Lost and Found: What’s your favorite silent movie recovery/survival story?

“Lost Silent Movie Found in Barn!”

Silent movie fans live for these headlines. Eccentric collectors’ estate sales, disorganized archives, old movie theaters and even abandoned swimming pools, lost silent movies can crop up in the strangest locations.

For me, though, the most interesting silent film recovery stories are the ones that are the result of years of patience, combing through archives and collections for one more fragment of film. Napoleon, Michael Strogoff and The Sea Hawk are all in existence because somebody made it their business to look for more.

As I prepare for my Latin American Silent Film theme month, I am constantly impressed by the historians and archivists who recovered, preserved and even reconstructed films that would otherwise have decayed years ago.

The Brazilian film Limite was rescued primarily due to the efforts of Saulo Pereira de Mello, who saw the film as a student by chance. He had a crush on a young lady who was attending the screening and while he cared nothing for Brazilian silent film, he wanted to make time with the object of his affection.

By the time the film ended, he was in love. Not with the young woman but with Limite. He preserved the only nitrate copy and oversaw the restoration process that saved the film for future generations. (The film has just been released on DVD/Bluray in the United States by the Criterion Collection as part of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project Vol. 2.)

What’s your favorite tale of silent film preservation, restoration or survival? Is it a dramatic barn discovery or a painstaking passion project or something else altogether? Do share!

***

Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.

32 Replies to “Lost and Found: What’s your favorite silent movie recovery/survival story?”

  1. I had first seen Metropolis in February 2008. I’m a purist, so I went with the 2003 Kino restoration. I was awed, but at the same time, saddened-the explanatory text for the missing scenes was a bit depressing.

    I was thrilled when they found the missing scenes that summer. To think they’d been mouldering in Argentina for decades!

  2. My personal favorite is the story of the discovery of a print of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” in a janitor’s closet in a mental institution in Oslo, Norway.

  3. My favorite story is how Lon Chaney’s “The Unknown” was found in some film canisters marked “unknown.” It was presumed to be lost before they found these canisters of old film. One reel is still missing, but the film works. Somehow it’s appropriate that such a bizarre film has such an unusual rediscovery story.

  4. Chalk up another one for Metropolis here. Not only was it totally unexpected and out of the blue (as all of these stories are) but the missing footage really makes a difference.

    Plus the restorations on it and The Passion of Joan of Arc are simply sights to behold, especially that clip on restoring Joan of Arc from some of the footage they had and how blurry it was to what it became after restoration.

    I know it’s probably never going to happen, but a small part of my refuses to give up hope for London After Midnight. I don’t even care if it would turn out to be a lousy film, it would just be the best thing ever to have the infamous film finally see the first light of day since it premiered in 1927.

      1. I’ve wondered the same thing, if there’s a private collector out there holding on to a print of “London After Midnight” until after the copyright expires.

  5. The lost Orson Welles/Joseph Cotton Silent film, Too Much Johnson being found in a warehouse.

    A father and daughter found some film reels at a tip in Devon a few years back. Among the films was The Cardboard Lover starring Marion Davis.

    I would love for the deleted footage of Cleopatra (1963) to turn up somewhere. I’d also love someone to find London After Midnight.

  6. There are two. The first is when the actor James Mason found lost Buster Keaton material in his house, which was once owned by Buster. And the second is when a second version with unseen footage of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith was found in a batch of film prints bought on ebay.

  7. Even though it’s not a current discovery, my favorite has to be the Dawson City film find. To find one film is amazing, to find that many reels of silent film is just beyond belief!

  8. As many have said. I still hold out some small but probably misguided hope that Cleopatra, London After Midnight, and The Mountain Eagle will be found somewhere in an unknown canister or in somebody’s collection.

    Another film I wish an complete print would be uncovered would be “The American Venus”. Surviving footage from the film trailer(starting at 22 seconds) is breathtaking.

  9. Here’s a lovely story to tell friends when they are lamenting one of their fave silents being lost or missing scenes/reels, etc. From silent film.org:

    “The recovery of Why Be Good? is a story of two people coming together in the right place at the right time. In 1994, Ron Hutchinson, founder of the Vitaphone Project, presented a program of restored Vitaphone short films at New York’s Film Forum. In his opening remarks, he brought the audience up to date on activities of the organization formed in 1991 to locate soundtrack disks for early Vitaphone and other talkie shorts and features and reunite them, if possible, with their films.

    Writing about the occasion, Hutchinson recalled, “I casually mentioned that I recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore’s Why Be Good? I said something to the effect that ‘unfortunately, this is a lost film.’ Film historian Joseph Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center [a now-closed repository of the New York Public Library system], was a friend of Colleen Moore and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out ‘No it’s not! I know where it is!’ The full house at Film Forum cheered.” Those cheers were premature, however. It was not until 2012 that Cineteca Italiana di Milano, which housed the print, returned it to the United States for restoration.”

  10. Love all of these stories.

    Here’s an obscure one. The 1927 Shanghai produced “Pan Si Dong” (The Cave of the Silken Web) showed up in the Norwegian National Archive in 2013. Turns out it had been screened in Oslo in 1929, and the copy remained (minus the first reel and some minutes from the middle). I believe that before this film was discovered, only one other Shanghai-produced silent film was known to survive.

    Another cool find in the Norwegian National Archive was the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short “Empty Socks” (1928). Animation historian David Gerstein tracked it down, having already found another lost Oswald short in Norway earlier (I think that one was “Tall Timber”).

Comments open for 90 days. Comment policy is found in the sidebar menu.