HOLLYWOOD -- A film that archivists believe to be the oldest complete American feature, a 1912 version of Shakespeare's "Richard III," has been been given to the American Film Institute in near-perfect condition. The print had been stored for more than 30 years in the basement of a former 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 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 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 TTC 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 mm film.)
Filmed in Westchester County and in the Bronx, N.Y., at a cost of $30,000, the film includes lavish battle scenes with a cast of hundreds, large for the day.
"Richard III" was given to the film institute by William Buffum. 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.
Pub Date: 9/17/96