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Silent Sunday Nights - November 2013
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Remind Me

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

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.

Birth of a Hat: The Art and Mystery of making Fur Felt Hats was produced around 1920, and believe or not, this fourteen-minute documentary turns the manufacturing of Stetson headwear into a fascinating spectacle. It's basically a commercial, but its glimpses of American industry and workers are crisply filmed and adroitly presented.

The Love Charm is a 1928 short subject that condenses an entire South Seas romantic drama into a ten-minute running time. Best of all, it's in Technicolor, filmed with a two-color prismatic process that makes the Southern California locations look almost as exotic as a tropical Pacific isle. Ann Christy, fresh from Harold Lloyd's comic Speedy (1928), is the fetching star.

Won in a Cupboard, a knockabout Keystone comedy of 1914, was the second picture directed by Mabel Normand, a trailblazing female filmmaker. She also stars in the nonsensical story, which is impossible to follow, crammed with energy, and punctuated by a split-screen effect that's downright lyrical.

"The Chinese Fan" is Episode No. 5 in The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies, one of several woman-centered serials that competed with the mushrooming growth of feature films in 1914. Villainy, abduction, and a raging fire challenge the reporter heroine, played by Mary Fuller, a serial specialist who performed her own stunts. An active life, indeed!

Relatively little news footage survives from the silent-film era, but current-event reports were ubiquitous in theaters. Stories from American Newsreels brings together brief segments from Co-Operative Weekly Review (1918) and Selznick News (ca. 1921) about such diverse topics as a radio-controlled car, an ostrich-drawn carriage, a recruitment drive for nurses, and women learning how to do "men's work" in the World War I era.

Andy Gump, the protagonist of Andy's Stump Speech, started out as a comic-strip character and came to the screen, played by Keystone Cops comedian Joe Murphy, in 1920. In this 1924 two-reeler he runs for high office, as he went on doing - with widely publicized mock campaigns - all the way to 1958. He lost the 1924 race to Calvin Coolidge, but the movie still entertains.

Virginia Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (ca. 1926) is taken from the Pathé Review, a weekly "screen magazine." It portrays the residents of rural Old Rag, Virginia, in images given delicate hues by a short-lived Pathé process that added color to black-and-white prints. The town gave way to a national park not long after the film was shot, making this a unique record of a long-gone community.

Graham Cutts received screen credit for directing The White Shadow, a tangled melodrama of 1924. But a gifted newcomer named Alfred Hitchcock did the lion's share of creative work, serving as screenwriter, assistant director, art director, and probably editor as well. He was still in his middle twenties, and already his genius for "pure cinema" was obvious. Only three reels survive - about forty-five minutes in all - but the Hitchcock magic can't be missed. The program couldn't have a finer capstone.

By David Sterritt

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