The audiences' anticipation was palpable Wednesday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The SRO crowd was there for what Academy First Vice President Sid Ganis described as a "historic" event: the "re-premiere" of "Upstream," a previously "lost" 1927 John Ford film.
Because Ford is known for his westerns ("Stagecoach") and dramas ("The Grapes of Wrath"), "Upstream," which was preserved through a collaboration between the Academy Film Archive and 20th Century Fox, was a real surprise. It's a charming comedy set in a New York boarding house for actors. The action revolves around a love triangle between a ham actor (Earle Foxe, channeling his inner- John Barrymore), the youngest and least talented member of a famed acting family, a young, cute member of a knife-throwing act (Nancy Nash) and the knife-thrower (Grant Withers). She adores the actor; the knife-thrower adores her.
Foxe, who later appeared in Ford's "The Informer" and "My Darling Clementine," steals every scene with his over-the-top performance as the egotistical young actor who accidentally becomes a theatrical superstar.
How did it hold up? More than 80 years after its original premiere, the movie still provoked frequent laughs from the appreciative audience. At the finale, there was thunderous applause.
Michael Mortilla composed and conducted a delightful new score for the film with Mortilla on piano, Nicole Garcia on violin and percussion and Jay Mason on woodwinds.
"Upstream" was one of 75 American silent films on highly combustible nitrate stock that had been stored at the New Zealand Film Archive. In June, it was announced that the National Film Preservation Foundation and the Archive had formed a partnership to preserve and make these films available. The five silent film archives — the Academy Archive, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA Film & Television Archive — divvied the titles and are supervising the restoration work on these films.
The restoration and preservation work for "Upstream" was done at a lab in New Zealand. And though there is some nitrate disintegration, the majority of the tinted print looked pretty terrific.
Wednesday's program opened with another Ford film — a short, silent trailer from his 1929 talkie, "The Strong Man," starring one of the director's favorite actors, Victor McLaglen. This brief clip is the only known footage surviving from the film.
That was followed by another one of the films found in New Zealand, a 1912 western called "The Better Man," which was preserved by the George Eastman House. The one-reeler was one of the few films that were produced by the Santa Monica-based West Coast offices of Vitagraph and offered a unique look at the Santa Monica Mountains and the beach area 98 years ago.
After the screening there was an onstage discussion about the discovery of the films with Mike Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive: Schawn Belston, senior vice president, library and technical services at Fox Filmed Entertainment; Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation; and Frank Stark, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Archive.
Belston and Pogorzelski told the crowd that "Upstream" will have other special screenings around the country and hopefully will be on DVD. Eventually all the films from New Zealand will have screenings and will be available to view on the Internet.