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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John Ford’s “Upstream”–A Gem of a Silent Film

September 3, 2010 § 3 Comments

Nancy Nash and Grant Withers in "Upstream"/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Wednesday night’s premiere of the newly rediscovered “Upstream” at the Academy surpassed my greatest expectations. While I went (cursing rush hour traffic all the way to Beverly Hills, where I found parking just in time) hoping for the best, I was unprepared for what I saw: not only a beautifully preserved silent film but a droll comedy,  expertly shot and directed, by a director who later would make his mark in dramas and westerns.

The story is set in an actors’ boarding house, where John “Juan Rodriguez” Rogers and Gertie Ryan  (pictured above) and their acting partner/rival love interest Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox)  live with (among others) an over-the-hill Shakespearean star, a “sister team” consisting of a mother and daughter, and a hilarious tap-dancing duo called the Callahan Brothers, who are most certainly not brothers.  Ford renders this group of struggling, mismatched entertainers with a light touch, neither trivializing nor sentimentalizing their hand-to-mouth existence.

When Brashingham gets a huge break–a contract to play Hamlet on the London stage–all the housemates rejoice at his good fortune. Since his luck is derived solely from his name–he’s the least talented member of a famous acting family–Brashingham even gets a crash course in “Hamlet,” courtesy of the Shakespearean actor, that results in his triumph. Months later, Brashingham–having abandoned his actor friends–returns to the boarding house to pose for publicity pictures, only to walk in on the wedding of Gertie and John.

Many silent films are tedious to contemporary audiences, not only because the stories are dated but because the lack of dialogue makes them seem overly long. Not “Upstream,” with its riveting and unpredictable plot, clever titles and terrific sight gags. I would have gladly watched it again immediately. With any luck, I’ll have another chance to see it, as will you: “Upstream” is going to be shown in various cities, after which it likely will be available on DVD.

“Upstream” Premieres at the Academy Wednesday, Sept. 1: John Ford’s Lost Silent Film, Restored

August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the 75 rediscovered films from the New Zealand Film Archive, “Upstream,” makes its first appearance in 80 years tomorrow night at the Academy. (For more on these films, see my post https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/a-treasure-trove-of-silent-film-resurfaces-in-new-zealand/)

A love triangle from 1927, the film shows the influence of F. W. Murnau, the great German director (“Sunrise”) who at the time was also directing at Fox. There will be live musical accompaniment as well as the trailer of Ford’s 1929 “Strong Boy,” the only surviving footage from that film.

Tickets are only $5 and still available at www.oscars.org


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.

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