The films came to light early in 2009, when Brian Meacham, a preservationist for the Los Angeles archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, dropped in on colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington during a vacation.
“The conversation inevitably turned to what films we held in our collection,” recalled Steve Russell, the New Zealand archive’s manager of corporate services. “Brian was not surprisingly excited to learn the Film Archive held a number of non-New Zealand titles, primarily early nitrate films, including a substantial number of American films. We offered to compile a list of the U.S. material, and it was a short step to here.” Many foreign films remained in New Zealand after their commercial lives were over because the studios didn’t think the return shipping was worth the expense. “It’s one of the rare cases where the tyranny of distance has worked in our and the films’ favor,” Mr. Russell said.
Because of the importance of the John Ford film, “Upstream” — a backstage drama from 1927, a year that was a turning point in the development of one of America’s greatest filmmakers — it is being copied to modern safety film stock in a New Zealand laboratory, rather than risk loss or further damage in transit.
Although Ford was already famous as a director of epic westerns like “The Iron Horse”(1925) and “Three Bad Men” (1926), “Upstream” appears to be his first film reflecting the influence of the German director F. W. Murnau, who had arrived at Ford’s studio, Fox, in 1926 to begin work on his American masterpiece, “Sunrise.” From Murnau, Ford learned the use of forced perspectives and chiaroscuro lighting, techniques Ford would use to complement his own more direct, naturalistic style.
Richard Abel, a professor of film studies at the University of Michigan and an authority on early cinema, was one of the experts called in by the National Film Preservation Board to evaluate the inventory and establish priorities for films to be returned. “ ‘Upstream’ was an obvious choice,” Mr. Abel said, “and I suggested strongly that they do ‘Dolly of the Dailies’ with Mary Fuller, because there’s very little that survives of her films. But we were also looking to fill in gaps, which is why many of the early westerns were chosen.”
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.
- "The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies," Episode 5, "The Chinese Fan" (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1914). In this episode of the famous serial (previously entirely lost in the United States), ace woman reporter Dolly Desmond, played by Mary Fuller, rescues the editor's daughter from kidnappers and gets the scoop. In the early 1910s, on-going serial narratives starring intrepid heroines lured female moviegoers back to the theater week after week.
- "The Better Man" (Vitagraph Company of America, 1912), a Western in which a Mexican American outlaw proves himself the better man. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon.
- "The Big Show" (Miller Brothers Productions, 1926), the only surviving fiction film made by the famous Oklahoma-based Wild West Show managed by the Miller Brothers. The film showcases performances by many of the troupe's performers as well as its owner, Col. Joseph Miller.
- "Billy and his Pal" (George Méliès / American Wild West Film Company, 1911), a Western filmed in San Antonio, Texas, and the earliest surviving film featuring Francis Ford. The actor-director introduced the movie business to his younger brother, John, who soon blossomed as director. Released in New Zealand as Bobby and his Pal.
- "Birth of a Hat" (Stetson Company, 1920), an industrial short illustrating how Stetson makes its hats.
- "The Diver" (Kalem Company, 1916), a documentary showing how to set underwater explosives.
- "Fordson Tractors" (Ford Motor Co., 1918), an industrial film promoting the all-purpose tractor introduced by Henry Ford & Son in 1917.
- "The Girl Stage Driver" (Éclair-Universal, 1914), an early Western filmed in Tucson, Arizona. American-made Westerns were in demand by movie audiences around the globe and helped establish the United States as the major film-exporting nation by the late 1910s.
- "Idle Wives" (Universal Moving Pictures, 1916), the first reel of a Lois Weber feature in which a film inspires three sets of moviegoers to remake their lives. More of the film exists at the Library of Congress.
- International Newsreel (ca.1926), newsreel including five stories from the United States and abroad. By the late 1910s, newsreels became a regular part of the movie program. Because the footage was usually cut up and reused, very few newsreels from the silent era survive in complete form.
- "Kick Me Again" (Universal Pictures / Bluebird Comedies, 1925), a short comedy with Hungarian silent star Charles Puffy. As America became the center of world film production in the 1920s, European actors, such as Puffy, came to Hollywood to build their careers.
- "Little Brother" (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913), one of two one-reelers from New York's Thanhouser Company repatriated through the project.
- "Lyman Howe's Ride on a Runaway Train" (Lyman H. Howe Films, 1921), a thrill-packed short entertainment that was accompanied by sound discs which survive at the Library of Congress.
- "Mary of the Movies" (Columbia Pictures, 1923), Hollywood comedy about a young woman seeking stardom in the movies. This first surviving film from Columbia Pictures exists in an incomplete copy.
- "Maytime" (B.P. Schulberg Productions, 1923), a feature with Clara Bow in an early role. Nitrate deterioration has reached the point where "blooms" are starting to eat away at the emulsion.
- "Midnight Madness" (DeMille Pictures, 1928), comedy starring Clive Brook as a millionaire who decides to teach his golddigging fiancée a lesson.
- "Run 'Em Ragged" (Rolin Films, 1920), a short featuring slapstick comedian Snub Pollard.
- "The Sergeant" (Selig Polyscope, 1910), a Western filmed in Yosemite Valley when the area was managed by the U.S. Army. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon.
- Trailer for "Strong Boy" (Fox Film Corporation, 1929), a "lost" feature directed by John Ford and starring Victor McLaglen as a courageous baggage handler who thwarts a holdup. No other moving images from this film survive.
- "Upstream" (Fox Film Corporation, 1927), a feature directed by four-time Academy Award winner John Ford. Only 15% of the silent-era films by the celebrated director are known to survive. This tale of backstage romance stars Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe.
- "Why Husbands Flirt" (Christie Comedies, 1918), one of the nine short comedies that will be preserved through this project.
- "The Woman Hater" (Power Picture Plays, 1910), a one-reel comedy starring serial queen Pearl White.
- "Won in a Closet" (Keystone Film Company, 1914), the first surviving movie directed by and starring Mabel Normand. Released in New Zealand as Won in a Cupboard.