Thanking everyone who had a hand in uncovering that mysterious, lost 1923 Alfred Hitchcock silent film “The White Shadow” — whose miraculous rediscovery in New Zealand was announced Aug. 3 — would make for a long and boring Oscar speech.

But if you wanted to single out one member of the cast of dozens, and you wanted to say something nice about Washington for a change, you could focus on a relatively obscure copyright lawyer named Eric J. Schwartz, whose eighth-floor law office on N Street NW is lined with vintage movie posters.

Then you would have a story about a kid who grows up on Long Island in the 1970s with a passion for movies and music, but who realizes he lacks the talent to create either. He goes to the District and masters the folkways of the Hill, all the while yearning for a way to indulge his passion.

He finds one. He designs a way to finance the rescue of American movie history.

“You never know what’s in the next box, around the next corner, when so much has been lost,” Schwartz says. “There’s the thrill of finding that, and the question: What else can we find?”

In the early 1990s Schwartz, then a lawyer in the U.S. Copyright Office, maneuvered among competing interests (studios, directors, House committee chairmen, federal agencies), drafted legislation, helped turn doomed Congressional “studies” into action plans — and, in 1997, filed incorporation papers for a strange new bureaucratic hybrid: the National Film Preservation Foundation, affiliated with the Library of Congress yet chartered to raise private donations for its work.

The foundation now receives $530,000 a year through the library’s budget — all of which must go to preservation — and matches that in other fundraising.

“Eric helped connect the dots that kept the legislation alive and moved [the foundation] to a home at the library where it took root and flourished,” says Pat Loughney, chief of the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, which houses the largest collection of American films and does more preservation than any other archive. “The foundation is doing work we can’t do, essential work, not only supporting the work we do at the library but at archives around the country.”

Sometimes, a quintessentially Washington solution is effective: In 14 years, the foundation has helped preserve 1,820 fragile, old nitrate films that had deteriorated in archives in all 50 states or had been misplaced in foreign repositories. The titles range from the lost John Ford silent film “Upstream” (1927) to all manner of fictional and factual celluloid curiosities bearing witness to what America was like once upon a time: “Bristol, Tennessee, Newsboy Soapbox Derby” (circa 1955), “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” (1894), “How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat” (1917), “Hemingway Home Movies” (circa 1955), “Children Who Labor” (1912) and “Growing Baby Beef in Montana” (1933-34).

And yet, what’s preserved is a fraction of what once existed. Only about 20 percent of American features from the silent era survive; about half of American features before 1950 remain.

Gone is a hunk of the national self-portrait. Fires and indifference took their toll. Only in the late-20th century did it dawn on society and the studios that it was worth trying to preserve the truths contained on the unstable nitrate film stock.

“Nothing can replace what it looked like looking at blacksmiths in 1893 or looking at the suffragettes in 1913” Schwartz says, logging on to the foundation’s Web site and calling up “Blacksmithing Scene,” filmed in Thomas Edison’s studio, and then viewing “On to Washington,” scenes of a suffragette march down Pennsylvania Avenue NW. There’s also the smuggled home-movie footage of an internment camp for Japanese Americans.

“Seeing it, for me, is the strongest proof of what happened at the time.”

Finding a lost Hitchcock

A direct line can be drawn from the dry sub-paragraphs of the National Film Preservation Reauthorization Act of 1996, ghost-written by Schwartz with input from fellow preservationists, to the recent recovery of “The White Shadow.” The act established the foundation, which funneled a $22,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to finance silent film sleuth Leslie Lewis’s investigation at the New Zealand Film Archive.

Only the first three reels of “The White Shadow,” or about half the film, were in the archive, unlabeled. Lewis matched the striking images with contemporary reviews. Hitchcock was the film’s writer, assistant director, art director and editor. It is the earliest surviving feature credited to him. The melodrama stars Betty Compson playing twin sisters — one good, the other without a soul. Although it was a British feature, it was distributed by Hollywood’s Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises.

In the old days, foreign exhibitors were expected to destroy prints when a run of shows was over or mail them back to Hollywood. In some cases, those prints found their way into the hands of foreign collectors. Now, foreign archives are an invaluable source of American film patrimony.

“I won’t be surprised if at some point somewhere the other three reels show up,” says Schwartz, 54.

Early love of film

When Schwartz was a boy, his father would take him to the movies in New York City. The youngster never missed a new Mel Brooks or Woody Allen film.

After writing his undergraduate thesis in political science at Johns Hopkins on “Rock and Politics,” he spent 10 years working for the Democratic House leadership on the Hill, eventually studying law at night. In 1988, he got a job as a lawyer in the Copyright Office, on the fourth floor of the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. In those days, the film archivists were on the third floor.

“I went down there and started asking questions and quickly befriended all the folks there, and they would say things like, ‘Oh, we’re running a test print of Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” ’ — which is a fabulous movie — ‘You want to watch it?’ And I’d play hooky for two hours and sit and watch. . . . I realized it was all spread out in front of me right there in this building. This is what I want to do, but with a law degree.”

Librarian of Congress James Billington, an enthusiastic film preservationist, gave the foundation key institutional Washington heft and appointed the board. But for the first three years, the foundation had to operate without a federal budget, as stipulated by Congress, to force private buy-in.

At one of the first board meetings, Schwartz informed Martin Scorsese — another fierce preservationist whose own film foundation helps support the national foundation — that there was no money to buy pens or paper. Scorsese quickly wrote a check, as did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Roger Mayer, then president of Turner Entertainment, helped raise more money in Hollywood to get things rolling, and he remains chairman of the foundation. The first year, there wasbarely enough money to hire the executive director — consultant Annette Melville, who had drafted the national preservation plan. She operated the foundation out of her house in San Francisco. Actor Laurence Fishburne said he’d be glad to donate his narration of the first boxed set of preserved films, as have all the actors and scholars on the several critically acclaimed sets that have followed.

The foundation still operates on a relative shoestring, with five paid staff in San Francisco, though there’s now an office. Schwartz is far from the main player anymore, though he still donates a few hundred hours of pro bono legal work each year.

The Washington lawyer knows he is most effective behind the scenes.

“The ‘heroes’ (over-used, I know) of the story of preservation are the archivists,” he writes in an e-mail. “All the [foundation] does is raise money and help coordinate their efforts.”

Schwartz is a partner at the law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, where his intellectual property and copyright clients include the estate of Philip K. Dick (“The Adjustment Bureau,” “Minority Report”). He represented Universal Music Group in the donation to the library this year of more than 200,000 historic master recordings from 1928 to 1948, the largest single donation of recordings ever made to the library.

He keeps a piece of a test print of “Citizen Kane” on his desk. He requires his advanced copyright law students at Georgetown University Law Center to watch “The Fortune Cookie” (1966), a comically cynical take on lawyers, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, directed by one of his favorite directors, Billy Wilder.

He loves the law, but he jokes that if he ever wins the lottery, “then I’ll just go work, quietly, in an archive and watch old movies.”