Lost and Found: An Inventory of Films from the New Zealand Film Archive

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ruth Roland (at the wheel) in "Walk-You Walk!", 1912/Courtesy National Film Preservation Foundation

The National Film Preservation Foundation website has published a list of rediscovered Silents and Talkies from the New Zealand Film Archive. http://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/new-zealand-project-films-highlights

In addition to features and shorts, the inventory includes newsreels, industrials and cartoons. The sheer variety of films–including documentary footage of China circa 1917, a 1914 interracial romance, a 1916 Lois Weber feature and Mabel Normand’s 1914 directorial debut–no doubt will shed new light on film’s first two decades.

I was impressed by the two I’ve seen: “The Better Man,” and “Upstream,” both of which were well-conceived and technically sophisticated. If they are indicative of the collection’s quality, we can expect to be amazed.

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A Treasure Trove of Silent Film Resurfaces in New Zealand

June 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

Lois Weber/Courtesy http://www.davidbordwell.net

Today’s news–that 75 films from the Silent Era are being returned from the national film archive of New Zealand to the United States, their country of origin–is a bright spot in a depressing time. Not only were these films presumed lost, along with 80% of the fragile nitrate films of the period, but none have been viewed publicly in 80 years. Among the highlights of the collection are John Ford’s “Upstream” (1927), which is said to have been influenced by F. W. Murnau’s techniques. (Murnau was the German director of “Sunrise,” [1927] which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929.) Also eagerly anticipated is “Won in a Cupboard,” (1914) the earliest surviving film directed by Mabel Normand, the great Mack Sennett comedy star.  In “Maytime” (1923), another huge star of the era, Clara Bow, plays an atypical costume role.

Among the less familiar names in the collection are Al Christie and Lois Weber, who in their day were famous both as directors and producers. Christie was one of the most prolific directors of the Silent Era, while Weber, who directed over 40 films, had her own studio and was the highest-paid woman director of her time. (For more on Weber, see my post “Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th Century Hollywood [March 8, 2010].)

Why New Zealand? Apparently it was the end of the distribution line, so films stayed there after their commercial run. The studios apparently didn’t want their prints back; at any rate, they wouldn’t pay the shipping costs. So projectionists and other film buffs kept the reels; eventually, through heirs, the films made their way to the New Zealand Film Archive.

It wasn’t until last year that an American film preservationist, Brian Meacham of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), visited colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive while on vacation and saw a list of American films in the collection. One thing led to another, and arrangements were made for the return of 75 titles.

Amazingly, given the fragility of nitrate stock, three-quarters of the films have good image quality, though all are in need of restoration. Twentieth Century Fox, whose predecessor made John Ford’s “Upstream,” is restoring that film. It will have its first showing in eight decades at the Academy this fall and is certain to be a sensation.

Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th-Century Hollywood

March 8, 2010 § 3 Comments

Kathryn Bigelow & Twin Oscars/Courtesy metro.co.uk

Last night I was gratified when the most deserving of this year’s nominated films, “The Hurt Locker” won for Best Picture and Best Director. But rather than excitement, I felt relief–and annoyance that the film industry remains such an inhospitable place for women. Does anyone really believe there aren’t more qualified women directors than the handful working today? The fact is that the average municipal fire department, if only because of affirmative action, is less sexist than Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow won big last night, but it remains to be seen whether her victory will mean anything for the rest of us.

It’s instructive to note that women directors have existed since the medium’s beginnings. The first woman to have directed a film is generally agreed to be Alice Guy-Blache, a contemporary of the Lumiere Brothers whose “La Fee Aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”–my apologies about the lack of accent marks) came out in 1896. In Hollywood, the first woman director with a substantial body of work was probably Lois Weber (1882-1939) who directed 40 films, beginning in 1908. By 1920, she had opened her own studio and headed a group of women directors. She also wrote, produced and acted in many of her films and was by far the highest paid woman director of her time.

Dorothy Arzner/Courtesy moah.org

Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897) landed her first job at Paramount in 1921 as a script girl, the traditional way for women who weren’t costumers or makeup artists to get on set. An offshoot of secretarial work, script supervision was a crucial but deadend job that never led to the director’s chair. Arzner’s way up was via editing–also a female-dominated job in early Hollywood. Her first film was the Rudolph Valentino hit “Blood and Sand,” which launched her as a successful editor at Paramount. Then in 1927, Arzner threatened to defect to Columbia unless allowed to direct.

Fortunately for Arzner, her first effort, “Fashions for Women,” was a success. She went on to direct 18 more features, becoming an independent director in the 1930s and the first woman member of the newly formed DGA in 1936. Although she stopped directing features in 1943, Arzner stayed busy: in addition to directing Army training films and commercials, she taught film at UCLA until her death in 1979.

Ida Lupino/Courtesy Wikipedia

Better known than Weber or Arzner was Ida Lupino, an actress (“High Sierra,” “The Hard Way”) who began directing features in 1949. Her films were notable for their exploration of sexuality, freedom and oppression–controversial territory for any director in the 1950s. “Outrage” (1950) was about a rape; “The Bigamist” and “The Hitch-Hiker” depicted the lives of male characters in complex and nuanced fashion.

Although Lupino’s directing career was relatively short, she stayed active as an actress, continuing to work in movies and television. But it was as a director that Lupino attained lasting fame and a posthumous following. Her films are still screened, in part because they have been championed by Martin Scorsese. He wrote of Lupino, ” Her work is resilient, with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.”

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