Long-missing comedy shorts -- including 1927's "Mickey's Circus," featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, and 1917's "Neptune's Naughty Daughter''; as well as 1925's "Fifty Million Years Ago," an animated introduction to the theory of evolution -- are among the American silent films recently recovered at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam.
EYE and the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation have teamed up to repatriate and preserve these films, many of which no longer exist in the U.S. or exist only in inferior prints.
The announcement was made March 30 in Amsterdam at the 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 has been available in the U.S. only in substandard video copies.
Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, says EYE contacted the foundation after learning about its 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 foundation and the New Zealand archive also identified the 30-minute portion of the 1923 British film "The White Shadow," considered the earliest feature film in which Alfred Hitchcock had a credit.
"We took responsibility for funding the preservation of a good number of the 176 films," Melville says, referring to the EYE discoveries. "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."
With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the San Francisco foundation sent researcher Leslie Lewis to Amsterdam last year, where she spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of highly combustible 35 millimeter nitrate film. A veritable Sherlock Holmes of celluloid, Lewis was also 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," says Melville, noting that credit sequences on many of the titles have 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."
Then there was the language problem. In the instances in which credits did survive or the film had title cards, they were generally in Dutch.
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 title cards and then send them off to experts for identification.
"We would look up the stuff and send information back the next morning," explains Melville, adding that this is the first large-scale repatriation project involving the translation of title cards back into English.
Twenty-six of the short films 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.
There are more titles that the foundation 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, 35 mm masters, prints and access copies. EYE will receive new prints and digital copies. The foundation plans to post copies of the films for streaming on its website, www.filmpreservation.org.