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A treasure trove of silent American movies found in Amsterdam

Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s “Mickey’s Circus,” featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917's "Neptune's Naughty Daughter"; 1925’s “Fifty Million Years Ago,” an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, “The Last Word in Chickens,” are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam.

EYE and the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation have partnered to repatriate and preserve these films -- the majority either don’t exist in the U.S. or only in inferior prints.

The announcement was to be made Sunday in Amsterdam at EYE Museum with a public screening of the first film saved from the project “Koko’s Queen,” a 1926  “Out of the Inkwell” cartoon, which had been available in the U.S. only in substandard video copies.

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Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, said EYE came to them after learning of NFPF’s partnership four years ago with the New Zealand Film Archive, which repatriated nitrate prints of nearly 200 silent U.S. films, including a missing 1927 John Ford comedy, “Upstream.” The following year, the NFPF and the New Zealand archive also identified the 30-minute portion of the 1923 British film “The White Shadow,” which is considered to be the earliest feature film in which Alfred Hitchcock had a credit.

“We had so much on our plate,” said Melville. “We took responsibility for funding the preservation of a good number of the 176 films. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. There are a lot of resources involved in bringing the films back and preserving them. Most of this work is funded through grants.”

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF last year sent researcher Leslie Lewis to Amsterdam, where she spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of highly combustible 35mm nitrate film. A veritable Sherlock Holmes of celluloid, Lewis also was one of two nitrate experts dispatched to identify the films in the New Zealand Archive.

“There’s a good reason these films haven’t been preserved,” said Melville, noting that credit sequences on many of the titles had decayed over the years. “Many of them haven’t been identified because the way films sit on their reels, sometimes the credits are most exposed to the atmosphere.”

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Then there was the language problem. In the instances in which credits did survive or the film had intertitles, they were generally in Dutch.

“There was a lot of detective work going on,” said Melville.

Working with research teams at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Lewis would take photos of scenes from the films, as well as copies of intertitles and then send  them off to experts for identification.

“We would look up the stuff and send information back the next morning,” said Melville, adding that this is the first large-scale repatriation project involving the translation of intertitles back into English.

Not only does the EYE collection feature shorts, animated films, dramas, serials and westerns, there is also a cache of nonfiction films, including footage from a 1920 Chicago rodeo; 1923’s “The Crystal Ascension,” which chronicles an exploration of Mt. Hood; 1917’s “The Dairy Industry and the Canning of Milk” and 1925’s “Uncommon Clay," a survey of America's art pottery heritage.

“After World War I, many of the film companies in Europe had taken a big hit, and the U.S. government supported the film industry by helping to send over films overseas,” said Melville. They sent short comedies and features, but they solicited big business to send over films about what they do.”

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Twenty-six of the short films, thought to be the best surviving source material on these titles reported anywhere, have been shipped for preservation at Colorlab in Rockville, Md., under the guidance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Library of Congress.

The Oregon Historical Society has joined the effort to restore “The Crystal Ascension.” And just last week the NFPF received a $260,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to fund the preservation and Web presentation of the nonfiction films.

There are more titles that the NFPF wants to repatriate, including two feature films, 1924’s “The Reckless Age,” a comedy with Reginald Denny, and the 1922 melodrama “For the Defense,” with ZaSu Pitts.

When the restoration work is done, the American archives will have custody of new digital scans, 35mm masters, prints and access copies. EYE will receive new prints and digital copies. And the NFPF plans to post copies of the film for streaming on their website.

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