One of my research areas is American film from the 1910s (as in the now finished book). Despite being one of the most prolific areas of film production at a time when moviegoing was at, or near, its all time peak, this is an era of major losses--barely 10% of films survive from this period (I'm not sure of the exact statistic--it could be lower). Preservation didn't exist, nobody thought that films that were so ubiquitous would vanish forever within a few decades, and so silver reclamation from old prints, along with carelessness, deliberate destruction (on-screen fires were often fueled by films themselves) and nitrate fires took a substantial toll. After all, films shot before 1930 are mainly on a nitrate base that is chemically a close relation to nitroglycerine--in other words, highly unstable and prone to explode (drop a film, it may burn--or nothing at all may happen). It also happens to be of a far higher resolution than the safety stocks that replaced it--and the even lower grade, far cheaper stocks used today. If you are ever lucky enough to see nitrate, it is stunningly beautiful--capturing light and detail like nothing else. I've seen films from 1906 that looked fresher and newer than any recent release.
Like any other historical survivors, the remaining films from the teens don't represent what was popular, acclaimed or desirable. Great films survive, but major titles are missing. Some stars, directors and studios are well represented--obvious examples include Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Biograph while others like Theda Bara, Colin Campbell, Selig and Fox have seen large parts of their output vanish. Notoriously, only Bara's first film from the teens exists, along with a a few scraps and a little later work, a victim in part of the Fox studio fire and even MoMA's carelessness in the 1960s which saw the last known print of her version of Cleopatra vanish. Whether you are a historian, cinephile, fan or film buff, these losses obviously distort history. They are particularly frustrating for me as many films I've written about or want to write about don't exist. While this doesn't preclude me doing the work, it does mean that it misses an obvious and important dimension. It's also upsetting on an emotional level to engage with material in every way and not be able to see what it ultimately looked like. I'm very interested in Selig's work but mainly in their features (they were a pioneer in the form, but the myth that has surrounded the studio ignores this entirely). The ones that most appeal to me are their exotica and animal pictures--features like The Garden of Allah and serials like The Adventures of Kathlyn. These no longer exist, although a reel of The Carpet from Bagdad survives as it was discovered on the wreck of the Lusitania. I'd also love to see more Dorothy Gish comedies but her work is lost while the films of her less popular sister, Lillian, have survived and overshadowed her work. I could list other titles, stars, directors, genres, studios but my point is pretty obvious.
So it was good to read about the discovery of a trove of such films in New Zealand earlier this week. Obviously, the discovery had happened some time earlier and followed a somewhat familiar narrative. About 20 years ago, a trove of films was discovered in a former swimming pool in Canada, many preserved by permafrost like conditions. As the town was remote and at the end of the distribution line, they didn't send prints back to exchanges, just buried them (and likely disposed of others in less kindly ways). Many of these films were not lost titles but some were. The New Zealand finds were in their archive because this was also the end of the line. While some Selig westerns were in the NZ collection, the most valued discovery was a hitherto lost John Ford melodrama from 1926, Upstream. As you can see from this image--and those on Dave Kehr's blog--it looks like a beautiful fim (and I'm so pleased it isn't a western!).
Finds like these keep alive the hopes of many fans/scholars of silent cinema--even as it is clear that such notoriously desired titles like the original cut of Greed, the first Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, London After Dark, Bara's Cleopatra, The Battle Cry of Peace, Neptune's Daughter and A Daughter of the Gods (the final four are on my personal list) will likely never reappear. Stil, finds occur: the recent discovery of the original print of Metropolis (by one of my former students, no less) in an archive in Argentina, the discovery of the original cut of Baby Face at the Library of Congress, and the appearance of Audrey Munson's nudist allegory, Purity in France (I believe) are all hopeful. Metropolis is still playing at the Film Forum (and will likely soon be on dvd which is where I'll watch it as it isn't a personal favorite), I own Baby Face as it's on the TCM box set, Forbidden Hollywood, with the release cut. Hopefully, I'l be able to see Purity one day (it's currently not available to anybody) as I've written about it and would love to publish the paper after I see it--likely that won't happen.
So, here are some snippets from one of the Selig finds from NZ. I can't find any way to embed this but it's worth a brief look.
Jonas Mekas on Sharing Film
2 days ago