Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Where are the new vintage film discoveries coming from? Film archives around the world share their inventories with one another, so their contents should all be well known, correct? The reality is not that simple, as was proven five years ago in Argentina with the rediscovery of a long version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Archives are often odd amalgams of public and privately held films, and a big part of their job is to prevent the wrong kind of access. Due to bureaucratic obstacles, even Argentine insiders found themselves unable to examine the 'mystery' cans of Metropolis.
But many Archives do cooperate internationally, with exciting results. Perhaps the best recent example of this cooperation is the discovery of a number of American silent films in New Zealand. A few years back NZ and Australian archivists instigated a program to preserve some of the holdings, and not long thereafter the National Film and Preservation Foundation (NFPF) became involved. With grants from a number of sources the work was completed in three years. Back on September 2 of 2010 I reported on one of the rediscoveries in the Savant Column:
"On Tuesday I attended a press screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of a newly-recovered John Ford silent film previously thought to be lost, 1927's Upstream. I watched as a select group of reporters interviewed and photographed restoration execs and specialists from the Academy and 20th Fox, owners of the film. It's part of the New Zealand Project instigated when a cursory look at the back inventory of the New Zealand Film Archive revealed 75 "lost" titles, ranging from serial episodes to cartoons to movies with stars like Mabel Normand. Some had intact reels that filled out partial prints held in America and England; others are complete rediscoveries."
The NFPF is now premiering a DVD containing the cream of the recovered pictures plus a number of fascinating short subjects and remnants. In addition to Upstream, the rediscoveries include about half of a 1924 film that Alfred Hitchcock worked on in multiple capacities (but did not direct). Thirteen years ago the NFPF began bringing out multi-disc sets of significant archive holdings called Treasures from American Film Archives. The five sets so far have been distinguished by their friendly menu interfaces and excellent art direction. The new disc Lost & Found American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive is a special detour to make the films preserved by the New Zealand Project viewable by all.
The volume opens with Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921, 6 minutes). Howe began by traveling with sound recordings in 1890, impressing people at fairs, etc. When he started showing movies he fell into this self-invented runaway train genre, stringing together POV shots from the front of trains going down twisty railways, often in fast-motion. Rather than remake the show, he'd simply add or subtract from it. This recovered 1921 version turned out to be an interesting reunion of picture and sound -- the accompanying sound disc had been preserved even though the film was lost. When the film was found, the two synchronized perfectly.
Happy-Go-Luckies (1923, 7 minutes). We're told that when Walt Disney began producing animated cartoons, his aim was to be as good as Paul Terry, the creator of Farmer Al Falfa cartoons (which I remember watching as filler on Los Angeles TV broadcasts in 1956). This lively animated show is a string of gags starting with a sequence on a train. Michael Mortilla's bouncy music is an apt accompaniment.
Strong Boy (1929, 1 minute) is a trailer for a lost John Ford film starring Victor McLaglen and Leatrice Joy. We're told that Ford made 64 silents but that only fourteen survive intact. It's a fragment, of course, just animated text linking a few snippets of film action.
The 'star' item of the set is John Ford's Upstream (1927, 60 minutes), a light drama about goings-on in a New York boarding house for actors. Various acts come and go and a romance is featured; Ford clearly enjoys working with the varied eccentric players. The main story is that the heroine loves not the deserving knife thrower, but a boorish, vain no-talent related to a famous acting family. When the guy gets a job because of his family connection, the other actors band together to coach him on Shakespeare. Upstream may not be a Ford western, but it's very recognizably 'Fordian', and as such a major addition to the director's filmography. Donald Sosin's thoughtful music accompaniment carries through when the actors on screen sing Auld Lang Syne -- and the lyrics stay in sync across a number of cuts.
Birth of a Hat (1920, 14 minutes) is an institutional documentary, an educational entertainment made by the Stetson Company that simultaneously delivers good sales and awareness PR for the hat-maker. We see a part-animated history of hats, and then go step-by-step through the manufacture of a hat, skipping only the part where beavers are made to part with their hides. These many years later, the movie makes us realize that few of us really know how most of the common items in our daily lives are manufactured.
The Love Charm (1928, 10 minutes) is in the two-color Technicolor process, and was filmed by Ray Rennahan. A yachtsman finds love on a tropic isle with a gorgeous white native (?). His stuffy rich girlfriend disapproves, so he has a tender parting and vows to return again. According to the disc notes the Technicolor process was improved earlier that same year, with two dyes applied to opposite sides of one film strip. Without any real blue, the ocean scenes do look rather strange.
Won in a Cupboard (1914, 13 minutes) is another outstanding discovery in the set, as it's the earliest known film directed by Keystone's Mabel Normand. She's the star as well, but would continue to direct several of Charlie Chaplin's first one-reelers. The story is a silly rural comedy in which three bumpkins courting Mabel; she chooses a particularly goofy-looking one. The slapstick becomes more complicated when a sheriff and an old maid end up trapped together in a cupboard (closet), trying to avoid being caught in a compromising situation.
The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies #5, "The Chinese Fan" (1914, 14 minutes) shows us that the basic rules of the serial were in place even as early as 1914. Dolly is a reporter with a newspaper daily, and in this chapter goes undercover to rescue the daughter of a rich man kidnapped by a fearsome Chinatown Tong clan. Apparently the notion of a woman taking on a 'masculine' job was thrilling enough for a basic concept. Dolly's heroic actions and nobility (she refuses a reward) show more evidence of gender equality at work in silent film.
In Stories from American Newsreels (1918-1921, 4 minutes), an unidentified 1918 piece shows women training for men's work, and a parade of Red Cross nurse trainees. Two Selznick news clips are novelty filler pieces -- an ostrich that pulls a horse buggy and a man who has installed a radio in his car (and a giant radio aerial sticking up from his radiator cap).
Andy's Stump Speech (1924, 22 minutes) is a live-action comedy based on the comic strip character Andy Gump, a fellow with a big nose and moustache, and for whom the portable toilets were presumably named. The pompous Andy is forever dispensing humorous Will Rogers-style political advice, and here he runs for public office. Some of the dialogue (inter-titles of course) gets old, but the comic cut-ups escalate until Andy gives a stump speech atop a real tree stump -- that's loaded with dynamite. Some interesting special effects ensue. The director is Norman Taurog, who made big comedies and musicals for the next forty years.
Virginian Types (1926, 2 minutes) is a pleasant bit of ethnographic docu work. We see scenes of rural kids high in the backwoods town of Old Rag, and visit a store where an old postmaster shows off his abundant whiskers. The short film is in color tints, which seem to have been added with stencils, or daubed on by hand, frame by frame.
Finally, The White Shadow (1924, 42 minutes) is an English picture produced by Michael Balcon and Victor Saville and directed by Graham Cutts. A curious drama about the improbable romantic adventures of twin sisters, a lot of Shadow's story must be filled in with title cards, for only half of the feature has survived. The major point of interest is that the scenario writer, assistant director, art director and editor were all the same person, Alfred Hitchcock. The movie is not designed in the expressive style of Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith, which employs clever bits of graphics-oriented visual shorthand. If any recognizable Hitchcock visuals are present (no shower scenes, no Mount Rushmore) they must be in the half of the picture still lost. The only really designed image is a close-up of a piece of cat artwork for a cat-themed Parisian night club.
As with the earlier Treasures collections, the disc comes with a thick 48-page booklet that reproduces the text essays in the disc menus. More than just production notes, they provide needed context and explanations that make the films accessible to any viewer or audience.
The film quality overall is excellent, with only a couple of the films exhibiting passing flurries of negative decomposition. Upstream in particular looks phenomenal. All save one of the music tracks are new compositions and recordings by Michael D. Mortilla. Most of the excellent program notes are by Scott Simmon, with David Sterritt stepping in for The White Shadow.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lost & Found American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive rates:
Video: Very Good - Excellent
Supplements: 48-page booklet
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; All intertitles are in English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2013
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson
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