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A Happy Homecoming For Long-Lost Silent Films

After being lost for more than 80 years, it looks like dozens of American silent movies will finally be coming home -- from New Zealand.

That country's government and film archive got together with the U.S. National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco on Monday to announce the films' return.

The 75 movies are a real rarity -- in part because early film was volatile and degraded quickly.


"Only about 20 percent of the films produced in America during the silent era -- that is the era of motion pictures before 1929 -- survive today in the United States in complete form," says Annette Melville, director of the nonprofit Film Preservation Foundation.

The End Of The Line

Some of these movies might just be sitting in rusting film cans in the dusty attic of a long-dead movie projectionist in, say, New Zealand.

Frank Stark, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Archive, says that's not such a far-fetched idea.

"When you look at a map, especially a flat map, we were at the end of a distribution network. By the time the nitrate films had been shipped probably to Asia, Australia, then on to New Zealand, or whatever the sequence was for a particular film, it was considered largely to have finished its commercial life," Stark says. "The people in the States didn't want to spend the money to ship it all the way back -- they're quite heavy, these films, because multiple reels are shipped in metal cans -- and I believe they probably in the main issued instructions they should be destroyed or thrown away."


Luckily, many of them weren't. Projectionists held on to them, and collectors and all kinds of pack rats treasured the old film reels. Over the years many of the prints wound up in the vaults of the New Zealand national archive, where the highly flammable nitrate film stock could be stored safely.

It was in those vaults that Stark and others found 150 American titles -- about 75 of which were in good enough shape to be returned.

A John Ford Jewel

Melville of the National Film Preservation Foundation says one of the most remarkable finds is a lost feature by four-time Oscar-winning director John Ford.

"The feature is called Upstream and it dates from 1927, a year from which no other Ford films survive," Melville says. "Only about 15 percent of John Ford's films from the silent era survive today."

Other rediscovered movies include the first film ever directed by 1910s comic sensation Mabel Normand and the formerly lost Maytime, starring Clara Bow. The vaults also held more instructional films on things like how to make a Stetson hat or a Fordson tractor.

But for film historian Shelley Stamp of the University of California, Santa Cruz, those all pale in comparison with the discovery of the missing first reel from director Lois Weber's Idle Wives.

"She made hundreds of films and over 40 feature films. In the 1910s, her name was routinely mentioned alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille -- names we still remember now -- as one of the great minds of filmmaking," Weber says. "But her reputation didn't survive -- she wasn't as good as DeMille and Griffith were at sort of promoting herself and insuring her historical legacy.

"What interests me about her career is that she believed in the power of cinema to function as what she called kind of like an editorial page of a newspaper. In other words to bring to life some of the key issues of the day in a way that could be digested and thought about by average citizens. She worked at Universal in the teens -- she was their top director. She made films on birth control, poverty, drug abuse, capital punishment and really had a vision of a kind of socially engaged cinema."

They're All Important

But Weber's socially conscious cinema isn't the only thing worth remembering from the silent film era. Frank Stark of the New Zealand Film Archive argues that all of the newly rediscovered films are important -- that's why the archive kept them in the first place.

"These films, until the research was done, were undifferentiated," he says, "not necessarily celebrated or by famous makers or involving famous performers. We didn't know that and we made our commitment to keep them anyway, against the day when we could find out whether or not that was the case."

Discoveries like this one are what make the archiving all worthwhile.

"What's really, really satisfying is to have that impulse reinforced by these kinds of discoveries," he says, "to feel that we're doing the right thing -- and that there is more treasure to be found."

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