Art Works Blog

A New Voice For Silent Film

Washington, DC

Maytime (1923), to be preserved with contributed matching funds raised for the Save America's Treasures grant. Image courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Imagine an entire chapter of lost American history, rediscovered overnight. That's what happened when it was learned that the New Zealand Film Archive (NZFA) held dozens of early American silent films in its collection. Once thought lost, these films represent a remarkable snapshot of the country's first forays into cinema.

Thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), based in San Francisco, these movies will be made available for viewing for the first time in 90 years. The NFPF selected 75 titles to repatriate and restore, all of which were produced between 1898 and 1929. Last week, the NFPF was awarded a $203,000 Save America's Treasures (SAT) grant to help finance the preservation of 40 of these films.

Annette Melville, the director of NFPF, said, "The prints safeguarded by the NZFA are like a time capsule. They give us a chance to reclaim lost history and see a full spectrum of filmmaking---works showcasing women filmmakers, regional film companies, newsreels, and documentaries---that were not saved here in the United States. Some 90 percent of the films represent the only surviving copy."

In our current digital age when everything seems to be filed, stored, and saved, it might seem odd that so few of these films were thought to be kept for posterity. But there's a very good reason why they weren't. Early films were made on cellulose nitrate, a flammable material that can ignite spontaneously with prolonged exposure to heat or humidity. Not surprisingly, the dangers of storing the films outweighed the cultural value of keeping them. In fact, Melville estimates that U.S. collections hold only 20 percent of feature-length American films made in the 1910s and 1920s; that figure is even less for shorter comedies, cartoons and newsreels.

So how did so many of these films end up in New Zealand? The island nation was the end of the distribution line for many commercial film runs. Most reels were tossed after playing in theaters, but others made their way to private collections, and later to the temperature-controlled storage facilities of the NZFA. Now that the films are back on U.S. soil, the NFPF hopes to complete the preservation process within two years. Once restored, the films will be available through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Some will also be viewable on the NFPF website.

Melville thinks that these early cinematic classics will continue to resonate with viewers. "Silent films are fascinating documents," she says. "Although the artifacts are nearly a century old, the themes are timeless and still connect with audiences. I think people will be surprised by the creativity, invention and sheer excitement."

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