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Silent film treasures to be preserved

The National Film Preservation Foundation and the New Zealand Film Archive plan a partnership to save a film collection, including a 'lost' John Ford picture, 'Upstream.'

June 07, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Mabel Normand in "Won in a Cupboard."
Mabel Normand in "Won in a Cupboard." (National Film Preservation…)

The National Film Preservation Foundation and the New Zealand Film Archive on Monday plan to announce the formation of a partnership to preserve and make available a collection of 75 silent films that have been unavailable for decades. All of these rare films, made in the U.S., are on highly volatile, hazardous nitrate stock.


FOR THE RECORD:
Film preservation: An article in Monday's Calendar section about plans to preserve and make available a collection of 75 silent films misspelled the last name of Brian Meacham, the short film preservationist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as Meachum on one reference. —

The crown jewel of the collection is "Upstream," a "lost" John Ford silent from 1927 about a romance between a Shakespearean actor and a girl from a knife-throwing act. Only 15% of the silent films made by Ford, who won four Oscars, including for "The Grapes of Wrath" and "How Green Was My Valley," survive. Also featured in the collection is a trailer for the long lost 1929 Ford film "Strong Boy," starring Victor McLaglen.

Other finds include "Maytime," a 1923 silent starring a young Clara Bow; the first surviving film directed by and starring Mabel Normand; an episode of the serial "The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies," starring Mary Fuller as a female reporter; plus comedies; westerns; industrial films; documentaries; and newsreels. About 70% of the films are complete; the earliest, a promotional film for the Southern Pacific Railroad, dates to 1898.

These films, which will cost more than $500,000 to preserve, are being divided among the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Very few films from the silent era still exist, says Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit charitable affiliate of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. "We know looking at the feature films only about 20% exist," she says. "We think fewer of the shorter films survive. Our major job is to give out grants to American archives to save their films."

The New Zealand partnership is part of a current trend of "film repatriation," in which movies are returned to the country of origin. Three years ago, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and the NFPF worked to bring back films considered lost in the U.S., using copies made for the Australian archive. The same is holding true with New Zealand.

These rare films were in the archives because they were on the last rung of the studio distribution list. "The prints were supposed to be destroyed at the end of the distribution runs," says Melville. "It was not worth the trouble or money to send back these beat-up prints. But some of these films were squirreled away and ended up in the international archives."

New Zealand archivist Steve Russell said in an e-mail interview that this repatriation began just last July when Brian Meacham, the short film preservationist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was on vacation in that country and visited the archive one day.

"The conversation inevitably turned to what films we hold in our collection. Brian's interest was definitely excited upon learning the film archive held a number of non-New Zealand titles, primarily early nitrate films, including a substantial number of American films."

Meacham's interest grew when he learned that the New Zealand archive "had a long-standing commitment to the repatriation of its foreign collection to their countries of origin," says Russell, "and would be more than happy to work with the NFPF and its American colleague archives."

After the New Zealand archive sent the National Film Preservation Foundation a list of tittles, the foundation sent Meachum and another archivist there to inventory and analyze the movies. A list of the films that were in the best shape was sent to the five archives.

"We tried to pull stuff that seemed germane to each other's collections," says the academy's Mike Pogorzelski. "It went very smoothly."

"Upstream" is being restored in New Zealand, and because it is considered so valuable, multiple copies will be made before it is sent off to Los Angeles. The academy plans to screen "Upstream" on Sept. 1 as part of its "Lost and Found" series.

"The most important thing to take away from this is that these films are still out there," says Pogorzelski. "Lost films can still be found."

For more information, go to http://www.filmpreservation.org and http://www.filmarchive.org.nz.

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