Tuesday, June 8, 2010

News: 75 Lost American Silent Films Found in New Zealand

I don't usually do film news here, but this story seemed like it would be of particular interest to my public domain film loving people.

The National Film Preservation Foundation, along with the New Zealand Film Archive has just announced a partnership to preserve and restore 75 films thought to be forever lost. According to the Foundation's website, probably fewer than 20% of the films created during the first four decades of motion pictures still exist in the U.S., so this archive find represents a great historical treasure.

You see, what would happen is that distribution prints of films of the period would be created and then shipped to various locations for showing. Because silent films had no language barrier to overcome, they were immensely popular worldwide. Frank Stark, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Archive, quoted in an NPR article on the subject goes on to explain

When you look at a map, especially a flat map, we were at the end of a distribution network. By the time the nitrate films had been shipped probably to Asia, Australia, then on to New Zealand, or whatever the sequence was for a particular film, it was considered largely to have finished its commercial life. The people in the States didn't want to spend the money to ship it all the way back — they're quite heavy, these films, because multiple reels are shipped in metal cans — and I believe they probably in the main issued instructions they should be destroyed or thrown away.
Fortunately for us, however, those instructions were not obeyed, and instead the films were kept by projectionists and other collectors, and a number of them eventually made their was to the New Zealand film archives where they were safely stored away. This was important, because the nitrate stock on which these films were printed was highly flammable and degraded very quickly. Of the approximately 150 films found in the archives, 75 were considered in good enough shape to be returned to the U.S. and restored, and among those titles are some quite significant ones.

Highlights of the treasure trove listed on the Foundation's website include:

  • The Sergeant (Selig Polyscope, 1910), a Western filmed in Yosemite Valley when the area was managed by the U.S. Army. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the “For the Love of Film” Blogathon.
  • The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies—Episode 5, The Chinese Fan (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1914). In this episode of the famous serial (previously entirely lost in the United States), ace woman reporter Dolly Desmond, played by Mary Fuller, rescues the editor’s daughter from kidnappers and gets the scoop. In the early 1910s, on-going serial narratives starring intrepid heroines lured female moviegoers back to the theater week after week.
  • The Big Show (Miller Brothers Productions, 1926), the only surviving fiction film made by the famous Oklahoma-based Wild West Show managed by the Miller Brothers. The film showcases performances by many of the troupe’s performers as well as its owner, Col. Joseph Miller.
  • Billy and his Pal (George Méliès / American Wild West Film Company, 1911), a Western filmed in San Antonio, Texas, and the earliest surviving film featuring Francis Ford. The actor-director introduced the movie business to his younger brother, John, who soon blossomed as director. Released in New Zealand as Bobby and his Pal.
  • The Diver (Kalem Company, 1916), a documentary showing how to set underwater explosives.
  • Idle Wives (Universal Moving Pictures, 1916), the first reel of a Lois Weber feature in which a film inspires three sets of moviegoers to remake their lives. More of the film exists at the Library of Congress.
  • Mary of the Movies (Columbia Pictures, 1923), Hollywood comedy about a young woman seeking stardom in the movies. This first surviving film from Columbia Pictures exists in an incomplete copy.
  • Maytime (B.P. Schulberg Productions, 1923), a feature with Clara Bow in an early role. Nitrate deterioration has reached the point where “blooms” are starting to eat away at the emulsion.
  • Midnight Madness (DeMille Pictures, 1928), comedy starring Clive Brook as a millionaire who decides to teach his golddigging fiancée a lesson.
  • Upstream (Fox Film Corporaton, 1927), a feature directed by four-time Academy Award winner John Ford. Only 15% of the silent-era films by the celebrated director are known to survive. This tale of backstage romance stars Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe.
and many others. Again, according to the NFPF, The films date from as early as 1898. About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Taken together, the films are a time capsule of American film production from the 1910s and 1920s.

So, what will happen to these films now? The NFPF says that

The “lost” films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF Web site.

So, not only will these films be restored so that we can see them again (for the first time in over 80 years in most cases) and preserved for future generations, but they will also serve as fine examples of our motion picture heritage, and as Jamie Lean, Division Director of the New Zealand Film Archive says "We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded “lost” American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”

So do we, Jamie, so do we. Kudos to the NFPF and the NZFA for returning and restoring these great filmic gifts to the American people.

Oh, for a first look at and more information on The Sergeant, one of the first of these films to be fully restored, check out the preview available here.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


Liz said...

Just watched doc "Murnau, Borszage and Fox," on Netflix. Great documentary about great silents I'd never heard of. Watch it if you're a silent film fan or film history buff.

Thanks for this good news on early films found and soon (I hope) available for viewing. Many, many were lost in Hollywood vault fires.

Professor Damian said...

Hey, Liz, thanks for the heads up on this doc. I'll definitely have to check it out!

And be sure to check this page http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/lost-and-found
for more updates and samples of films preserved from this treasure trove. Right now there's a pretty diverse sample of six newly preserved films up for viewing, and they seem to be rotating them in and out pretty regularly.


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