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Silent Sunday Nights - November 2013
Remind Me

Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (Part One)

As lovers of old movies know, studios once saw their products as commodities to be discarded rather than artworks to be preserved. This means that vast numbers of films produced in bygone decades have been lost forever. Occasionally, though, "lost" pictures get rediscovered when forgotten prints turn up in unlikely places - such as New Zealand, where Hollywood sometimes let films languish rather than pay for return shipping. A treasure trove of American movies has been unearthed in the New Zealand Film Archive, unseen by anyone for almost a hundred years.

The films are remarkably rare and have a remarkable range - features, newsreels, serials, cartoons, trailers, promotional pictures, and more. In a boon for movie buffs, the New Zealand archive and America's National Film Preservation Foundation have transferred the movies from flammable nitrate to modern film and digital formats, restoring their luster and making them available for viewing. The gems gathered in Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive include productions by such world-class filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, but even the most modest westerns, travelogues, and novelties are visual time capsules. They recapture an era when movies were discovering their power to entertain an audience that stretched around the globe even in the 1910s and '20s.

Lyman H. Howe's Famous Ride on a Runaway Train is a rare sound picture from 1921, accompanied by music and clatter recorded on a phonograph disc. Early filmmakers enjoyed creating "phantom rides" with cameras placed on speedy vehicles, and this is a vivid one, with awesome scenery and vertiginous vistas galore.

Cartooning pioneer Paul Terry is best remembered for Mighty Mouse and the inimitable Heckle and Jeckle, but his enormous output also included hundreds of Aesop's Fables, which inspired Walt Disney in the 1920s. Happy-Go-Luckies (1923) illustrates an old-fashioned moral with a high-speed animated tale about a cat, a dog, a bag of money, and a chase.

Preview for Strong Boy, a coming-attractions trailer, uses animation, typography, and clips - including star Victor McLaglen perched atop a rushing train near the California-Mexico border - to promote an action comedy by John Ford that sadly remains lost. Mixed reviews greeted the feature in 1929, but the trailer makes it look like rambunctious fun.

Upstream, an hour-long John Ford comedy-drama released in 1927, is a rediscovery of major proportions. The characters are actors, vaudevillians, and aspiring stars whose rooming-house community gets shaken up when a young thespian makes a hit as Hamlet and returns with an ego bigger than the stage. The story is gentle, the humor is mild, the effect is charming.

By David Sterritt

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