Dozens of lost American silent films unseen for decades — including a 1927 short featuring 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role — have been unearthed in the Netherlands and are set for restoration, it was announced Sunday.
The San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation and the esteemed EYE Filmmuseum of Amsterdam are partnering to bring these films back into public view.
The titles were identified at EYE during two months of research funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The highly flammable nitrate prints were distributed in the Netherlands in the 1910s and ’20s and eventually made their way into the EYE collections. Many are tinted; all are thought to be unique or the best surviving source material reported anywhere in the world.
Mickey’s Circus, from Larry Darmour Productions, stars Rooney as Mickey McGuire, the ringmaster of a kids’ circus. (It was the first of 78 appearances Rooney made as the McGuire character from the comics.) Another film among the first 26 slated for preservation in 2014 is The Backyard (1920), a short comedy that features Oliver Hardy as a ruffian who kidnaps a millionaire’s granddaughter.
Also among those ready to be restored are For the Defense (1922), a crime melodrama with ZaSu Pitts; The Reckless Age (1924), a flapper feature starring Reginald Denny; Fifty Million Years Ago (1925), an introduction to the theory of evolution told through animation; Koko’s Queen (1926), an “Out of the Inkwell” cartoon from Fleischer Studios featuring Koko the Clown; and Flaming Canyons (1929), a stencil-colored tour of then-new national parks Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon.
NFPF consultant Leslie Lewis spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of film, and she eventually identified the movies with the help of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.
New English intertitles (to replace the Dutch ones) will be ready for insertion as soon as preservation work begins at the film lab, NFPF programs manager David Wells said. During the next three years, the works will be preserved to 35mm film and made publicly available through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Library of Congress.
The NFPF estimates that fewer than 20 percent of the American motion pictures created during the first decades of the industry still survive in the U.S. However, the popular silents were circulated around the world, and some titles that were discarded at home survive overseas as distribution prints salvaged by collectors.
A list of the first 26 films that are in the laboratory queue to be preserved (more will follow in the months ahead) can be found here.