Students may be familiar with silent films from Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween shows, but one silent film about Yale has not been seen in New Haven for over 80 years.
“Hold ’Em Yale,” the first-ever feature film with footage of the Yale Bowl, will be screened with live musical accompaniment tomorrow night in the Whitney Humanities Center. Directed by Edward Griffith and starring the legendary actor Rod La Rocque, the film was thought to be lost until Brian Meacham, the archive and special collections manager of the Yale Film Study Center, discovered the film at the New Zealand Film Archive while on vacation in 2009. Meacham noted that most silent films created in the early 20th century no longer exist, which makes the discovery of this film especially significant.
“Such a huge percentage of silent films made are now lost that any time you find one, even if it isn’t a classic, its return is something to be celebrated,” Meacham said.
“Hold ’Em Yale” follows the story of a young Argentine man who comes to New Haven and falls in love with a Yale professor’s daughter. He joins the Yale football team and plays a game in the Yale Bowl in order to win her love.
Judith Schiff, chief research archivist at Yale, said the film depicts the rise of football in American culture during the 1920s. Football — the rules of which were written by Walter Camp 1882 — had a strong connection to the Ivy League and to the Yale Bowl, Schiff said, noting that the film’s showing coincides with the Yale Bowl’s 100th anniversary.
Meacham said that “Hold ’Em Yale” came on the heels of Harold Lloyd’s 1925 film “The Freshman,” which follows a young college student who joins his university’s football team in order to become more popular among his peers. Meacham added that the 1920s were a period that saw increased interest among the American public in college life. Most of the films rely on tropes such as a young man going to college and running into obstacles like joining the football team or avoiding upper-class bullies, he explained.
Friday’s screening will feature the live performance of an original piece by film composer and pianist Donald Sosin as an accompaniment to the film. Sosin, who writes and performs accompaniment music for roughly 100 to 150 silent films every year, said the score for “Hold ’Em Yale” includes musical themes based on several traditional Yale football cheers as well as on jazz music from the early 1920s. He added that he thinks the screening will present a unique opportunity for viewers to see the University as it stood in a wholly different era.
The film was discovered during Meacham’s trip to New Zealand, where he asked for and was given access to the collection of American films at the New Zealand Film Archive, now called Nga Taonga Sound and Vision. Meacham said that in addition to “Hold ’Em Yale,” he also found other early 20th-century films such as John Ford’s “Upstream” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow.”
Steven Russell, governance advisor at Nga Taonga, said the film was sent to New Zealand after its release as a result of international film distribution practices, which circulated films around the world in order to screen them in various countries. New Zealand was the last stop on the international film distribution network, Russell added, noting that many of the films in the collection had been neglected by their producers and were then sold to private collectors or stored away.
Over the past few years, Meacham worked on a team of film archivists to “repatriate” — the action of preserving a film and returning it to its country of origin — the American films. Russell said that because the film was made of nitrate — a flammable solid — it was difficult to have it transported across the Pacific because the team was required to complete extensive paperwork in obtaining authorization to bring the film to the U.S.
Meacham said that although most of “Hold ’Em Yale” was shot on a Hollywood set, it also features shots of Old Campus and the Yale Bowl. A number of Yale paraphernalia, including a “For God, For Country and For Yale” banner and a toy bulldog, also make an appearance.
The New Zealand Film Archive was founded in 1981.
Correction, Nov 13: A previous version of this article uncorrected stated that Brian Meacham works at the Yale Film Studies Center. Meacham is the Archive and Special Collections Manager at the Yale Film Study Center.