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Empty Socks: a Tale Full of Surprises

By Amy Schaffman

Amy is a Modern European History MPhil student in the Faculty of History. She is currently researching WWII Anglo-American relations through the lens of the overseas evacuation of children.

Recently, an exciting discovery was made in the National Library of Norway. A rare, lost Disney film, Empty Socks (1927), was identified. Empty Socks is one of the few Disney films to employ Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a forerunner of Mickey Mouse who was lost in a deal with Universal Studios. I was privileged to discuss the discovery with Eirik Hanssen, the head of the Library’s Film and Broadcasting Division in its Department of Research. He specializes in open access to rare materials.

Mr. Hanssen explained that the library had been contacted by the American film historian and Disney expert, David Gerstein, on behalf of the Disney company to find lost Disney films that “were all over the world but not taken care of.” Specifically, Gerstein was searching for the character Oswald the Rabbit and knew that Norway’s National Library had previously discovered the lost Disney movie, Tall Timber, which also features this character. Empty Socks was contained in two separate reels and was registered as two separate films. An archivist had already written a detailed summary of the plot without knowing about the rare item she had described. An American expert used this summary to identify the film. While trying to locate Empty Socks, the archival team not only looked within their own collection, but also consulted the Norwegian government’s censorship cards where they discovered a mention of the film in 1929. The team then scoured newspaper archives from the time period to confirm these findings.

Upon its discovery, the Library screened the film on December 17, 2014 and held an educational seminar about it. The seminar featured Norway’s leading animation film historian Gunnar Strøm. Mr. Hanssen is unsure as to the future of this item. “They [the Disney Corporation] have not revealed any plans to us.” Mr. Hanssen hopes the film will be included in a Disney DVD collection as had its predecessor, Tall Timber.

In addition to the academic merits of this discovery, the recouping of Empty Socks has piqued a broader public interest. Mr. Hanssen says “The response has been huge.” He marveled at how the discovery has elicited a major response in Norway, prompting people to come forward with previously lost films, as well as to gain interest in the medium of film in general. It is vital that such recovered films be preserved properly since many, including Empty Socks, are made from an organic nitrate material that erodes over time. Mr. Hanssen was pleased and noted that “the interest is not only the film, but also the circumstance of the lost film.” He advised the public that the archival process is a complex one and that “in many cases you have to rely on expertise from all over the world.”

The discovery of Empty Socks demonstrates the potential thrill and excitement of archival research. As Mr. Hanssen so aptly explains, “its real detective work.” After all, who knows what’s in an unmarked box?

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