The lost Americans

The Sergeant (Selig Polyscope, 1910), from http://www.filmpreservation.org

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.

14 responses

  1. Especially exciting that “The Seargeant” (Selig Polyscope, 1910) has been found. This will make the 9th Francis Boggs film to surface (out of about 200 films he made), and one of the few from the middle of his career (which lasted a mere four years–1907-1911). Based on what has survived, Boggs may have had the best visual sense of any early nickelodeon era U.S. filmmaker.

  2. This is wonderful news. It’s especially gratifying as the films are being digitized and being made freely available online, which is a model for any such project, as well as (in some cases) being restored as exhibition prints and (one surmises) eventual DVD’s.

    To my mind, preserving such treasures should be a top priority for any national cinema, and well worth public funds. The folks at the AMPAS library are in an excellent position to help, as they are very well-funded. In an ideal world, some of the gazillionaires who donate to large museums of fine arts would do the same for archives of early film! But it is also heartening to know that the blogosphere has done its bit.

    I would add, though, that preserving and restoring are two different things. These films can be preserved fairly readily simply by being stored in a low-temp facility; this alone would stabilize the nitrate film stock. Restoring is by far the more expensive aspect. I actually think that the more such treasures are made freely available, the more public interest and support would be generated, and the stronger the rationale for the initial expense.

  3. Thanks very much for citing the blogathon, for the compliment about my blog and for the link. And yes, it’s definitely a great week to be a silent-film lover!

  4. I’m excited to read the list of films and am really excited to see The Sergeant. The early Clara Bow in Maytime will also be great. The whole list is thrilling and what a great week to be a film buff.

  5. Isn’t Billy and his Pal more likely to have involved Gaston Méliès, rather than his brother Georges?

  6. Re Dr Russell A. Potter – agreed that preservation and restoration are different things, but even sticking films in cold storage costs money, and only defers the point when you hope that restoration will take place. I agree that greater (but carefully managed) profile for restorations must lead to increased support.

    Re The Siren – happy to have obliged. I very much admire all that you do.

    Re Roland-François Lack – stricly speaking the American branch of the Méliès company was called the Méliès Manufacturing Company, though in many sources it’s just referred to as Georges Méliès. But it was run by Georges’ brother Gaston, as you correctly point out.

  7. Actually the American branch of Melies was referred to as G. Melies, not Grorges Melies. The G. stood for Gaston, but it is pretty clear that the goal was to make audiences think of Georges. The American operation was established first so Gaston could protect the Melies films from bootlegging; but later, when Melies Star Film became a member of the Motion Picture Patents Company, the American office went into production to fulfill contractual agreements. George Melies could not delever a reel a week with his elaboirate and relatively expensive productions.

  8. And of course Gaston directed these westerns and also made films in the Pacific/ SE Asia. He didn’t have the directorial talent of his brother, however, but then who could ever match Georges in that respect?
    This restoration project is great news. Thanks Luke for your pithy summaries of the films.

  9. Not my summaries – they are those supplied by the National Film Preservation Foundation – to whom all the blame over the Melies confusion should be directed. And all praise for any pithiness.

  10. Just a note – we’ve corrected our press to reflect that it was not Georges Melies who directed BOBBY AND HIS PAL – thanks for the tip and interesting information.

    To clarify, we are preserving all of the films coming back to the US (creating 35mm negs and prints), in addition to committing to storing the original nitrate in optimum conditions.

    Glad everyone has been so excited about the NZ films – and trust me, there’s lots more great things on the way!

  11. Sorry – I should have made clear in my last post that I’ve been the archivist working at the New Zealand Film Archive on behalf of the NFPF, examining the US films in their collection for possible inclusion in the project.

  12. Thanks for joining in the conversation, and congratulations and our grateful thanks for all the work that you are doing. I look forward to hearing what those great things on the way might be.

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