New to DVD: John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, plus other silent era discoveries from New Zealand’s nitrate treasure trove.
What other treasures could be hidden in the vaults of the New Zealand Film Archive and beyond? The missing reels from Frank Borzage’s The River? F.W. Murnau’s legendary 4 Devils? It’s one of several tantalising questions to be raised by this special DVD anthology, which represents a small sample of the films uncovered here in 2010 when visiting preservationists identified 75 ‘lost’ American films amongst a cache of nitrate exhibition prints in storage—chief among them, a John Ford curiosity, Upstream (1927), and the remnants of The White Shadow (1924), notable for being the earliest surviving feature with Alfred Hitchcock credits (as screenwriter, editor, art director, and first AD).
When these discoveries first made headlines, the digital revolution was just gathering momentum; three years on, and film has been abandoned by most of the movie industry. For archivists and historians, however, film must live on, and with celluloid’s mortality in mind, the real question at hand is no longer how motion pictures will be shot or delivered going forward, but whether we’ll still have the capacity to preserve them in generations to come.
Indeed, while a repatriation deal was struck between the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation and the New Zealand Film Archive, with custody of the collection given to the five major silent film archives in the United States, the crucial duplication of nitrate prints to 35mm for the Ford and Hitchcock works may have faltered had Park Road Post’s film processing lab closed much sooner than it did (operations, which had become commercially unsustainable, ceased in June this year).
Thankfully, any future finds will be able to be handled by Archives New Zealand if necessary, who have been donated all of Park Road Post’s essential processing equipment for a new laboratory of their own—sure to be employed in the rescue of our own national film history as well as America’s, which having spearheaded production in the first three decades of the 20th century, must now make do with the survival of less than half the films made during that period—a sobering thought given cinema’s relative youth as an art form.
As a logical outcome of this ongoing archival project, the Lost & Found collection gives us the physical evidence of a rare discovery—not the prints themselves, but the results of the meticulous reclamation process in hardcopy form. This is evident in the extensive film notes by Scott Simmon that accompany each of the 12 films presented, supplied both on the DVD itself and in a 56-page booklet that comes with the set. “Our understanding and enjoyment of film, as an art form, historical record, and personal expression,” writes NFPF Director Annette Melville in the booklet’s foreword, “is shaped almost entirely be accessibility,” and it would be remiss not to mention the availability of a number of short films salvaged from the NZFA via the NFPF’s website.
As great as having online access to these treasures is, exploring an ever-expanding digital catalogue of silent era pictures—among them, industrial films, news stories, cartoons, travelogues, serial episodes, previews, and comedies—can be fraught with the uncertainty of where to begin. Curation is a vital component of keeping film alive for this reason, and in providing meaning and context to the large body of films unearthed, the Lost & Found anthology serves an important role as a kind of mini cinematheque programme, one which reflects on the range and popularity of early American cinema, from the nickelodeon era through to the feature presentations demanded of the grandest picture palaces.
The two major features included on this DVD are minor, if illuminating works, which, for the sharp-eyed scholar at least, represent the genesis of their respective auteur’s practice. Ford’s Upstream holds up best in this regard, a boardinghouse comedy that brings together the lives of a motley crew of vaudeville performers with surprising coherence. There is virtually no plot to speak of, and yet the narrative is clearly one of community—“the sort of mutually supportive group that forms the bedrock of so many of his best films,” as Simmon explains in his liner notes. This sense of community through incidental observation resurfaces strongly in a film such as The Wagon Master, and appropriately, in many other pioneer westerns (e.g. Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage, even Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff)—a genre Ford’s name is synonymous with. We also get a trailer for Ford’s Strong Boy (1929), still missing and presumed lost for good.
It’s far more of a stretch to cite The White Shadow as pivotal in the formation of Hitchcock’s “monumental creativity,” though there’s something to be said for the eloquence with which its hoary melodrama of twin sisters unfolds. In gaining experience under director Graham Cutts, Hitchcock’s craft is arguably evident in the design of the film—the nightclub sequence is worth singling out—at a time when filmmakers were still formulating the visual language of cinema. Aside from its incomplete status (only the first three of six reels were found), The White Shadow is an anomaly in this collection as a British production—its only tenuous link to America being star Betty Compson.
The shorts selected for this anthology cover a wide spectrum of film exhibition: Happy-Go-Luckies (1923) a Paul Terry animation based on an Aesop Fable; The Love Charm (1928), a gentle two-colour Technicolor romance in the then-popular South Seas genre; Birth of a Hat (1920), an informational film about velvet hat production (among other newsreels and documentaries); and Andy’s Stump Speech (1924), an early Norman Taurog political comedy.
The anthology’s two brightest treasures evince the wonder and amusement of cinema in its glorious infancy. Won in a Cupboard (1914), a rambunctious Keystone one-reeler directed by and starring Mabel Normand (a trailblazer for women behind the camera), captures the spirit of movie making at a time when improvisation, in lieu of established film convention, was embraced. Normand’s gag-laden number often feels like the result of one of the frenetic on-the-run production efforts depicted in Peter Bogdanovich’s underrated tribute to silent era endevour, Nickelodeon, where the physicality of the comedy mirrored the making-it-up-as-they-went-along nature of the business before D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation broke new ground.
The most profound film in the collection is also the simplest. Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921), after a brief medley of establishing shots, propels us along a series of winding train routes from the front-end of a locomotive with a thrilling sense of speed and instability (courtesy of some lurching trick shots). The film is essentially an enhanced version of the Lumière Brothers’ earliest recording of an oncoming train, with the effect on audiences at the time—one of terror and excitement from the shock of the new—still palpable.
The train, perhaps as a symbol of modernity, or as a machine whose perpetual motion parallels the turning of a film reel through spools in a camera or projector, has always occupied a special place in the history of cinema, and will forever be associated with the birth of the moving image. As Lyman H. Howe’s film demonstrates, cinema, no matter how much it evolves, keeps returning to its roots. Even in the digital age, where the moving image has wildly mutated, the pull of the carriage on a track is ever-present—you may have seen clips of the Oculus Rift, a new Virtual Reality headset in development, which uses a roller coaster sequence not dissimilar from the first-person perspective employed in Famous Ride on a Runaway Train to test drive its technology.
The Lost & Found anthology only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of films repatriated from New Zealand—after the The White Shadow was unearthed during a final research trip by nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham in late 2010, the total number earmarked for preservation ballooned to 176. Some of those films, like early short westerns The Sergeant (1910) and The Better Man (1912, which preceded the live cinema screening of Mantrap at the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival), have been released on alternate DVD releases; others are viewable at the NFPF’s online screening room. As preservation of the collection continues, many more will become available via subsequent volumes in the “Treasures” DVD series, or as part of a growing digital repository.