Early film was stored on nitrate stock that was ridiculously flammable. Seriously—just writing that sentence caused four more movies to go up in flames in 1924.
What that means is we will always be missing a huge portion of our history. Not just Hollywood history, either. We no longer have a copy of President McKinley’s ambulance leaving the Pan-American Exposition after he was shot in 1901. We don’t have the film version of The Great Gatsby made during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime.
Gone are newsreels, short subjects—anything that illuminates daily life from 1900 to 1930 and reminds us that people in the past were just as real as we are.
The studios didn’t care. Their concern was for future profits, not heritage, and there was no perceived commercial value in keeping movies around. America! We’ve lost a lot of our identity because our identiy couldn’t make us a buck.
MGM only kept some of its oldies it did because it wanted to release them periodically, but the other studios junked their works as fast as they could make them. Paramount couldn’t have ruined more films if it had set out to erase them intentionally—today, you can only see 29 percent of what it made, and many of them are thanks to copies that fell into private hands. An explosion at 20th Century Fox’s vault in New Jersey was so loud it was said to be audible from three miles away. Most of Theda Bara’s oeuvre was incinerated. Her epic version of Cleopatra had been offed two decades earlier.
It’s not like museums were much safer places, either. If you gave your film to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, it was like a death sentence. A fire in 1940 obliterated two-thirds of its collection. Colleen Moore, a 1920s superstar and a woman with unusual foresight, donated her private collection to the museum, but when she called back a few years later to check on it, she was told, to her horror, it had been set aside and allowed to deteriorate. It was lost.
Seventy percent of silent films were lost, according to a 2013 study by the Library of Congress. Some 8,000 of 11,000 feature-length movies made before 1928 are gone forever. And not because they were marginal. At their peak 46 million people per week attended silent movies in America—and there were only 116 million of us in the country then. We will never know what they were watching.
Thank goodness for New Zealand!
These antipodean outposts were the last link on the entertainment food chain. They got the United States’ gnarly, cast-off, hand-me-down copies after they had exhausted their runs. After locals were finally the last on the planet to share in Intolerance or The Daring Years or whatever other cool movie had long since passed through the pop culturesphere, they were expected to return their copies, which would be promptly destroyed by the studios.
But sometimes they didn’t get sent back. Postage for 7,000-mile shipping is expensive, and ultimately, no one cared much. Movies were disposable—ironically, the heedless way the world viewed filmed entertainment in that age was the very thing that saved these copies from being destroyed at the end of the consumption chain. There’s an archival advantage to living in a blind spot at the end of the line.
The films sat ignored, but safe, for a century. It was like losing a library book except much, much better.
A few years ago, a cache of 75 films was uncovered in New Zealand—films Americans had ruefully written off as gone forever. Turner Classic Movies recently ran a series of films found in the New Zealand Film Archive, including The White Shadow (1924), the first feature film credited to Alfred Hitchcock (preserved by a projectionist) and 1914’s Won in a Cupboard (in the U.S., Won in a Closet), the earliest surviving movie directed by and starring Mabel Normand. Only 15 percent of the works of director John Ford linger to this day, and one of them, Upstream (1927) was repatriated and redeemed, as was the preview for a so-far-still-missing film, Strong Boy.
The Kiwi quarry is a fascinating glimpse at the United States in those two decades, including a 14-minute documentary about how Stetson hats are manufactured that has been restored with such prowess by the National Film Preservation Foundation that you can almost see the sweat beading on the forearms of the workmen. All these pictures, once written off, are now sold on a DVD called Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive.
Argentina, too, played a role, except for German film. An Argentine distributor visiting Berlin in 1927 liked Fritz Lang’s Metropolis so much he brought a copy home. The movie was subsequently hacked to bits back home in Europe, but that fuller copy survived unnoticed in South America, and in 2010, nearly half an hour of footage once thought forever lost was able to be restored. And this October, we screened the rediscovered Too Much Johnson, a long-lost 1938 film (not a porno) Orson Welles made with the Mercury Theatre, thanks to a discovery in an Italian warehouse. The Netherlands have been particularly fruitful for film archivists, returning to mankind Beyond the Rocks starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson in 2003 (after she had grieved its loss in her memoirs) as well as one of South Africa’s only silent survivors, The Rose of Rhodesia (1918).
Australia, like New Zealand, also provided a nine-decade safe haven for American films. Thanks to discoveries there, you can again see things like U.S. Navy in 1915, a fascinating fly-on-the-wall film depicting actual daily military life while World War I was raging abroad. And thanks to our Australian brothers, you can see real live Americans walking and breathing 101 years ago in The Prospector, a 1912 Western shot by the Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
So thank you, New Zealand, for the role you have played in American mass culture, and I don’t mean just Sam Neill and Xena: Warrior Princess (although they’re a lot more influential than people admit). Thank you for stealing our movies and refusing to give them back. Thank you.