Rare movie gems found in Kiwi vaults

CELLULOID ROMANCE: Clara Bow, left, and Ethel Shannon in Maytime (1923), directed by Louis J Gasnier.
CELLULOID ROMANCE: Clara Bow, left, and Ethel Shannon in Maytime (1923), directed by Louis J Gasnier.

A treasure trove of 75 early American silent movies is heading back to the United States after being discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive vaults.

The jewel in the cinematic find is the only known copy of renowned director John Ford's 1927 film Upstream, about a romance between a Shakespearean actor and a girl from a knife-throwing act.

Only 15 percent of silent films made by Ford, who won four Oscars, have survived.

His most famous movie is The Searchers (1956), starring John Wayne. It failed to gain any Oscar nominations but is widely regarded as one of the best Westerns made. Ford died in 1973.

The rediscovered movies date back to at least 1910 and include comedies and examples of a movie genre termed by experts as "cowboy girl" pictures.

Another celluloid gem is a copy of the 1923 comedy Mary of the Movies, which has assumed the mantle of the oldest surviving Columbia Pictures feature film.

Film Archive spokesman Steve Russell said "the tyranny of distance has in this case been in our favour".

"We were probably, in most cases, the end of the distribution run so by the times the films got here they had probably been forgotten about by their US distributors.

"They would have lain around for a while then have been picked up by projectionists, gone into private collections, before making their way to the Film Archive."

The films were being sent to the National Film Preservation Society in the US, but returning them was tricky, Mr Russell said.

"They are on nitrate film, which is now classed as dangerous goods, and are effectively flammable solids. There are very strict conditions when sending it by air."

About a third of the films have so far been shipped to the US in approved 20-litre steel barrels.

Ford's Upstream, which is too valuable to risk being damaged in transit, is being copied to modern film in this country.

"I don't know the monetary value of the films but one would imagine that with Upstream there is the potential for a DVD release somewhere down the track," Mr Russell said. "In the case of other material we hold it is more complete, is in better condition, or perhaps has additional scenes that haven't survived in prints in American archives."

The most important movies are being returned first. They will be restored over three years at nitrate preservation facilities in the US, where images will be reclaimed from material slowly turning to muck.

The more than US$500,000 (NZ$750,000) costs of returning the films and restoring them are being met by the preservation foundation.

If all goes well, the restored copy of Upstream will receive its re-premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in September.

Copies of the films will also be publicly available in New Zealand through the Film Archive.


Upstream (1927) – directed by future Oscar winner John Ford

The Woman Hater (1910) – starring silent movies "stunt queen" Pearl White

Won in a Cupboard (1914) – starring Mabel Normand, who went on to star in the Keystone comedies

Maytime (1923) – starring 1920s "flapper" Clara Bow and Ethel Shannon

Mary of the Movies (1923) – the earliest Columbia Pictures feature-length film known to have survived

Strong Boy (1929) – a trailer for the long-lost John Ford film starring Victor McLaglen

Why Husbands Flirt (1918) – produced and directed by Al Christie.

The Dominion Post