Discoveries Galore “Down Under”
During the 1960’s there were a number of major film vault fires that destroyed the only known prints or negatives of silent and early sound films. The worst of these was on May 13, 1967 at MGM’s Culver City studio Vault #7. Nitrate film was ignited by an electrical fire and destroyed hundreds of short and feature films. The losses included Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight and A Blind Bargain, and much early two-color Technicolor footage from The Broadway Melody, Chasing Rainbows, So This Is Marriage? and the last known print of the all Technicolor The Rogue Song with Lawrence Tibbett and Laurel and Hardy. Also lost were many of the original release master prints of pre-1951 MGM cartoons.
Short subjects were not spared from the devastating losses. Most of the 1927-29 silent Our Gang and Charlie Chase shorts were burned, as was Laurel and Hardy’s Hats Off.
Even bigger losses were sustained in 1937 when the Fox Studio film vaults in Little Ferry, NJ caught fire, destroying most of the studio’s silent and pre-1932 films.
Yet, a number of these lost films have been rediscovered over the past thirty years, thanks in large part to Australia.
Australia and New Zealand had hundreds of theatres, per capita on par with the United States. As such the countries required a steady stream of most Hollywood releases to keep their theatres supplied. All of the major studios regularly shipped their shorts and features there, and had their own distribution centers in the country — essentially large warehouses that stored past and current releases.
The primary reason that so many previously lost American films have been found “down under” is purely economic: once a film had completed its run, it was too expensive to ship it back to Hollywood. So instead, prints went to the studio’s Australian distribution centers, often to remain there until they closed in the early 1960’s.
Enter film collectors. As television eroded movie theatre attendance in the early 1960’s, many theatres closed and the studios decided to close their distribution centers. In most cases, the accumulated thousands of reels of film were trucked to the local landfill for disposal. There was no perceived value in films made before 1950. Fortunately, a handful of twenty-something film collectors learned of the landfilling plan, and in some cases were able to bribe garbage truck drivers to drop of reels of 35mm film at their homes. We can never know how many films were saved in this way, or how many met their fate in Australian landfills.
As film preservation efforts increased in the 1980’s, a number of films lost in US vault fires or through decomposition turned up “down under.” The first major discovery was in the late 1980’s when one Technicolor reel from the otherwise completely lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (WB/’29) was found in Australia. Subsequently, a full Technicolor print of the first non-musical Technicolor feature, Mamba (Tiffany/’30) turned up and has since been restored with its Vitaphone disks. A British produced/US filmed short featuring major jazz musicians Jack Teagarden and Jimmy McPartland, Me and the Boys (Wardour/’29), was found in 2011 and also restored.
Perhaps the most prominent Australian discovery occurred in 2013 when one of the now eighty-year-old collectors who had diverted film from the landfill emailed me. He said he thought he had a film that might be considered lost. It turned out to be the long lost Technicolor MGM 2 reel short, Hello Pop! This discovery was significant because it was the only lost film with the Three Stooges. The only previously known print had burned in the 1967 MGM fire, and became the holy grail of Stooges fans. I immediately confirmed this was indeed a lost film. The collector was extremely cooperative, and worked with my friend Paul Brennan (who had been instrumental in finding Mamba) to get the nitrate reels properly packaged and shipped to Warner Bros for restoration. The short is included on the Warner Archive DVD “Shorts From The Dream Factory, Volume 3”.
Efforts are now in progress to seek out the other elderly collectors or their collections — if they still survive in the often tropical Australian climate. There is huge potential for future discoveries there. We know, for example, that the still lost 1933 Pre-Code Warner Bros feature Convention City received extensive screening upon its initial release. Were all prints returned or destroyed? I doubt it!
– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub
Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.
And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon: