Lost US silent film treasures uncovered in New Zealand

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The Independent Culture

A treasure trove of 75 long-lost US silent movies has been unearthed in New Zealand, including an early feature film by legendary Oscar-winning director John Ford, officials said Tuesday.

No copies of the films - dating from as early as 1898 through to the 1920s - remain in the United States.

The films will be returned to the US National Film Preservation Foundation for preservation after being unearthed in the New Zealand Film Archive, New Zealand Arts Minister Chris Finlayson said Tuesday.

The films will be preserved over the next three years for access through major American silent film archives and copies will be returned to New Zealand, Finlayson said.

US film historians first became aware of the existence of the films when Brian Meacham, a preservationist for the Los Angeles archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, visited the New Zealand archive while on holiday last year.

"It became clear they had some real treasures in their collection," Meacham told Radio New Zealand.

"It's beautiful to see these... have survived for 80 or 90 years - it's incredible to see what great condition they're still in."

The most important find was a copy of Ford's full-length feature "Upstream" from 1927, a backstage romance between a Shakespearean actor and a target girl from a knife-throwing act.

The US foundation said only about 15 percent of silent era films by the four-time Academy Award-winning director were believed to have survived.

The New Zealand collection also included a trailer for Ford's lost 1929 feature "Strong Boy", starring Victor McLaglen.

Also in the collection are "Maytime", a 1923 feature with silent star Clara Bow and the first surviving film directed by and starring Mabel Normand.

The foundation said it was estimated that copies remained of less than 20 percent of all US films from the first four decades of the movie industry.

Meacham said places distant from the US such as New Zealand and Australia were a good source of otherwise lost silent movies.

"New Zealand, Australia and other places that are further afield from Hollywood were really the end of the line for a lot of films in the early days of distribution," he said.

"By the end of the road, it wasn't really financially worthwhile for the film producing companies to pay to have them sent back."