Thursday, June 10, 2010

Silent Film comes to America

In this country, we expect that we have everything we need and then some. But one thing that we do not have enough of, to say nothing of other nations, is Silent Film. This happens to be an instance in which New Zealand has helped us out. News stories have been breaking over the past several days about a handful of lost American silents being discovered in vaults in New Zealand. The films found include a John Ford film from 1927 called Upstream, a Clara Bow picture called Maytime, a film by the early woman filmmaker Mabel Normand and series of one-reel westerns.
Just yesterday, news broke that another film called To Catch a Thief had been discovered at an antique sale in Michigan. The comedy was produced by Keystone in 1914 and features a two-minute or so appearance by none other than Charlie Chaplin. It is one of the earliest films he acted in. Here is a silent film that was here the whole time, the country just forgot about it.
These simultaneous discoveries of film's history feel like they signal something; to my mind, what they do is reinforce the fact that America shrugs off its film history until that history barges its own way in. Of the films found in New Zealand, only seventy-five were specifically selected for shipment. This appears to have to do with their cultural significance (Dave Kehr's article in the Times mentions that the Bow and Normand films are important to the history of women in cinema). We can only hope that at some point  the rest are returned, or at least duplicate prints are made.
But these discoveries bring up one more interesting aspect of silent film; many of them appear to be from the 1910's. It is common knowledge that the 1920's were the true decade of achievement for silent film. With these discoveries cropping up, perhaps we should shift our attention to the previous decade. The 1910's brought us an explosion of westerns, most of Griffith's films, the beginnings of German Expressionism, the formation of a number of studios, the founding of Hollywood, and now what is probably the earliest Charlie Chaplin picture, plus a batch of early films made by or starring women. Film Historians may have a field day, but silent film fans will have to wait for the restorations of these films to evaluate them individually. All we know for now is that, 2010, a grim year so far, has already been a far more positive year for silent film than most other years. And it may revive interest in what was happening on celluloid in its twin decade, an even century ago. As it happens, those were grim years too.

Links to the articles: