US film historians find treasure in Czech archive


American film historians recently came across a fascinating discovery when they found the Czech National Film Archive has the only surviving print of the 1929 US movie, the Mysterious Island. The archive in Prague stores around 500 films from Hollywood’s early days, proof that the global dominance of American cinema goes all the way back to the birth of the film industry.

The epic American movie The Mysterious Island, loosely based on the French writer Jules Verne’s adventurous novel, was released in 1929. The Technicolor film starred, among others, the Oscar-winning actor Lionel Barrymore. But it became a financial and critical disaster, according to the IMDb; one reviewer wrote it was uncomfortably poised between silence and sound, suffering the drawbacks of both eras while retaining the virtues of neither.

Film historians long believed no complete print of the film had survived – until experts in the US discovered that the movie had been preserved in the Czech National Archive. Deborah Stoiber from the George Eastman House film archive recently visited Prague to present a film from their own collection – and to examine the sole existing copy of The Mysterious Island.

“I decided to take advantage of my trip here to visit the archive and to take a look at this wonderful feature film, to see quality of the image and the quality of the print, and take that information with me to the US so that we can hopefully find funding to do full preservation on this material.”

Deborah Stoiber is in charge of the nitrate film collection at George Eastman House. The year 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of Technicolor, a colour movie process, and research into Technicolor films has led the archivists to Prague.

“We are discovering there is a huge amount of information that has never been released to the public. We are working on a book on the history of Technicolor, and we have decided to focus our attentions on Technicolor films, and we are finding that archives around the world have so much of this material in very good conditions.”

After the First World War, American movies flooded European cinemas including those in the newly established Czechoslovakia. Many of them were eventually acquired by the archive – to the surprise of American film historians.

Deborah Stoiber,  photo: archive of Czech National Film Archive
“This is a rare find. My colleague James Layton was doing research and contacted the Czech film archive, asking if they had any true-colour Technicolor movies. And they said, ‘Oh yes, we have this title’, and it was a real surprise.

“The George Eastman House has only a small fragment of that film, maybe just a few seconds long, and it was the only known material. We believe another archive in Europe might have a small piece as well but nothing nearly as complete as what’s here in Prague.”

The Czech National Film Archive boasts 150 million metres of film material; the Mysterious Island is one of around 500 silent US films preserved in its collection. The man in charge of movies made in English-speaking countries is historian Věroslav Hába.

“The import of American films after WWI was so massive that it’s not surprising. These films were shown here and people were very interested in American films, so I think it’s natural that some of the films have survived here.”

Mr Hába says the Czech collection of silent American movies is not unique as many movies of the era also survived in France, Germany, the Netherlands and even Australia and New Zealand. The film archive in Prague has been cooperating with US institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, since the 1960s. In return, the archive received some rare Czech films which were shipped to Prague in the 1980s. And the cooperation has continued ever since.

“Not long ago, we were approached by people from Tucson, Arizona, where the locals were searching for films that were shot there. We are the only archive that has a print of Wild West Romance, a western starring Rex Belle. They wanted to screen it in their city, and we were able to help them, and offered them at least a DVD with the film.”

The way the films found their ways in the archive vaults is no less amazing: when Hollywood studios shipped their films to be shown to audiences oversees, they did not ask to get the prints back. After making a round of cinemas across Czechoslovakia, many of the prints were destroyed but some were acquired by people who collected Hollywood films already at the time. Věroslav Hába explains.

Věroslav Hába,  photo: Czech Television
“As a rule, the prints were not sent back but were destroyed here. They were salvaged for silver and other materials. But there were collectors who often succeeded and got the films for their own private collections, and they screened these films illegally. So that’s one of the ways the films survived here.”

The Czech National Film Archive marks its 70th anniversary this year; it was founded at the height of the Second World War by Czech film enthusiasts who were trying to preserve this part of the nation’s cultural heritage from wartime destruction.

After the war, the film industry was nationalised, outlawing the very ownership of film prints by individuals and private companies. That was an important source of films for the archive

“Everybody was required to hand the films over to the authorities although some people refused. But there was another source – groups or associations that wanted to safeguard American and other films before or at the start of the Second World War. The Nazis also wanted to get hold of everything and send it to Germany.”

Some of the films now featured in the Czech archive also came from private collectors who refused to give up their treasures, or their heirs.

“For instance, there was a big collection that belonged to a travelling projectionist, a certain Mr Bouda. We received 1,600 films rare and precious from him. When another travelling cinema owner, Mr Pišvejc, died, his relatives discovered his films under the floor of his chicken coop. We got many Tom Mix films from them which did not survive in other parts of the world.”

The US film experts now hope that in cooperation with the Czech National Film Archive, they will be able to restore the only surviving print of The Mysterious Island, and eventually show it to audiences in the United States and elsewhere.