For the Love of Film, Look What We Did!

By Marilyn Ferdinand

UPDATE: Terrific interview with Brian Meacham, the AMPAS scholar who discovered the New Zealand cache.

By now, most of the film world knows about the partnership between the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 75 American motion pictures that no longer survive in the United States. The news broke in the New York Times yesterday and has been all over the media, Twitter, and Facebook. Frankly, Farran (The Self-Styled Siren) and I were a bit miffed. We were told we should not make the announcement until this afternoon, and here comes someone to steal our thunder! But scoops are what newspapers are about, and this was a big one.

Sworn to secrecy out of deference to the New Zealand government, Farran, Greg Ferrara (who did our ads and banners), and I have known since last fall that the New Zealand archive was the next big project for the NFPF, but we had no idea what the nitrate experts would find as they examined the existing footage. The news is amazing! About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Included is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927), a backstage romance involving an aspiring Shakespearean actor and the daring target girl from a knife-throwing act, and a trailer for the director’s lost feature Strong Boy (1929), starring Victor McLaglen. Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow, was found, though afflicted with the “bloom” that signals nitrate deterioration. NFPF got to this film just in time!

And then, of course, there are the films that the participants and donors in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon funded!

We promised the blogathoners a good film, and initially, we were to fund Moonlight Nights, a short comedy featuring child star Gloria Joy. But Annette Melville, the wonderful executive director of NFPF who has been so helpful to us, found a real treasure that helped double our money. The Sergeant is a very important short western that will be included on the Treasures V collection, thus receiving matching funds from the federal government. Here’s why it’s so unique.

The Sergeant is one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.
The western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its action pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearean actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film; Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.

Very little survives from Selig Polyscope, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.

This remarkable film—part western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to our funding, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.

For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.

We also raised enough funds to restore The Better Man, a 1912 film produced by the Vitagraph Company of America. It’s another western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man. The stills look intriguing.
The newly recovered films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: 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, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF web site. 
We extend many thanks to Jamie Lean, Division Director, the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, who said, “Hundreds of American motion pictures from the silent era exist in archives outside the United States. We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded ‘lost’ American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”
Clips of The Sergeant are up on the NFPF website, and you can take a look at a list of some of the other films returning from their long hiatus here. You can also kick in some more money for the rest of the films that need preserving (not to mention shipping: Each reel has to be sent using precautions for hazardous materials!). As Gareth over at the Siren’s place said, “I’ve almost never had a sense of such concrete value coming from a donation.” Amen.

  • Tinky spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 9:47 am

    Thanks again to you guys for organizing the blogathon! I hope you’re preening yourselves…….. Wonderful, wonderful.

  • Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 11:07 am

    I second Tinky’s emotion — you and the Siren deserve a well-earned victory lap. This news is positively exhilarating to anyone who loves movies!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 11:28 am

    Thanks! It feels good. Farran and I have been talking about doing it again next year, this time to benefit the Film Noir Foundation. Details to follow.

  • Donna spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 12:01 pm

    Well, this is so damned exciting I can hardly contain my joy. KUDOS to you Marilyn and Farran. If you are doing this next year, COUNT ME IN. It was an honor to particpate and I’ll be happy to help in any way I can for the next one.

    In the meantime, you guys needs to bask totally in the glory of such a great achievement!

  • Vanwall spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 6:00 pm

    A wonderful achievement! Thanks, Marilyn, for being one of the ramrodders, with Farran and Greg!

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 7:51 pm

    Whew! I’m exhausted just reading about the Herculean effort y’all have put into this. Darn, I wish you could-a broken the news too. Congrats, congrats, congrats!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 8:55 pm

    Aw shucks…

  • Joe Thompson spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 9:07 pm

    Thank you for giving us the opportunity to do so much good.

  • Bob Westal spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 9:59 pm

    Great work, Marilyn (and Farran and Greg, of course). It’s a bit of a bummer that I haven’t had time for stuff like this recently, but you guys did a magnificent job, quite obviously.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/06/2010 to 10:04 pm

    It took some work, but it really was fun, as blogathons always are. And to have one with a mission is even better.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/06/2010 to 8:15 am

    Aye Marilyn, I heard this news yesterday, but just now got over to Ferdy-on-Films, where lo and behold I read about the glorious fruits of your labor. As silent cinema is my favorite genre, I greet this news with marked ecstasy, and am especially thrilled at that Ford resurrection. There is no greater honor and reward than what you have just experienced. Kudos to all involved!

  • Gareth spoke:
    9th/06/2010 to 10:46 am

    Marilyn, I’ve already commented at the Siren’s place, but joint thanks to you for organizing this wonderful project: while the blogger and donors are all wonderful, it’s the organizers who created the framework within which to do good, and who led the charge on what could easily have been a very hard sell.

    Seeing the clips from The Sergeant was the perfect conclusion to an absolutely fascinating blogathon, with an exceptionally diverse array of contributions.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2010 to 11:44 am

    Thanks, Gareth. I think this is a hard sell, particularly at a time when people are really hurting financially. But the event captured a few imaginations and led to some very generous donations. The contribution of time the writing bloggers gave cannot be measured and did perhaps more good in helping to educate people about how important this work is. Thanks for joining in the blogathon and the celebration.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    21st/06/2010 to 9:13 pm

    Good work, Marilyn. You’re a savior of cinema!

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