A Stetson Hat Boomerangs Back

I hadn’t any more use for my 16mm print of Making a Stetson, so I sold it on eBay. I’d won it there in the first place. It seemed to be a lost film, but then a 35mm print turned up in New Zealand and I wanted to know when my print had been made, but my print was gone now.

I sold the print in 2008 in this film collector’s version of catch-and-release. No one was going to show the print anywhere, and it’d been transferred to video for a DVD release a few years earlier. In 2011, Mark Roth’s ReelclassicDVD label put out a disc of William S. Hart in The Silent Man and I’d offered this short up as an extra; I scored the feature and the short.

In the early 2010’s, the National Film Preservation Foundation began posting newly preserved films, including several from a stash that had just been repatriated from an archive in New Zealand. I was very surprised to find that one of them was a circa 1920 film called Birth of a Hat…and was nearly the exact same film as I’d previously owned. I now had a correct title and probable year for my 16mm, which was missing its opening title. The film’s name had been written on the leader, so that’s what I was going on.

Stetson Hat film 1920
frame grab from Birth of a Hat (ca. 1920)

But the newly discovered film didn’t 100% match mine. The film shows each step in the making of a Stetson hat, but some of the shots in my print had the exact same steps being done, but in slightly different or newer footage, with a different hat factory worker doing the task.

So, when was my print made? When was it from? I went to my shelf of films and was reminded that I’d sold this on eBay and no longer had it. I’d wanted to unspool some of the film and look for a code of circles, squares, plus signs and/or triangles printed intermittently on the edge of the film. These serve as date codes as to when the film stock was made.

In the summer of 2012 I started a web series on YouTube, scoring and posting some of the rare films in my collection. It was a precursor to — and sort of a dry run for — what became the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs. One of those films that I scored and uploaded was my print of Making a Stetson, using the DVD transfer Mark Roth had made.

The following year, I was at the Library of Congress for a couple shows. During some downtime, Film Curator Rob Stone and I were going through the vaults. I forget what needed to be pulled…but as we were going through one of the vaults, I noticed a name on a couple of the shelves that rang a bell — “J. Fred MacDonald collection”.

J. Fred MacDonald is a film and broadcasting historian who’d amassed a large collection of film, radio and television. His archive was now at the LC. I remembered that name, because I’d searched my inbox for “Making a Stetson” and discovered I’d sold it back in 2008 to…J. Fred MacDonald. Later, Rob looked the title up in the LC’s database, and sure enough, there it was. We went back to the vault, found the print, and there I was…holding a film I’d sold off on eBay. 

The edge code was a plus sign and a square, meaning 1935. The mystery of why they reshot some of the footage with different people, however, continues.

Here’s my 16mm print:

This is Making a Stetson, from my print and from my YouTube channel.

Here’s the video intro I shot and posted. That summer, I did this for each of the films that I “released” on YouTube.

To watch the 1920 Birth oof a Hat that was repatriated, go to the NFPF screening room page for it.

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Mike Gebert

To modernize the hats shown?