Jean Desmet died in 1956, at the age of 81. He donated a great number of films and most of his archive to the Filmmuseum, which was the predecessor of EYE.
Although he had already been out of the film business for decades when he died, he always held onto the company archive from his years as a film distributor. Desmet’s company archive turned out to offer unique insights into world of film distribution and cinema exhibition of the 1910s, the ‘pioneering years’.
unique film collection
His estate also contained about a thousand films, mostly from the period 1910-1915. Most of the films are less than fifteen minutes in length, which was typical of films from that age. This is a very special collection of films, because most of the films from the early decades of cinema have since been lost; they became worn down after repeated screenings, and often were eventually destroyed. Sometimes attempts were made to recover silver from the film emulsion.
It was also unusual to store old films, because the material that films used to be made of, cellulose nitrate, was very flammable. If the films were not deliberately destroyed, they often went up in flames accidentally. Moreover, films were seen as disposable objects, usually with little cultural value.
early film archives and 'sensible' films
All of this meant that meant that if a cinephile felt the need to preserve some films, he would need to be selective. This meant that at first, only films that were considered to be of artistic and educational merit were preserved, for example in the Dutch Central Film Archive, which was established in 1919.
Desmet, on the other hand, bought films because of their commercial potential, and the films that he left behind are special in their ordinariness: they show what the regular cinemas were screening at the time, the crowd pullers that filled most of the shows.
That these films have been preserved is extraordinary in itself, but because the collection can be linked to the company archive, we also know where and how often the films were screened, and what the real blockbusters were.
Desmet's legacy has been looked after with much love and attention by his granddaughter Ilse Hughan (daughter of Jeanne). She also arranged that the interior of the Amsterdam Parisien cinema was salvaged and moved to the former Filmmuseum.