September 17, 1996

Movie History Emerges From a Basement
By Bernard Weinraub

HOLLYWOOD -- A film that archivists believe to be the oldest complete American feature, a 1912 version of Shakespeare's "Richard III," has been been turned over to the American Film Institute in near-perfect condition. The print had been stored for more than 30 years in the basement of a onetime theater projectionist in Portland, Ore.

Produced three years before D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation," "Richard III" was long thought by film historians to be lost. The film, starring Frederick Warde, a popular Shakespearean actor of the day, was the second feature produced in the United States. (The first, a version of "Oliver Twist," released in May 1912, five months before "Richard III," survives in incomplete form, with one reel missing.) The director of "Richard III," James Keane, rose to prominence in 1914 with the release of a social drama called "Money," which included a scene of starving workers storming a banquet.

The discovery of "Richard III" is "like finding a Rembrandt that you didn't know existed, in somebody's closet," said Jean Picker Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute.

She said the institute planned to show the 55-minute movie on Oct. 29 in Los Angeles as part of its annual film festival, with further screenings in New York and other cities in the United States and abroad.

The film's survival "complete in its original print is really astounding," said the silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow. The movie was long considered lost and "expunged from the memory," said Brownlow, the author of "The Parade's Gone By," a history of silent films.

"Richard III" was one of eight American dramatic and documentary feature films released in 1912, the first year that features were made in the United States. Only five survive in any form, and of those, only "Richard III" and two others released later in the year survive in their entirety. (Film archivists define a feature film as a work of at least 40 minutes, or four reels of 35-millimeter film.) From 1895 to 1912, American companies released single-reel films, lasting 10 to 15 minutes.

By all accounts, "Richard III," made by the M.B. Dudley Amusement Company, of New York City, created a splash when it was first released. Filmed in Westchester County and at City Island in the Bronx at a cost of $30,000, the film includes lavish battle scenes with a cast of hundreds, large for the day.

In an interview in The Brooklyn Eagle in November 1912, Warde, the film's star, who for years had his own stage company, described his first film experience.

"The staging and methods of the moving-picture people were revelations to me," he said. "I thought I knew all the tricks of acting, but their work was simply amazing to me. The director of the company simply told the other actors what to do, telling them when to look glad or sorry, when to shout and when to fight, without telling them why they did any of these things."

Warde said he "had to suppress all sense of the ridiculous to go through with the thing in such surroundings."

"Richard III" was given to the film institute by William Buffum, a retired flour mill manager in Portland. Buffum, 77, also was a part-time movie projectionist who had meticulously cared for the film for more than 35 years without realizing its significance. In a telephone interview, Buffum said he acquired the film around 1960 from a friend, Clifford Beckwith, in exchange for several other silent movies. Buffum said he believed that Beckwith was dead.

Describing himself as a film fan since he was a teen-ager, Buffum said he began working as a projectionist in 1938, partly to earn extra money and partly because of his hobby since childhood of collecting and repairing movie projectors.

At the time, he said, he and some friends began collecting feature films. "I bought a few features through ads in Popular Mechanics," he recalled. "I bought B-pictures, Tom Mix, one of them with Hedda Hopper. My friends did the same thing, and we began trading them back and forth."

During World War II, Buffum was deployed as a film projectionist on Army transport ships going to Guam, the Philippines and Australia. After the war, he returned to Portland and resumed his part-time work in movie theaters.

Even as he collected old films through the 1950s, Buffum said, his wife, Margaret, was "scared to death we'd have a fire," because of the highly-flammable nitrate content of the movie stock. Before 1951, 35-millimeter films for theatrical release were made of nitrocellulose, or nitrate, a chemical relative of guncotton, which is used in explosives.

Around 1960, Buffum said, he gave up his remaining collection of 10 to 20 silent films in exchange for two movies from Beckwith, a rare Lon Chaney rural drama from 1919 called "When Bearcat Went Dry," and "Richard III."

Last February, the Buffums decided to sell their home and donate the films to the American Film Institute. Buffum said he had read of preservation efforts of the institute, which was founded in 1967 and is supported by federal and private funds.

"We had seen the films so many times that my wife liked going backward rather than forward," he said. "I had no idea that this was any different than any other old film."

Buffum called the institute's office in Los Angeles, which contacted the preservation staff in Washington.

Over the phone, preservationists told Buffum him how to package and mail the fragile films to the institute's vaults in Suitland, Md., outside Washington. Buffum was sent about $70 to cover the costs of mailing the films.

What surprised archivists was the almost perfect condition of "Richard III." More than 70 percent of all feature films produced before the 1920's do not exist at all, institute officials said.

"We kept the films very carefully," Buffum explained. "We would take them out and rewind them once a year to make sure they weren't disintegrating."

During summers, the Buffums kept the films in a cement enclosure under their porch. "We were cautious," he said. "We didn't want to start a fire. We wanted to keep them in a cool place."

The Lon Chaney film, though made after "Richard III," was in far worse shape.

The Chaney movie has become part of the film institute's collection of the actor's films at the George Eastman House in Rochester.

The original nitrate print of "Richard III" will become part of the American Film Institute's collection at the Library of Congress. The collection contains nearly 30,000 films and television shows. The preservation of the film is being financially supported by the Joseph H. Kanter Foundation, which is also paying for the composition of a musical score to accompany the film.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times


American Film Institute

Richard III

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