47 Orphan Films To Be Preserved with Federal Grants

The National Film Preservation Foundation has announced annual grants to 34 institutions to allow them to preserve 47 “orphan” films from their collections.

“Orphan film” is defined as a film in any form that has been abandoned by its owner or caretaker.

Since 1998 the NFPF has provided preservation resources to 315 organizations in all 50 American states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to help save 2,547 films.

Funding for the grants comes from allocations to the NFPF through the federal Library of Congress Sound Recording and Film Preservation Programs Reauthorization Act of 2016 and through contributions of private donors.

A curated selection of the preserved films is available on the NFPF website, and more than 250 additional titles have been made accessible by grant recipients.

This year’s selected films, held in institutions in 19 states, include two that were once thought lost.

Black Chariot is a 1971 feature about the black liberation struggle starring Bernie Casey and directed by Robert L. Goodwin, one of the few black screenwriters working in Hollywood at the time.

Goodwin produced, directed, and wrote the film with community financing. He raised funds and and marketed his film through local black-owned newspapers. In that way, Goodwin resembled pioneering black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and George and Noble Johnson of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in the 1910s. Jacqueline Stewart, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago and host of “Silent Sunday Nights” on Turner Classic Movies, told the NFPF: “It is particularly significant that this film has been located at the National Museum of African American History and Culture because of its mission to tell the American story through an African American lens.”

Also once lost was another selected film, Flowing Gold (1924), a silent melodrama feature set in the early days of the Texas oil boom. Its climax is an apocalyptic oil fire into which the heroine (played by Anna Q. Nilsson) dives to rescue the hero (Milton Sills). The penultimate of director Joseph de Grasse’s 86 films, Flowing Gold survived only in a print discovered in the Czech Republic’s National Film Archive. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will handle the film’s preservation and eventually screen it for the first time in nearly a century. (A second feature film was made from the novel in 1940.)

Washington University in St. Louis received a grant to preserve The Maid of McMillan, filmed in 1916 at the institution, and held there. It is considered the earliest extant student film.

George Eastman Museum will use its NFPF grant to preserve three rare, at-risk titles. His Last Race (1923), starring daredevil Australian rider Rex “Snowy” Baker and his wonderhorse Boomerang, was codirected by B. Reeves Eason, who devised the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925), the charge in Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and the “Burning of Atlanta” in Gone with the Wind (1939), but attracted much criticism for his cavalier attitude towards the safety of horses. Baker (1884-1953), in his heyday a household name in his country, was an outstanding practitioner of several sports, even taking a silver medal in boxing at the 1908 Olympic Games. After his film career he trained Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple, Rudolph Valentino, and others in horseriding and stunt work.

Eastman will also preserve the western Payroll Pirates (1920), which features the groundbreaking action star Helen Gibson — best known for The Hazards of Helen — in one of her few surviving films, as well as the two-reel comedy When Betty Bets (1917), the only extant film of Broadway actress and singer Marie Cahill, known for her signature song “Under the Bamboo Tree” and hailed by the trade press as “the cleverest comedienne on the American stage.”

Among four films by avant-garde woman filmmakers that will be preserved with 2020 NFPF grants, Anthology Film Archives will work on two shorts by Naomi Levine, a fixture of early 1960s experimental cinema and star of several Andy Warhol classics: the pastoral Yes (1963) and Jeremelu (1964), an experiment in editing featuring poet and filmmaker Gerard Malanga and underground film pioneer Jack Smith.

The Pacific Film Archive will preserve five films by Bay Area filmmaker Dorothy Wiley, who with Gunvor Nelson made films in the 1960s about their personal experiences while family, parenthood, partnership, and domestic life, blending the quirky and the quotidian. The five films include Cabbage, an experimental depiction of food preparation, and Letters, an abstract series of multi-dimensional letters she created and filmed (both 1972), and Zane Forbidden (1972), her cinematic portrait of her mischievous son Zane, with soundtrack by William T. Wiley and Jim Hockenhull.

The Chicago Film Archives will preserve four films by JoAnn Elam, an important figure in Chicago’s arts scene and co-founder of Chicago Filmmakers. The films are:

  • Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982), her dialectical examination of the politics of representation and the power imbalance between male filmmakers and female subjects.
  • Beauty and the Beast (ca. 1973), her experimental melding of shadow puppets and scenes of farm and home life.
  • Chocolate Cake (ca. 1973), a caustic vignette on domesticity and sexism.
  • 3 Goats and a Gruff (1960s), her revision of the children’s fable through the lens of youth culture and revolutionary politics.

The XFR Collective will preserve two rarely seen films by Naomi Uman: the single-shot “microcinema” film GRASS (1997) and Love of 3 Oranges (1993), a multi-media depiction of femininity in operetta form.

The grant-winners also include a handful of documentaries, including:

  • Dance and Human History (1974), an assemblage of ethnographic dance footage narrated and co-directed by Alan Lomax (Association for Cultural Equity);
  • Russia (1971), Theodore Holcomb’s portrait of the Soviet Union, narrated by journalist Harrison Salisbury;
  • Childcare: People’s Liberation (1970), a manifesto for cooperative childcare co-directed by Bonnie Friedman;
  • Hey Mama (1967), a cinema verité examination of working-class African American life in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice, California;
  • The City of Dreams (1983), a 70mm tribute to Chicago and its citizens; and
  • Tony Williams in Africa (1973), which depicts the fusion jazz drummer investigating the West African talking drum.

The City of Dreams (1983)

Further highlights of the 2020 grants are: sponsored films from the 1977 mayoral campaign of Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the first African American mayor of New Orleans; documentation of paranormal psychologist Jule Eisenbud’s research on bellhop-turned-psychic Ted Serios and his claimed ability to record thoughts on photographs; demonstration reels of the Rotoscope widescreen projection system invented by Rowe Carney and Tom Smith; instructional films on basketball featuring two-time Olympic gold winning coach Henry Iba; and footage of the poet Robert Frost’s annual lecture at Agnes Scott College, blues legends Son House and John Lee Hooker in concert, and John Ringling hosting President Coolidge and his wife at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Amateur filmmaking is represented by Green Paradise: The Story of a Camping Trip (1931), featuring the earliest known footage of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in western Montana, and by home movies from the first director of the National Gallery of Art, a steamboat agent in Alaska’s remote Mitkof island, and an American aviator working for the China National Aviation Corporation during the 1930s.

A full list of 2020 grant winners is online.

– from NFPF announcement, and reporting

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