazard. It was sent to Oslo, where researchers couldn’t identify it, but they registered it as a Lumière film because of its perforations.
“Usually, there are four holes on each side of one frame, but on Lumière films, there are two, one on each side,” says Bent Bang-Hansen, a research librarian at the National Library of Norway.
“This reel has those strange perforations that were invented by the Lumière brothers in France. I didn’t know that they were used in the U.S. at all. We thought the content looked American, but those perforations led us towards France and Europe. So, it has always been a puzzle.”
Shortly after Something Good was identified at USC, Bent’s colleague Tone Føreland recognized the actors. As it turns out, the Leksvik reel had on it a similar version of this Selig film—as well another titled The Tramp and the Dog, Selig’s first film, which was initially thought to be lost.
“It’s really fortuitous that so many elements came together,” says Randy Haberkamp, senior vice president of Preservation and Foundation Programs for the Academy.
“A film discovered by Dino Everett at USC, identified by Allyson Field of the University of Chicago using records from the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, and an alternate version of the film discovered at the National Library of Norway. It’s a perfect example of archives, libraries and scholars all working together to illuminate film history from more than 120 years ago.”
While archivists and historians are hesitant to name this new but familiar film, here is what we do know: It was shot at the same time as Something Good — Negro Kiss, on the same set, with the same performers.
It’s longer, however, and an inverted print.
“Gertie Brown’s dress is buttoned like a man’s coat. And Saint Suttle’s coat is buttoned like a woman’s dress,” Bent says. “We don’t know if this is because the film was put in the wrong way in the camera or if it was wrongly duplicated from the negative to the positive.”
This begged the question of what to do in the preservation process: “If we restore it, should we flip it, making the buttons the right way, letting them stand on the same sides as in the U.S. version?” Bent asks. “Was it a total mistake? Was it deliberate?” What also remains a mystery is that nothing in Selig’s extensive inventory, now held at the Margaret Herrick Library, suggests he made an alternate version to Something Good. Which isn’t to say it didn’t happen.
So what is this version of Something Good? And how did it end up in Leksvik in the first place?
According to Eirik Frisvold Hanssen, head of film at the library’s research department, native Norwegian Hans Killingberg returned home from a trip to the United States in 1898, with films and the parts needed to make a projector.
“He apparently painted one of the walls of his barn white, and used that as a screen to project the films with his own self-built projector,” Eirik says. This was shortly after the first film ever had been screened in the country’s capital, and it’s since become a part of Leksvik’s folklore.
After conducting research and corroborating materials with Selig scholars, Eirik’s team has come to believe that this version was produced for the international market, which is why it may not have been marked as a separate entry in the Selig catalog.
“There are several things that are weird, and this is why this stuff is exciting—because it’s like a mystery. It’s detective work,” Allyson says. Eirik’s team first approached her for help putting the pieces together in 2019.
She notes that, usually, Selig films were made in alternate versions, 25-foot and 50-foot reels that would show up in the Sears catalog under varying lengths. But the Norwegian version is even longer than the 50-foot one identified in 2018.
Her research is made more complicated by the fact that, back in the day, there were many instances of piracy. Distributors, exhibitors, even film manufacturers sold films under various titles. “They could just be Something Good — Negro Kiss repackaged,” Allyson said. “I’m trying to unravel all of these connections and figure out what these artifacts are. So, the Norway film kind of throws another wrench in this. There’s even more.”
What’s most exciting to Allyson about the Norwegian version is that it goes beyond the image of an unvarnished, uncaricatured kiss. It shows professional performers at work.
Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown were vaudeville performers, part of a group called the Ragtime Four. As Eirik explains, “What I think is interesting with the version that was disseminated a couple of years ago is that it’s very simple. It’s very pure. It’s really focused on the kiss. This version has more of a longer prelude, where he is making advances and she’s rejecting them, and then, they kiss at the end. The kissing itself is much more of a performance.”
“This other version gives you more of an impression of their acting styles, and it’s more comedic,” he adds. The two could possibly be seen to be of different genres, even, with the U.S. version as a variant of Edison’s The Kiss (the most popular film of 1896) and the Norwegian one as more of a vaudeville act.
The Norwegian Film Archive has scanned the film a second time in order to preserve it before its condition worsens. But, Bent notes, no amount of restoration will make it look perfect. “We must expect that it has never been pristine,” he says. “They developed the frame material in buckets. There was no filtering of the water, so many of these small specks could have always been there.”
With lockdowns in place, Bent hasn’t been able to handle the film himself in a year. For now, it’s being stored at a (very cold) facility near the Arctic Circle, some 100 kilometers from Oslo. It’s taken out only for short periods of time, to examine and scan, and even so, the roll is beginning to decay and the nitrate is getting sticky.
Now digitized, and available to watch above, this variation on Something Good “complicates and expands on the history about this film,” Eirik says.
This discovery undoubtedly brings more depth to our understanding of Something Good—a film that has always existed in ledgers and catalogs—but was considered lost. And so, from Oslo to Chicago to Los Angeles, archivists and historians are putting together the pieces, bringing vital artifacts of film history to light, 120 years on.
Something Good will be featured in the exhibition “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971” at the Academy Museum in 2022. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.