Saturday, December 07, 2013

Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive

Wednesday morning, the Library of Congress released a report by David Pierce, representing five years of research and writing, on the state of American studio silent-film preservation. Abridged version: It ain’t good.

The Siren, whose love for melodrama does occasionally spill over into real life, wrote a 500-word jeremiad on this topic, complete with quotes from Louise Brooks, Kevin Brownlow, William K. Everson, Arcadia by Tom Stoppard and (no kidding) King Lear, plus a pungent aside about an actress who recently thought it was cute to boast about how she’s not going to watch a “black-and-white, freaking boring fucking silent movie.”

But the Siren realized that she was repeating herself, and like the outlets that reported on this study, the Siren was partially burying the lead. We already knew that a lot has been lost, and Pierce has done a heroic job of mapping precise figures.

But Pierce's report concludes with a plan for the future: an all-out trawl through the world’s archives for what’s left. (Please do read the entire thing here.)

Isn’t that goal better, and more productive, than drawing the shades, putting an ice pack on your forehead, and wondering if the afterlife will have a screening of Four Devils and The Queen of Sheba?

To that end, and because it’s early December still, the Siren requests with all the sweetness at her disposal that you consider putting Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive on your holiday-shopping list. Better yet, get a free copy by making a tax-deductible donation of $200 more to the NFPF.

What are Mr. Pierce and his colleagues hoping to find when they encourage archives and collectors to examine their film holdings? THIS kind of stuff.

Back in 2010 we heard about the cache of silent films discovered in New Zealand. Our film-preservation blogathon raised money to restore The Better Man and The Sergeant. The third blogathon we did raised money both to stream online and record the music for The White Shadow, the British silent that had Alfred Hitchcock as its assistant director and general meddler-in-chief. Three reels of this previously long-lost film were in the New Zealand stash that has been repatriated.

There were, in the final analysis, 176 films recovered through the National Film Preservation Foundation’s collaboration with the New Zealand Film Archive. Of those, 70% had been previously thought lost forever. The NFPF's Treasures series has focused on putting previously not-on-home-video films before the public.

This approximately three-hour DVD ups the ante; it offers films that until four years ago were thought to be gone for good. It’s a lovely thing, with a long and detailed booklet that includes essays on the historical context and background of each film, as well suggestions for further viewing. They are also presented with new music by Michael Mortilla and Donald Sosa. Let’s take a look at what’s there.

The White Shadow (1924; director Graham Cutts; Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock) This turns out to be, at least in the three reels we have, a melodrama involving the good twin/bad twin dichotomy that movies have always gotten so much mileage out of. Nancy Brent (Betty Compson) returns from abroad to her family home, after winning the heart of Robin (Clive Brook) who’s also on the ship. Nancy’s sweet twin Georgina (also Compson) is waiting at the family manse, along with their alcoholic martinet of a father. Nancy runs away out of what’s billed in the intertitles as boredom and poor impulse control, although dear old Dad is no one the Siren would stick around with, either. Georgina pursues her sister. In Paris, Georgina encounters Robin and pretends to be Nancy, thus instantly becoming more interesting, and she falls in love with Robin. The film ends as Nancy appears in a Paris club (called The Cat Who Laughs) where Georgina and Robin are having a drink. The surviving notes indicate that the plot, which was none too lucid already, veers into what Marilyn of Ferdy on Films calls “Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul.” The Siren though Nancy already had plenty of soul, and surely Hitchcock must have favored the bad twin too, whatever the plot conventions he was observing. Best scene: the club, definitely, from the close-up of that cat statue to the wide-spaced tables, all of them full of people sipping questionable drinks and eyeing unsuitable partners. It’s a wonderful peek at Graham Cutts, an important figure in the early British film world, and of course, it’s a vital bit of Hitchcock juvenilia, allowing us to see how he was learning on the job.

Upstream (1927, director John Ford)
This was, even more than The White Shadow, the discovery that had filmdom buzzing--a lost film from John Ford, with only a bit of footage missing. It has no real stars and is not part of Ford’s pantheon, but it’s a lovely film all the same, a gentle study of the community found in a theatrical boarding house. The group’s ties to one another transcend all sorts of artificial barriers; for example, the vaudeville duo of Callahan and Callahan is very obviously made up of one Irishman and one Jew. In the end, the good people of the boarding house even overcome their greatest barrier: The actor’s natural antipathy toward other actors.

Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921)
Can the Siren confess that this is her personal favorite? Howe would tour with this and screen it like an amusement-park ride. The Siren isn’t comparing this short to John Ford, but goodness it’s fun, six minutes of a train ride up and down mountains and over tall impressive bridges. The beginning is leisurely, then a card announces that the train is “RUNNING AWAY” and everything speeds up to a pitch so intense you need Bernard Herrmann to score it. One of the first title cards accompanies a little boy and it reads, “My daddy is the engineer.” If Daddy is the engineer, then Daddy needs to be fired, assuming he’s not dead. This short subject’s discovery meant it could be shown with its soundtrack disc, which was already in the Library of Congress.

Happy-Go-Luckies (1923; animator Paul Terry, and according to the DVD notes, “with Frank M. Grosser, Hugh M. “Jerry” Shields, and probably Milt Gross, all uncredited”)
The animated tale of a dog and a cat, homeless and riding the rails, who enter a snooty dog show for the prize money. Describing animation is not the Siren’s forte, but this one’s adorable, and of the shorts, her fondness for it is second only to the certifiably crazy Runaway Train.

Birth of a Hat (ca. 1920)
An industrial film from the Stetson company, this opens with the history of hats and moves on to the initial stages of making a fur-felt hat at its enormous factory in Philadelphia. Hint: there are no pelts at all used in a fedora. Probably not a great choice for the animal-lovers, but readers who love fashion history, or fedoras, will be agog.

The Love Charm (1928, director Howard Mitchell)
All of us can name an actor we secretly know can’t act worth a hoot, but is so damn beautiful we not-so-secretly don’t care. This color one-reeler is exactly like that for the Siren. It’s utter tosh about the South Sea Islands (and the Siren has written before about being allergic to island idylls) complete with a remarkably silly tacked-on racist bit of exposition about how it’s OK for the Great White Captain to fall in love with the maiden because she’s half-white. But the Siren would watch again in a heartbeat, because the color is beyond breathtaking, and the state of the recovered footage must have been near-pristine. You never saw such lovely Technicolor tosh in your life.

Andy’s Stump Speech (1924, director Norman Taurog)
Yes, that Norman Taurog, who moved on to an Oscar and movies like Boys Town with Spencer Tracy in the 1930s, to Martin and Lewis in the 1950s, to Elvis Presley in the 1960s. The Siren had never seen Joe Murphy, the utterly chinless, rail-thin actor playing Andy Gump, but he’s a fine physical comedian, never more so than when he wins a dance contest due to bumblebees in his underwear. Other highlights include a really surreal shot of Andy, suddenly giant and striding across buildings.

Won in a Cupboard (1914, director Mabel Normand)
Another important find in the New Zealand stash: this, the earliest surviving film written and directed by Mabel Normand. It is typical Keystone fare, the story of a rural lass whose courtship with a local milksop is interrupted first by bullies, and then by the fact that their parents get stuck together in a closet. No, the Siren can’t explain that second bit much better than that. It’s very simply shot, mostly focused on keeping all parts of a gag in frame, but there is (out of nowhere, and it’s never repeated) a sudden shot of the lovers walking toward one another in split-screen, until they meet in the middle. Normand was 21 when this was made. If the world were kinder to women artists, it’s easy to imagine that she might have moved behind the camera when scandal limited her value in front of it.

The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies: Episode 5, "The Chinese Fan" (1914, director Walter Edwin)
Speaking of women and their careers, this is an episode of a serial about an intrepid girl reporter. Dolly is played by the highly appealing Mary Fuller, who looks like an everyday sort of woman until she starts busting up white-slavery rings. What’s particularly fun about this from a feminist point of view is that it’s Dolly who performs all the derring-do. The guys just follow her around and congratulate her for saving the day.

There are also a number of newsreels and previews, including one for Strong Boy, a Ford silent that remains lost. Of the newsreels, the Siren was bowled over by the two-minute fragment Virginia Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers, a hand-tinted glimpsed of a long-gone rural community.

Buying this DVD for yourself or the film-history connoisseur on your list naturally also supports the National Film Preservation Foundation. And supporting good causes is a good feeling, at this or any other time of year.

(The photo up top is a still from Ladies of the Mob (1928) with Clara Bow and Richard Arlen. None of the four movies made by Bow in 1928 are known to survive.)


Mahna Nymous said...

It sounds marvelous.

Been meaning to ask - does anyone know what happened to the American Pathe newsreels? There's one I'd like to track down, if at all possible. The email I had for them bounced.

Cliff Aliperti said...

I also loved Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train, so glad you did too - it felt like I was on a more dangerous version of the roller coaster from This Is Cinerama, right in my living room!

The Siren said...

Mahna, I honestly don't know; newsreels have a bad survival rate, and this report is basically limited to feature films. That Virginia newsreel fragment is Pathe and it will make you wish you could see the whole thing. I do know that the NFPF definitely considers newsreel preservation to be a part of its mission.

The Siren said...

Cliff, I thought it was going to be an amusing antique, no more. But the landscape it shows is gorgeous and some shots are still breathtaking, like where the camera was evidently mounted on the side of the train, so that you feel like your head is going to be knocked off by the bridge girders passing by.

Greg F. said...

When I got this DVD it made me so proud to be mentioned along with you and Marilyn in the thank you section of the credits. I thank you and Marilyn both for letting me participate in the fundraising for our small part in this.

C_Oliver said...

I don't know which is more depressing about that Reuters report:

"Nearly three-quarters of America's feature-length silent films have been lost"

or --

"0 [readers'] comments"

The Siren said...

C. Oliver: Well, yeah. And Ms Jennifer Lawrence is their spokesmodel. But there's a substantial number who care. In honor of the Sirenistas I shall make my donation today.

C_Oliver said...

I hope my copy of this DVD arrives before Christmas.

C_Oliver said...

Upstream plays just fine, both as a film and in terms of DVD quality, but it's a shame that Andy’s Stump Speech, the collection's funniest short, looks a lot worse.

Ruby said...

Wow! That is an extensive collection. It's is sad that we have somehow forgotten to keep a little bit of our film treasures from the past, only to discover some pieces of it in another country. Films are forms of national treasures so they must be kept in an archive for posterity’s sake as well.
Ruby Badcoe