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The Rediscovered Lost Films of 2014 (so far)

Fans of classic films, and particularly silent films, are all too well aware that way too many of the films have been lost over the decades. In fact, it was estimated several months back that around 75% of all silent films are lost. As bad as that news is, every year a few more lost films are found. It’s only June, but already it’s an excellent year for rediscovering lost films. With the most recent find occurring last month, 28 films have been restored already. Some of these are of particular importance in film history. Let’s take a look at what’s been found so far.

26 of the 28 found films come by way of the National Film Preservation Foundation. The group has done great work before. Their DVD release last year, Lost and Found: Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive, included such notable films as a short directed by Mabel Normand and the first seen footage of Alfred Hitchcock’s work as an assistant director. Their estimates are that they have preserved over 2,000 films already, and they’re slated to preserve those 26 more previously lost films this year. An Amsterdam film archive presented to them last year tons of nitrate prints from their vaults. Now, after examining it all, the films are set to be preserved this year. The full list can be seen here, but here are some of the highlights:

The Backyard, a 1920 short starring Oliver Hardy (still credited as Babe Hardy at the time), and Jimmy Aubrey. Little is known about this one, aside from Hardy being credited as “a ruffian” and Aubrey as “almost a cop.”
Mickey’s Circus, from 1927, the first starring role for Mickey Rooney.
-One comedy each from three different silent comedy studios: Essanay, Mack Sennett and the lesser known Century Comedies. Neptune’s Naughty Daughter, the Century film, comes from the first year of the company’s existence, 1917. The Sennett film, The Village Chestnut, stars Chester Conklin. The Essanay film is almost a complete mystery. As of now, there is not even one cast member known.
Fifty Million Years Ago, a 1925 animated film that discusses the theory of evolution.

Two other films have been discovered this year, one in April and one in May. The 1923 British film Love, Life and Laughter also turned up in the Amsterdam archive in April, long after the other 26 films discussed above were found.

This is a notable discovery for British films. That country’s silent films have faired slightly worse than their American counterparts–it’s estimated an even higher percentage of their silent films (80%) are missing. This film in particular is important as it stars Betty Balfour, perhaps the biggest British silent film female star. But essentially all of her work has never been seen by modern audiences. Until this discovery, only one complete film of hers and a fragment of another had survived. It appears that the British Film Institute has yet to obtain the film, but they hope to screen it at some point.

The other film, the 1956 musical Corn’s a-Poppin, was discovered at the University of Wisconsin. It already received a screening last month, and will have another later this month. Written at least partially (and rumored to be directed by) by Robert Altman, one of the very few plot accounts available indicates the climax takes place in outer space.

And so, just six months into the year, 28 lost films have been discovered. Given that 27 of these films come from the Amsterdam film archive, maybe it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that even more could turn up from that source alone. Even if not, there will still be a lot of rare finds available to watch very soon.


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