Tuesday 8 June 2010

Golden Silents

John Ford, circa 1920

Lost John Ford movie unearthed in New Zealand

Collection of 75 early American films, including several that had been considered lost to history, have been discovered in New Zealand

Ed Pilkington
Monday 7 June 2010 23.58

An extraordinary collection of 75 early American films, including several that had been considered lost to history, have been discovered in New Zealand and are being returned to the US.

The cache includes the only copy believed to exist of a late silent movie by one of the giants of American film-making, John Ford, as well as several works produced between 1910 and 1920 starring important female actors such as Clara Bow and Mabel Normand.

The collection had been stored at the New Zealand Film Archive but their significance was not fully recognised until last year when they were dug out by a Los Angeles-based film preservationist. A deal has since been struck with the National Film Preservation Foundation based in San Francisco to preserve the reels and return them to the US.

The batch is being seen as a time capsule of American film from the 1910s and 1920s. Only about a fifth of all US films produced between 1900 and 1940 have survived, the rest having been lost through decay or neglect.

The collection comes from a period when the American film industry was just taking off and, propelled by the success of westerns, had begun to triumph around the world. About nine out of every 10 films shown in cinemas globally in the 1910s were made in the US.

"This is a wonderful group of movies," said Annette Melville, the NFPF's director. "About 70% of them are complete, which is extraordinary in itself, and many have their original colour tints."

The crown jewel of the collection is Upstream, a 1927 film by John Ford, the director who later made such Oscar-winning classics as The Grapes of Wrath and The Quiet Man. Ford made more than 60 silent films between 1917 and 1928 but only about 10 are known to exist in their complete form.

The copy of Upstream found in New Zealand has a little damage from decay to its nitrates at the start of the film, obscuring the credits, which might explain why it has taken so long to come to light. The collection also includes a trailer for another Ford film, Strong Boy, which has otherwise been lost.

It is thought that New Zealand had such a rich trove of early films largely because of the distribution system at the time. Copies would be sent out across America and beyond, and after their run had finished they would either be sent back to the distributors or simply be destroyed. New Zealand was so distant that cinemas hung on to the copies and in some cases stored them, from where some made their way into the national film archive.

Melville said that film historians would be fascinated by the relative prevalence of female actors among the cast lineups, particularly in those films made in the 1910s when women enjoyed almost equal billing to their male colleagues.

They include the silent comedian Mabel Normand of Keystone Studios, Clara Bow, and Mary Fuller, who features in a 1914 serial in which she plays an ace newspaper reporter who always gets the scoop.

"Fuller's films were tremendously popular, as women had just started to enter the workplace and would go to the movies on their way home from work," said Melville. "They wanted to see strong, adventurous women on the screen."

Other films are important for documenting America in the early 20th century. The first film to be preserved from the collection, The Sergeant from 1910, was shot on location in Yosemite before the Californian wilderness had been turned into a national park, and features US army cavalry troops, who at that time were keeping order in the park.


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