Shepard, David: Silent Film Preservation Giant, Dies at 76

Hollywood Reporter:

David Shepard, the beloved and acclaimed silent film preservationist, died at age 76.

“I met him when I was 16 years old and he was 10 years older,” said movie historian Leonard Maltin. “We grew up in adjacent towns in New Jersey. I had started a motion picture club in my high school, and before our first conversation he offered to loan me a rare 16 mm print to show at out meeting. It was Busby Berkeley’s Roman Scandals [1933]. That started a friendship that lasted all these years.”

“Shepard really cared about movies, and silent films in a particular. He cared more about them than he did about his own ego. There are some people who want a lot of praise and attention for what they do; but he was more concerned with getting the films saved, preserved, rescued and shown — emphasis on shown. Like our mutual friend William K. Everson, the great film scholar, he believed that saving it and putting it on a shelf was not the point.”

Alexander Payne, the director of Sideways and Election, recalled meeting Shepard when “he left USC for a while and taught one quarter at UCLA. I was in my first year of graduate school there and had been a film nut since I was a kid. I signed up for his class on the history of silent cinema and realized to my astonishment that this was the guy who had curated the Blackhawk Films collection, where all of my allowance money had gone as a kid. By the time I was 14, I had the Chaplin Mutuals and the Buster Keaton collection and Phantom of the Opera – and I still have them. But he would lend me prints, which I took home.”

Later, when Shepard was special projects officer at the Directors Guild of America, noted Payne, “Akira Kurosawa brought Ran there [for a screening], and David got me into an exclusive event to see John Huston introduce him.”

“David had an extensive film archive that he would dip into when teaching,” noted USC film school vice dean Michael Renov. “Our students had access to the highest quality and most complete versions of early films from around the world in 16 mm and 35 mm. These were the days before DVD versions of these classics existed. And it was he who produced many of the VHS and later DVD versions of silent film classics during the 1980s and 1990s that made so many great films available to the educational market, as well as to a larger public.”

David Shepard
Shepard “was a beloved teacher. His students — many of them production students focused on finding their way into the industry — developed a love for the aesthetic achievements of the silent cinema because of him. They found his enthusiasm for the cinema contagious. He will long be remembered by those students and by his USC colleagues.”

Shepard, most recently the head of Film Preservation Associates, died January 31 after a battle with cancer. A man of exceptional gentleness and warmth, he was a friend of such eminent directors as King Vidor, and also counseled a generation of contemporary filmmakers, including Payne.

Payne read a letter from Shepard accepting an award from the Los Angeles film critics last year.  “I fell in love with silent film and its possibilities as a teen in the basement theater of a Broadway and radio actor named John Griggs,” the letter stated.

“He played piano for silent films as a teen in his hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and began collecting original prints of silent movies when they were widely available in the 1930s and ’40s. Mr. Griggs screened films from his collection on Sunday afternoons, where the other regulars included a 13-year-old, your fellow member Leonard Maltin.”

Shepard began his career in 1968 at the AFI. Later, he joined Blackhawk, which distributed film classics in 8mm and 16mm. When Blackhawk closed, in 1987 Shepard obtained its restoration technology and film catalog, which included films by D.W. Griffith and Chaplin. More recently, his Film Preservation Associates worked with such companies as Kino Lorber, Flicker Alley and Lobster Films not only to restore movies but also ensure their dissemination.

Among the titles he helped restore were such classics as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1917), The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), City Lights (1931), Foolish Wives (1922), The Gold Rush (1925), The General (1926), Intolerance (1916), The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Kid (1921), Nanook of the North (1922), Nosferatu (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Sunrise (1927).

A professor at USC for 34 years, he headed its Louis B. Mayer Film & Television Study Center and also served for 12 years at the DGA, where he helped compile an extensive series of oral histories with its members.

“David managed the educational and cultural life of the Guild,” his official bio noted, “co-produced the Academy-Award winning Precious Images (1986) and several other films, founded and directed DGA’s Workshop for Educators, and edited or co-authored more than a dozen books, including Henry King: Director from Silents to ‘Scope (1995). Earlier he produced documentaries for commercial and public television including the CBS/Post-Newsweek series American Documents and the PBS series Lowell Thomas Remembers.”

Shepard was given a special citation by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2005 and a special award by the National Society of Film Critics in 2006.