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This is AL LTHINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Imagine you run a nonprofit film archive, and donations of actual films on nitrate have been coming in for decades, often unlabeled. You don't have the time, the money or the staff to go through them all. So they sit.
Well, that is more or less what happened at the New Zealand Film Archive, and you won't believe what they've just found. Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio has the story.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: In the first three decades of the last centuries, movies were an even bigger deal than they are now. In the 1910s, people might go to a movie a day. By the 1920s, actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin was the most famous person in the world. Yet, little evidence of that remains today, says Annette Melville, director of the nonprofit National Film Preservation Foundation.
Ms. ANNETTE MELVILLE (Director, National Film Preservation Foundation): Only about 20 percent of the films produced in America during the silent era, that is the era of motion pictures before 1929, survive today in the United States in complete form.
MOVSHOVITZ: That means 80 percent of all the American movies made before 1929 are either completely gone or exist only in fragments. But some of these movies might just be sitting in rusting film cans in a dusty closet in the attic of a long-dead movie projectionist in, say, New Zealand. And that makes sense, says Frank Stark, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Archive, if you think about how movies were distributed.
Mr. FRANK STARK (Chief Executive, New Zealand Film Archive): Logically enough, when you look at a map, especially a flat map, were at the end of a distribution network. By the time the nitrate films had been shipped to Asia, Australia and then onto New Zealand or whatever the sequence was, it was considered largely to have finished its commercial life.
So the people in the States didn't want to spend the money to ship it all the way back. I believe they probably in the main issued instructions that they should be destroyed or thrown away.
MOVSHOVITZ: Many of them weren't. Projectionists held on to them, collectors, all kinds of pack rats. And over the years in New Zealand, many of the prints wound up in the vaults of the national archive, where the highly flammable nitrate film stock could be stored safely. Stark and others there found 150 American titles, about 75 of which were in good enough shape to be returned.
Ms. MELVILLE: One of the most remarkable finds, and it's probably going to be the film everyone talks about...
MOVSHOVITZ: Says Annette Melville.
Ms. MELVILLE: Is a lost feature by American director John Ford called "Upstream," and it dates from 1927, a year in which no other Ford films survive. Only about 15 percent of John Ford's films from the silent era survive today.
MOVSHOVITZ: Melville says that besides "Upstream," the rediscovered movies include the first film ever directed by Mabel Normand, a comic sensation of the 1910s, and a lost film called "Maytime," starring the original it-girl, Clara Bow. There are also instructional films on how to make a Stetson hat or a Fordson tractor.
For film historian Shelley Stamp of the University of California Santa Cruz, those all pale by comparison to the missing reel of a film by director Lois Weber.
Ms. SHELLEY STAMP (University of California, Santa Cruz): She made hundreds of films, over 40 feature films. In the 1910s, her name was routinely mentioned alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, names we still remember now. But she wasn't good at sort of promoting herself and ensuring his historical legacy.
But what interests me about her career is that she believed in the power of cinema to bring to life issues of the day in a way that could be digested and thought about by average citizens. So she made films on birth control, poverty, drug abuse, capital punishment and really had a vision of a kind of socially engaged cinema.
MOVSHOVITZ: Lois Weber is an important part of film history, but Frank Stark of the New Zealand Film Archive says all of these films are important, and that's why the archive kept them in the first place.
Mr. STARK: It really validates the basic archival impulse, which is to say that these films, until the research was done, were undifferentiated, not necessarily celebrated or by famous makers or involving famous performers. We didn't know that. And we made our commitment to keep them anyway, against the day when we could find out whether or not that was the case.
MOVSHOVITZ: It was. John Ford's "Upstream," not seen in 80 years, will be screened in Los Angeles this fall.
For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.