I sacrificed a “scoop” on today’s exciting news about the cache of rare American films discovered in (and now being repatriated from) New Zealand, because I’m part of the National Film Preservation Board and didn’t think it was right to undermine The New York Times, NPR, et al.
But there’s another incredible find that I do want to share with you, courtesy of Paul Gierucki of Laughsmith Entertainment and my old friend, film historian and biographer Scott Eyman. Scott got all the details in his piece for the Palm Beach Post.
For me, Charlie Chaplin is something of a god; finding a “new” screen appearance, however brief, is like striking a vein of pure gold. The fact that it comes from a film made so early in his screen career at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio—before he cemented his immortal “little tramp” character—makes it even more intriguing, as he was—
—still feeling his way. Chaplin was a successful stage performer trying to make peace with the camera—and with Sennett’s concept of comedy, which leaned toward chaos rather than subtlety. Yet, in the brief excerpt I’ve seen, it’s fascinating to observe how Chaplin uses his eyebrows for comic emphasis and makes his points without resorting to broad gestures, as some other Sennett players did.
This isn’t the first time Gierucki has made great a great silent-film discovery. He unearthed the work print of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (called, simply, Hospitality) that was unveiled at last year’s Damfinos convention in Muskegon, Michigan. And he produced the terrific two-disc DVD of rare Keatoniana called Industrial Strength Keaton a couple of years ago. If you love Buster, you ought to own a copy.
Paul has other projects in the works, but I think he can dine out on this “find” for a good long time. I only wish I could attend this year’s Slapsticon in Washington, D.C. and see it on a big screen with a first-time audience.
These two stories of discoveries—including a 1927 John Ford feature—breaking within a day of each other gives hope to film lovers and scholars everywhere. It also presents a challenge to existing archives to redouble their efforts to preserve volatile nitrate negatives and prints while they can. This requires time, money, and expertise; it’s my hope that headline stories like the ones above will underscore the importance of funding such efforts, and continuing to train a new generation of preservationists.
For more details, and even moving footage, from the cache of rare American films found in New Zealand, go to www.filmpreservation.org.