TORONTO — As a kid in Winnipeg, Richard Scott used to huddle in the basement with his family and watch 1920s-era silent films projected onto a bedsheet hung up with clothespins.
His dad, who worked at Eaton's, acquired the 16-millimetre films when the local department store discontinued its rental service and got rid of its stock in the late 1940s.
"We had piles of these movie tins," Scott recalled. "In total there were 15 feature movies, but none of them were the big-name actors of the time. They weren't Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton."
Still, one of them has turned out to be a gem.
"Secrets of the Night," which the Library of Congress in the United States had declared as one of the thousands of "lost" movies of the silent-film era, was among the titles in the Scott family collection.
"It's, dare I say, more than rare — it is unique," said Brock Silversides, director of the University of Toronto's Media Commons department, which received the film and many others from the Scott family.
Scott, who is retired, said the films had been kept in their original tins in an insulated box in his basement in Mississauga, Ont., for about 30 years.
When he started downsizing, he reached out to the university, which has since restored and digitized the copy of "Secrets of the Night," a 1924 murder-mystery comedy starring James Kirkwood, Madge Bellamy and ZaSu Pitts.
Last week, the school organized a special screening of the film with a pianist providing the soundtrack.
"We're the only public institution that actually has the full film," said Silversides, who noted only a partial copy of the film was known to be in a private collection.
Overall, the entire Scott collection comprises lower-budget, "good, solid films that give a wonderful idea of filmmaking during the silent era," said Silversides.
"They're extremely professional, they're good lighting, good editing, good acting, just good feature films."
Scott said he's "thrilled" that the films have found a new home and will be appreciated.
"They haven't been doing anything here for us," said Scott.
"It's better that the films be viewed and restored than have them just continue to deteriorate."
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press