The lost Americans

The Sergeant (Selig Polyscope, 1910), from

You know, it’s getting difficult to keep up with all the silent news just at the moment. Hot on the heels of the discovery of a lost Chaplin film, A Thief Catcher, the National Film Preservation Foundation has announced a partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to preserve and make available a collection of 75 American films (all silents) that no longer survive in American archives.

The films range in date from 1898 to 1929 and are a mixture of shorts and features, fiction and non-fiction. The plan is to preserve the films over the next three years and the make them accessible 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. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the National Film Preservation Fund Web site.

A full list of the films hasn’t been announced as yet, but these are the highlights:

  • 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 Better Man (Vitagraph Company of America, 1912), a Western in which a Mexican American outlaw proves himself the better man. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the “For the Love of Film” Blogathon.
  • 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.
  • Birth of a Hat (Stetson Company, 1920), an industrial short illustrating how Stetson makes its hats.
  • The Diver (Kalem Company, 1916), a documentary showing how to set underwater explosives.
  • Fordson Tractors (Ford Motor Co., 1918), an industrial film promoting the all-purpose tractor introduced by Henry Ford & Son in 1917.
  • The Girl Stage Driver (Éclair-Universal, 1914), an early Western filmed in Tucson, Arizona. American-made Westerns were in demand by movie audiences around the globe and helped establish the United States as the major film-exporting nation by the late 1910s.
  • 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.
  • International Newsreel (ca.1926), newsreel including five stories from the United States and abroad. By the late 1910s, newsreels became a regular part of the movie program. Because the footage was usually cut up and reused, very few newsreels from the silent era survive in complete form.
  • Kick Me Again (Universal Pictures / Bluebird Comedies, 1925), a short comedy with Hungarian silent star Charles Puffy. As America became the center of world film production in the 1920s, European actors, such as Puffy, came to Hollywood to build their careers.
  • Little Brother (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913), one of two one-reelers from New York’s Thanhouser Company repatriated through the project.
  • Lyman Howe’s Ride on a Runaway Train (Lyman H. Howe Films, 1921), a thrill-packed short entertainment that was accompanied by sound discs which survive 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.
  • Run ‘Em Ragged (Rolin Films, 1920), a short featuring slapstick comedian Snub Pollard.
  • 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.
  • Trailer for Strong Boy (Fox Film Corporation, 1929), a “lost” feature directed by John Ford and starring Victor McLaglen as a courageous baggage handler who thwarts a holdup. No other moving images from this film survive.
  • Upstream (Fox Film Corporation, 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.
  • Why Husbands Flirt (Christie Comedies, 1918), one of the nine short comedies that will be preserved through this project.
  • The Woman Hater (Power Picture Plays, 1910), a one-reel comedy starring serial queen Pearl White.
  • Won in a Closet (Keystone Film Company, 1914), the first surviving movie directed by and starring Mabel Normand. Released in New Zealand as Won in a Cupboard.

Among the numerous highlights there are John Ford’s Upstream, a significant addition to the small number of silent features directed by Ford (there is to be a retrospective on Ford’s silents at this month’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, though not with Upstream, fairly obviously) and the Clara Bow feature Maytime, though let’s not overlook such certain gems as the proto-sound Lyman Howe’s Ride on a Runaway Train, documentaries on how to make stetson hats and how to set underwater explosives, and particularly a rare example of a complete silent newsreel (i.e. with full titles and all the stories in place – so many newsreels only survive as individual stories).

There’s also the heartening news that the preservation of two of the films, The Better Man and The Sergeant, is to be funded by monies raised by the recent For the Love of Film film preservation blogathon, which ran 14-21 February 2010 – hats off to the blogosphere for that noble action (and read more about this aspect of the preservation at the highly commendable Self-Styled Siren blog). Preview clips of The Sergeant are available on the NFPF site.

This isn’t expected to be the last such international film preservation project (and it emulates an earlier Australian/American initiative). The Library of Congress estimates that roughly one-third of American silent-era features that survive in complete form exist only in archives in other countries. That’s an exciting prospect, but we must also think of the cost – preserving the New Zealand treasure trove is going to cost $500,000. Just consider the millions upon millions that will be required to preserve just the entirety of the American silent film heritage, and then add up everyone else’s heritage. Tough decisions lie ahead.

There’s more on the project and the films’ discovery from The New York Times.