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Trove of long-lost silent films found in New Zealand

A trove of throught-to-be lost silent films have been found in an archive in New Zealand.

A late silent feature directed by John Ford, a short comedy directed by Mabel Normand, a period drama starring Clara Bow and a group of early one-reel westerns are among a trove of long-lost American films recently found in the New Zealand Film Archive.

Some 75 of these movies, chosen for their historical and cultural importance, are in the process of being returned to the United States under the auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit, charitable affiliate of the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board. (This writer is a member of the board, and has served on grant panels for the foundation, though none related to the current project.) Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s minister for arts, culture and heritage, is expected to announce the discovery and the repatriation officially this week.

The films came to light early in 2009, when Brian Meacham, a preservationist for the Los Angeles archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, dropped in on colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington during a vacation.

“The conversation inevitably turned to what films we held in our collection,” recalled Steve Russell, the New Zealand archive’s manager of corporate services. “Brian was not surprisingly excited to learn the Film Archive held a number of non-New Zealand titles, primarily early nitrate films, including a substantial number of American films. We offered to compile a list of the U.S. material, and it was a short step to here.” Many foreign films remained in New Zealand after their commercial lives were over because the studios didn’t think the return shipping was worth the expense. “It’s one of the rare cases where the tyranny of distance has worked in our and the films’ favor,” Mr. Russell said.

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