UNO Alumnus Brings Silent Films Back to Life

David Pearson could perhaps be described as a quiet type. As a student at the University of New Orleans, he immersed himself for several years in the campus library, poring through hundreds of books about classic film. But even Pearson did not predict that within 10 years of graduation, he would become one of the nation’s most highly regarded silent film experts.

“The reason I fell in love with it is that it was something I had not seen,” Pearson said of silent film, where large audiences experienced a collective visceral reaction while watching movie with no dialogue and sitting together in dark and silence. “Having 4,000 people laughing at the same time, you just don’t get anything like that today. It’s like a rock concert.”

The silent film era took place from 1894 to 1929 and for a time silent film was the world’s top form of entertainment. A silent film has no synchronized recorded sound and no spoken dialogue. Instead, dialogue is conveyed through gesture, mime and title cards.

According to Los Angeles researcher John Miraseles, only 17 percent of the silent films ever created survive. Pearson spent the past year working to restore many of them for Turner Classic Movies.
Two weeks ago, the television movie channel began airing a month-long tribute to the actor, director and slapstick comedy innovator Mack Sennett and his Keystone film studio, which opened 100 years ago this month.
The series began airing on Sept. 6 and is set to air at 7 p.m. every Thursday through Sept. 27. Tonight’s airing at 7 p.m. includes two features and 15 short films.

In all, the TCM series includes 87 films, 76 of which Pearson has restored with silent film experts and preservationists Paul Goreckian and Britney Valente of Cinemuseum in Detroit. In all, Pearson will receive more than 40 film restoration credits for his work.

“We’re basically working in a sense as news reporters doing this research,” said Pearson, who once served as editor of Driftwood, UNO’s campus newspaper. “We’re essentially archaeologists finding out exactly how things were done and finding the missing piece.”

Pearson received two degrees from UNO’s College of Liberal Arts: an undergraduate degree in general studies with a focus on film and history and a Master’s Degree in Communication Arts with a focus on film. Yet, on the subject of silent films, Pearson says that he was initially self-taught.

He spent several years poring through hundreds of books on film in the UNO Library’s extensive collection, then proceeded to the Tulane University Library, where he read everything unavailable at UNO, he said, adding that UNO boasts the better collection.

He absorbed every detail he could, then with the advent of the Internet, built a series of websites on classic and silent films. Upon graduation, Pearson built his own website, and transferred the other websites there, including a website entitled ArbuckleMania, which has a photo gallery of more than 18,000 photos. Over time, Pearson's work and photography collection began receiving attention from artists, aficionados and experts around the world, including Goreckian.

In addition to the 40-plus restoration film credits he will receive this week for assisting TCM on silent film restorations of Mack Sennett related comedies, Pearson has written four short film documentaries on Buster Keaton's films for KINO Video. He has written an essay on silent film actor Harold Lloyd for Variety Magazine and has been quoted, thanked or noted in more than 75 books on film, he said. Recently, Pearson assisted noted film historian Kevin Brownlow in his 2010 book Alla Ricerci di Buster Keaton, which was published by the Cineteca Bologna in Italy and which quotes Pearson 11 times.

Recently, in his work for the TCM series, Pearson focused on restoring the 83 silent short films and four silent feature films’ inner titles and title cards -- and ensuring a perfect match with history.

“It involves a lot of research. Sometimes, we had to go to Library of Congress,” Pearson said. “We want to get it exactly as it took place. It’s not so much about it looking good as it is being about historically correct.”

Widely published in print and on the web, Pearson will wax rhapsodic on silent film topics ranging from the advent of radio to the lack of attention paid to female artists, including Marguerite Clark, a silent film artist from New Orleans who inspired the 1938 Disney cartoon character Snow White.

He speaks wistfully of a time when the films played at New Orleans’ Orpheum, Saenger, Loews State and Joy Theatres.

“When [silent films were] popular (1927-1928), silent film was the entertainment medium in the world -- no radio -- the only other thing competing with it were books, so people used to love to go to the movies,” Pearson said.
“How can you have an art form that is almost entirely American and that everyone loved – the Russians loved it, the Germans at the time loved it, the French loved it, everyone at that time period loved it – and it was just completely thrown away?" he said. "That is completely horrendous to me.”