NZ Film Archive Unearths Early-Film Treasures

Leland Benham, as the Little Brother, in "Little Brother" (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913), one of two one-reelers from New York’s Thanhouser Company repatriated through the project. Benham was a mainstay of Thanhouser productions, as were his sister Dorothy and their parents, Ethyle Cooke and Harry Benham, who met on a Thanhouser shoot. Courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The New York Times reported on June 7 that 75 films of historical or cultural importance to the United States have been discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive (Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua), and will be repatriated to the US and placed under the care of the National Film Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board. The Times article, by Dave Kehr, an NFPF board member, and an item on the NFPF website reported that the discovered prints included John Ford’s 1927 silent backstage drama, Upstream; Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow; nine comedies including Al Christie’s 1918 Why Husbands Flirt and Mary of the Movies, from 1923, which becomes the earliest Columbia feature known to survive; several early films by women, including the first surviving film directed by and starring Mabel Normand; comic shorts starring Charles Puffy, Snub Pollard, and Joe Murphy; several one-reel westerns, and much else.

A still from "Maytime" (B.P. Schulberg Productions, 1923), a feature with Clara Bow in an early role. Preservationists report that nitrate deterioration has reached the point where “blooms” are starting to eat away at the emulsion. Courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Kehr explained that the films were in the New Zealand archive because when studios shipped foreign films to New Zealand for commercial screening runs, they often didn’t think that the return shipping fees warranted their return. Kehr’s article included other good news. Not only will 20th Century Fox restore Upstream and repremiere it at the Academy in September, the rediscovered films also will be placed as streaming videos on the NFPF web site.

Already mounted on the site is an excerpt from the one-reel western-cum-travelog, The Sergeant, one of the earliest surviving features shot on location in Yosemite Valley. By turns scenic, hammy, and rather deleriously acted, the film survives through the copy found in the New Zealand Film Archive, alone. The original nitrate print had shrunken in the NZFA, but was complete. Its restoration has been made possible in part by funding contributed by the organizers of “For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon” held February 14-21, 2010 (see our article).

Still from "The Diver" (Kalem Company, 1916), a documentary showing how to set underwater explosives. Courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising preservation work on the film, and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies to keep them in good shape for the future. Preservationists have carefully copied the original to modern black-and-white safety negative film from the negative at 16 frames per second and added tints digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print. Among many noteworthy aspects of the rediscovery of the prints is that their existence came to light early last year when Brian Meacham, a preservationist for the Los Angeles archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, happened to visit New Zealand Film Archive colleagues in Wellington while on vacation. An argument for more vacations for archivists? Seems so.

In fact, this is not the first major repatriation of films from New Zealand to the US. In 1988, as film repatriator Susan Dalton well recalls, as she was working for the American Film Institute at the time,  film-conservation officials in New Zealand arranged to send a horde of American films – several hundred reels, five tons of material – to the Library of Congress, with coordination by the American Film Institute, where Dalton was working at the time. The AFI brokered a similar, even larger shipment from Australia, in 1994. Dalton recalls that the first New Zealand exchange opened the floodgates for AFI repatriations.

The collections were agreed at the time to provide a good sense of the earlier state and reception of popular American film in the Antipodes, the end of the distribution line (“don’t send ’em back”). The shipment from Australia, from its National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, included 1,600 early films, among them Harold Lloyd comedies, industrial movies, and newsreels, many rare and believed lost forever, dating from before 1900 to the 1950s.

In both the Australian and New Zealand cases, motivations included good will and also the difficulty of affording to care for non-native films. The Australian archives also returned caches of films to NFSA has also generously returned films to Canada, France, Great Britain, and other countries. The American collection was particularly rich. It included “lost” films such as An Indian Sunbeam (1912), with Broncho Billy Anderson, the world’s first cowboy film star; Among the Mourners, a 1914 Keystone comedy starring Charley Chase; and Bringin’ Home the Bacon (1924), one of the earliest features starring Jean Arthur. Also in the trove were Once Every Ten Minutes and Peculiar Patients’ Pranks (both 1915), apparently the only surviving copies of early works by comedian Harold Lloyd, unseen in the US for 80 years.

– Peter Monaghan

Jimmy Fallon has his say – yuk, yuk.

A report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline program, June 28, 2010, in text and video formats.

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