Film News

Lost silent films uncovered in Australia

WASHINGTON (Hollywood Reporter) - While the popularity of modern U.S. films worldwide is undisputed, a cache of lost silent films being repatriated from Australia proves that the so-called Hollywood effect goes back nearly a century.

The eight short films being preserved under a new program called Film Connection: Australia-America are virtually unknown, yet they demonstrate the lasting cultural hold that American cinema has worldwide.

The films range from 1912-27. Newsreels, documentaries, trailers and Hollywood promotional films that filled out theater programs and were widely seen by audiences in the U.S. and Australia are represented.

“What makes this partnership different, and I believe, ground-breaking, is that it recognizes that American silent film is a shared cultural patrimony,” said Paolo Cherchi Usai, director of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia


Only a fraction of the American films created during the first four decades of the motion picture industry survive in the United States. They were often lost, destroyed or cannibalized after their immediate economic usefulness was exhausted.

The Library of Congress estimates that about one-third of American silent-era features that survive in complete form exist only in archives outside the U.S.

This project allows the films to be preserved 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. Copies also will be publicly available in Australia.

Digital technology is at the core of the collaboration. The Australians will send the nitrate film to Haghefilm Conservation, a Dutch film restoration laboratory. There the motion pictures will be scanned to digital files. Americans will make any necessary digital corrections and return the files to Haghefilm for printing to 35mm film and color tinting.

At the end of the process, the nitrate will be returned to the NFSA-Australia, along with new exhibition prints; the preservation masters and a second set of exhibition prints will be shipped to America.

“Unlike earlier efforts, the nitrate source material will return to its home in the NFSA-Australia,” Usai said. “New preservation masters and prints will go to our sister archives in the United States for safekeeping and access. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

The National Film Preservation Foundation, the charitable affiliate of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, has helped save more than 1,270 films since starting operations in 1997.

A look at the films that are part of the new Film Connection: Australia-America program:

-- “The Prospector” (Essanay, 1912, tinted): This one-reel Western was made by Essanay Film Manufacturing during the same year the studio moved from Chicago to Niles, Calif. Celebrated for its Charlie Chaplin films of 1915, the studio produced more than 1,600 titles during a 10-year span, few of which now survive. Westerns were a studio specialty; little is known about this particular title.

-- “U.S. Navy Documentary” (1916, tinted): This showcases American naval power shortly before the U.S. entered World War I. Among the scenes of sailors and marines at work are a naval artillery demonstration and illustrations of a submarine, “a floating fortress” and the presidential yacht.

-- “Sin Woman” trailer (1921): This preview for a “lost” 1917 American melodrama was custom-made for screening in Sydney. It likely is one of the earliest surviving trailers for an American film.

-- “Mutt and Jeff: On Strike” (Bud Fisher Film, Fox, 1920): The post-World War I years brought the largest number of strikes in American history, with labor strife involving one-quarter of the U.S. workforce. In this gentle jab at militant labor, Mutt and Jeff go on strike when refused a pay raise and try making their own cartoons. Chastened by the experience, they return wiser workers.

-- “Pathe News” (around 1920): Very few American newsreels of the silent era survive in complete form (many were cut up and reused as footage). This rarity includes segments on World War I veterans lobbying President Harding for a bonus and a drug raid in New York.

-- “A Trip Through Japan With the YWCA” (Benjamin Brodsky, 1919): Benjamin Brodsky, a noted American travel lecturer, made several trips to the Far East, including one sponsored by the Imperial Japanese Railroad Co. in 1918. This short, made to celebrate the YWCA’s 15th anniversary in Japan, highlights women in Japan and charity’s service. The only identified Brodsky film in the U.S. is at the Smithsonian.

-- “Screen Snapshots” (1925, tinted): An early Hollywood promo film showing screen personalities playing baseball.

-- “Long Pants” (trailer, 1927, tinted): A preview of the famous Frank Capra comedy starring Harry Langdon.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter