In his 1996 mock-doc “Forgotten Silver,” Peter Jackson jokingly unearthed the work of a silent-era filmmaker from New Zealand, a pioneer who made major technological leaps (color, synch sound, etc.) years before the rest of the world. In reality, the nation has proven a surprising hotbed of great archival finds — many of them American. About 80 percent of our country’s silent films are designated as completely lost, but some have cropped up in Kiwi collections, having journeyed thousands of miles across the Pacific.
Fourteen of these have been made available in the DVD collection “American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive,” put out by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Almost all hail from the U.S. But the biggest find is British: “The White Shadow,” which is now the earliest available film with a credit to Alfred Hitchcock — or would be if more than only the first three reels were found. Hitch was only its assistant director, but he claimed it was the first film he really got his mitts on.
From the available footage, it shows: A convoluted melodrama involving twins (both played by star Betty Compson), it’s nonetheless awash in stylish, mature shots and lighting. The director didn’t fully mature till the silent era was over — and would often insert wordless sequences into his classic work — but “Shadow” shows how far along he was even before he’d officially graduated to leader.
The set does include a complete feature from another major director: 1927’s “Upstream,” a backstage comedy from John Ford. His name tends to be synonymous with John Wayne westerns, like “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers,” but he was a prolific and diverse director, who in 1927, at only 32, had already helmed 50 features, and another couple dozen shorts. (In fact, he would spend most of the ‘30s not making westerns.)
The newly found “Upstream” is no major work, but it is important in understanding its maker. Ford proves nearly as comfortable in the theatrical world as he is among "real men," and the majority of the running time is devoted to the clowning around — plus a handful of moving character details — that punctuates his best films.
The majority of the set, though, is short work, and it’s a well-curated, fun lot that shows off the vast variety of entertainment from cinema’s first three decades. Train movies — with cameras trapped in cars or attached to the front — were one of the first popular genres during the medium's infancy. There’s one from 1921 here, plus a cartoon, plus multiple comedies, including the earliest available film starring and directed by Mabel Normand, one of comedy’s earliest female stars.
In fact, one of the revelations is how many women are either the subject — as in the newspaper-set newsreel “The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies” — or in on the creative process. The more one delves into a history cloaked in shadows, the more surprises await, as with two films boasting early color or a documentary on the making of Stetson hats, whose images of laborers doting on one product at a time prove oddly compelling. With this “Treasures” set, there’s a little more light shed on a history largely in the darkness.
Also out this week:
‘Iron Man 3’
Shane Black, the one-time hotshot screenwriter who penned "Lethal Weapon" and directed Robert Downey Jr. in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," did his best to fun up the threequel in a series that shouldn't be as entertaining (and pissy) as it sometimes is.
‘Hannibal: Season 1’
The latest attempt to wring cash from Hannibal Lecter has actually proven pretty rich, with Mads Mikkelsen an appropriately charming aesthete who likes driving Detective Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) nuts.
A film about obsessives who obsess over Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (and Kubrick in general) finds its way to home video, where people can more handily make it their object of obsession.