Secrets of the Night: Former Winnipegger digs lost film out of his basement after 30 years

Mystery. Comedy. A murder in an old house where everyone is a suspect.

These are the building blocks of Secrets of the Night, a silent movie from 1924. For years, silent film enthusiasts thought the flick was lost, like more than 7,000 other films from the era. In fact, it was listed on the U.S. Library of Congress's list of lost films.

But then Richard Scott, a former Winnipegger now living in Mississauga, Ont., dug it — along with 14 other movies from the 1920s — out of his basement, where they sat almost perfectly preserved for the past 30 years.

The films have been in Scott's family for around 70 years. He grew up watching them in the basement of his family's St. James-area home, projected from the original 16-mm film onto a bedsheet hung up with clothes pegs.

His dad had brought the whole set-up home from Eaton's, where he worked. The store used to offer a film library, but shut the service down in the 1940s and got rid of its stock.

Scott's dad took home the 15 movies, and a projector to boot.

"They've stayed in my family ever since then, and I've had them here in my home in Ontario as long as we've lived here in Ontario, which is over 30 years," Scott said.

"And so we decided that it's time to try to find out what to do with them."

'More than rare'

At first, Scott said he wasn't sure what to do with the collection.

"I knew they probably had some, well, some value, but more even than value that they were very rare," he said.

"When you have something that's sort of one-of-a-kind, there's really no marketplace for them, and you have to search it out, so that's what I did."

Scott contacted the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y. Staff there put him in touch with a media archivist at the University of Toronto, who went to Scott's home and picked up the films to examine them back at the school.

A few weeks later, she got back to him: the school was going to restore and digitize every one of the films, and one of them — Secrets of the Night — was extra special.

"It's, dare I say, more than rare — it is unique," Brock Silversides, director of the University of Toronto's media commons department, told The Canadian Press. He noted that previously, only a partial copy of the film was known to exist in a private collection.

Last week, the school organized a special screening of the film, with a pianist providing the soundtrack. Scott and his family were there, along with around 100 people from the Toronto film community.

"It was wonderful," Scott said. "I hadn't seen this film in 50 years, probably. Since I was a teenager."

"It really, really took us back to those days of sitting in our basement and watching those films from an old 16-mm projector," he added.

"But the beauty of this one was we didn't have to keep changing reels because it had been digitized from beginning to end, every single scene, including all the opening credits and the proper ending. Everything was completely intact."

Little by little, Scott said the school will restore and digitize all the films, bringing them back to life after the better part of a century.

"I'm just happy that they're not sitting in a box anymore, that they're going to be seen," he said.