September 24, 2013
In 2009 The New Zealand Project was initiated, a collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive, the National Film Preservation Foundation and private collectors to preserve and distribute American films housed in the NZFA’s vaults. They had stacks of American nitrate prints that had gone untouched for years, since the NZFA had focused their efforts on preserving their local film history. In 2010 nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate their holdings and assess which titles were most in need of help. What they discovered was astonishing, a cache of presumably “lost” films, including John Ford’s Upstream and the first three reels of The White Shadow, for which Alfred Hitchcock was the assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director. In total 176 films were shipped to the U.S. for preservation. Many of these rescued titles are streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation website, and today the NFPF released a DVD with some highlights of this trove. “Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” includes the Ford and Hitchcock features, as well as a selection of shorts and newsreels that haven’t been seen since their original release over 90 years ago. TCM will air a selection of these titles on November 17th and 24th.
John Ford’s theatrical rooming house comedy Upstream (1927) is the centerpiece, an ingratiating charmer about the everyday performances of down at heel actors. As the film’s epigraph says, “If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” I already wrote about Upstream and The White Shadow (1924) in this space before, though, so today I’ll be focusing on the shorts and newsreels that fill out the package, and they contain multifarious charms of their own.
Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921) is a literal thrill ride, as the camera puts the viewer at the head of a train seemingly careening into oblivion. Paired with the film’s soundtrack disc of clanging clamor, which was fortuitously held by the Library of Congress, it still retains its adrenaline jolting power. When an inter-title instructs you to, “Hold on to your seats! The train is running away”, it is impossible to disobey.
Birth of a Hat (1920) is a promotional short which tracks the production of Stetson’s fine felt hats from scrambling hares to topping the hair on your head. The company’s honesty about its commodity chain is a far cry from today’s manufacturers, whose processes are only revealed today through investigative reporting or muckraking documentarians. No muck was raked in The Love Charm (1928) a one-reel exoticized Polynesian romance shot as an excuse to test two-strip Technicolor.
One of the recurring themes in the set is the increasing freedom of women. From the girl riding in an ostrich-drawn carriage in a tabloid Selznick Newsreel to serial heroine Dolly of the Dailies (1914) to writer-director-star Mabel Normand, women were flamboyantly asserting their strength. In addition to the ostrich ride, the newsreels include a “Co-operative Weekly Review” (1918) that features high-school girls learning war-time trades of carpentry and steel smelting, as well as a call for 25,000 Red Cross nurses. The set includes Episode #5 of the Edison Dolly series, entitled, ” The Chinese Fan”. The early silent period featured an explosion of plucky young female leads, from The Perils of Pauline to The Hazards of Helen. These cliffhanging crime-solvers are far more progressive figures than any of todays leading ladies (Milla Jovovich excepted). As embodied by Mary Fuller, Dolly is an ambitious young NYC reporter who gets caught up in dangerous scrapes. In this episode she infiltrates a Chinese gang (grim stereotype opium addicts), and rescues the kidnapped daughter of a local banker. Clearly shot on the fly, the short also acts as an inadvertent documentary of its making. In one revealing shot, a horse and carriage fire truck races out of a garage, but two men nearby are staring at the camera. As the horses race off, both tip their caps toward the lens, a friendly gesture that still warms the heart 100 years on.
Won in a Cupboard (1914) is the second film directed by Mabel Normand, and the earliest to survive. Only 21 at the time of its production, she had already become a Keystone comedy staple, the impish ingenue having starred in 100-something shorts for Mack Sennett. This manic 13 minute short is made even more nonsensical by some missing footage at the head. But it’s a farce of miscommunication. Mabel has found her “ideal” man, a goofball hick (Charles Avery), while she fends off some of the smoother operators in town. At the same time Mabel’s father, the constable, is in love with the hick’s mother. The mother and the constable get stuck in a closet, and fear the gossip that will occur if they are discovered. These two strands smash together in a wood splintering finale that leaves the entire town chopping up their closeted secret. It’s a burst of energy as pure as the huckster Runaway Train ride.