Think about what it would be like to find an unmarked or mismarked box in your basement, to open it and find a surprisingly valuable treasure. Not valuable in the sense of gold or jewels or Action Comics No. 1, necessarily, but something you, personally, would highly treasure. Maybe a watch once worn by your great-grandfather or a book inscribed to your mother before you were born.
The rediscovered silent movies collected for “Lost & Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” (RLJ, 1914-29, b/w and color, $24.95; 56-page booklet) may not be quite that personal, but their sudden availability is no less exciting to the world’s film community.
The lengthy title for this single-disc collection of a variety of American movies, complete and incomplete, is no exaggeration since they’ve all been classified as “lost” for nearly 100 years. (It is estimated that only 24 percent of American silent films survive in complete form; if the name on the film canister wasn’t Chaplin or D.W. Griffith, they were often discarded, assuming the volatile nitrate print hadn’t already deteriorated or combusted.)
This disc contains 12 titles, more than three hours of material, ranging from a 42-second trailer for a lost John Ford film, “Strong Boy” (1929), starring Victor McLaglen — and featuring snippets of a harrowing shootout atop a moving train — to “Upstream” (1927), a 60-minute newly restored Ford feature, a romantic, occasionally raucous and episodic comedy-drama about 12 disparate residents of a New York theatrical boarding house. The latter has no stars but director Ford immediately draws us into the lives of these down-on-their-luck thespians so that we quickly come to care about them.
The other big draws here are the earliest existing film directed by and starring Mabel Normand, “Won in a Cupboard” (1914), an amusing comedy and a rare example of the work of a female director/star of the era, plus an early Alfred Hitchcock film. Or rather, half of one.
The first three reels of the feature-length “The White Shadow” (1924) provide us with one of the most significant rediscoveries in American film history. Hitchcock was not yet a director but is billed as assistant director, editor and set designer, as well as having a credit for “scenario,” meaning he wrote or rewrote the final screenplay. The best of what is seen here is a collection of memorable sequences that validate Hitchcock’s rising talent, and the performance of Betty Compson, a Utah native who was a midlevel star at the time.
Of course, “The White Shadow” is also a source of frustration, as are some others here, because we may never see any more than we now have. But for film buffs it is unquestionably a treasure trove.
There are also documentaries: a 14-minute look at how felt hats were made, a four-minute pairing of two particularly rare newsreels and a two-minute excerpt from a “magazine of the screen” that looks at an isolated Blue Ridge Mountain town. The latter is an example of a primitive color process comparable to video colorizing. The color is sharper for the charming two-strip Technicolor 10-minute short “The Love Charm” (1928), with a Southern California beach subbing for a tropical isle.
In addition, there is a cute cartoon by Paul Terry, long before his sound “Terrytoons” (Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle); a live-action comedy short based on the early comic strip “Andy Gump”; a point-of-view runaway train ride that may bring to mind the roller coaster in “This Is Cinerama”; and an episode of the 1914 serial “The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies.”
Pantomime is often disparaged today as a lost entertainment form that is better off lost, just as slapstick is derided as minor, low comedy that is nothing more than people falling down or slapping each other. But such opinions are quite ignorant, most likely proffered by those who have never seen either in their best light.
At their best, both pantomime and slapstick are brilliant art forms that can rouse an audience to tears or laughter, and sometimes both in the same breath (see Charles Chaplin’s “The Kid”).
Not all of the films in “”Lost & Found” rise to that level, but the best of these are highly entertaining, and even the entries that may seem less interesting to the average viewer will be exciting to those of us who cherish historical film as something more than merely a footnote to entertainment history.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com