Lost Film Files #16: Far From the Madding Crowd (1915)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

If ever there was a tale to showcase leading men, this is it. Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel features three juicy parts for the boys: The flashy playboy, the mature stalker and the solid (and stolid!) suitor-in-waiting. There is also a doozy of a leading lady part and a few nice supporting roles for actresses as well.

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Lost Film Files #14: Gang War (1928)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Jack Pickford (little brother of Mary) stars with Olive Borden in this gangster film, his final motion picture appearance. With the success of Underworld, all things gangland were popular and profitable. The demand for the genre would, of course, only increase with the coming of sound and the introduction of Cagney, Robinson and Raft, among others.

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Lost Film Files #13: Me, Gangster (1928) directed by Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh. You may know him as the director of gangster classics White Heat, The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra. What you may not know is that Walsh’s career had been linked with crime pictures since the very beginning. He directed Regeneration, considered by many to be the first true gangster feature, in 1915. He had only been directing pictures for three years at that point.

Me, Gangster was released during the sound transition and was offered with a synchronized score. The reviews were quite positive. It was based on a book by Charles Francis Coe and it presented itself as the diary of a gangster. The intertitles were even hand-written. I am not usually a fan of diary picture since the narration is often intrusive but I think that the silent format would make this narrative device work quite well.

Leading man Don Terry would find fame in cliffhanger serials, most famously Don Winslow of the Navy. Pre-stardom Carole Lombard has a supporting part as Blonde Rosie.

Photoplay loved the picture:

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Here is a picture as sentimental, as melodramatic, as pointedly moral as any picture ever made, yet it is completely absorbing. Raoul Walsh has the knack, possessed by Griffith in his heyday, of making the characters of a sticky story pulse with life.

The picture is outstanding for another and a more important reason. It brings a new player, a very fine, very compelling actor to the screen, one Don Terry, a young college man discovered by the author of the piece, Charles Francis Coe, in the Montmartre Cafe. Terry’s performance stands out as one of the unusual and moving gestures of the cinema. He is not handsome, he is definitely a type, yet there is a rugged charm about him that gives him a niche higher than your sleek haired, amorous puppets.

The story is related in a novel form. It is “The Diary of Me, Gangster” and the subtitles are shown in handwriting, written in the first person. It is the boy’s story, of course, yet there are splendid performances given by June Collyer, who makes the most of a weak role; by Anders Randolf and by Gustav von Seyffertitz. It is an injustice to relate the plot, since it is an ordinary one of the son of a wardheeler who finds that crime doesn’t pay. Such trite phrases as “the straight and narrow path,” “going straight,” etc., are plentiful. But it is the absorbing interest of the prison scenes, the fascinating development of the situations and the absolutely perfect characterization of Terry that make it a splendid contribution to the art of the cinema. It may not touch your heart, except in one prison scene, but it will hold you spellbound.

The New York Times was also lavish in its praise:

Raoul Walsh, producer of the film version of “What Price Glory,” directed “Me, Gangster.” His scenes move compellingly and naturally, but toward the end there are pardonable periods of gun-play and general excitement. It is, however, a chronicle that stresses the futility of a lawless existence and Mr. Walsh points out the desperate chances the gangster takes and stresses that there is precious little honor among thieves.

Motion Picture News was less excited about the film, though it admitted that is was powerful:

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Carrying a decorative title which fairly shouts its meaning:, this crook drama gets under way with realistic touches and maintains them through a series of punchy scenes to the very finish. The idea is built up from a sort of diary exploiting the criminal life of a convict from his first days of crookedness until he seeks and finds redemption through the aid of a girl who believes in him.

Not so new, is it ? But it is forcefully presented and sticks to its pattern without trespassing over into sentimental pastures, aside from the necessary romantic interest. The hero is a bad chip of a bad old block and after a series of shady crimes he wins an election to prison. But the girl who loves him exercises her charm and understanding. And the youth’s redemption is effected.

The piece is strongest in its atmosphere, the scenes comprising prison shots, police court sequences, and some tenement tidbits. The story is well told, punctuated with adequate incident and acted competently enough even if the players are not always convincing.

This movie sounds like a pip to me. Plus, you know, Carole Lombard! Check those attics, basements, etc.

In the Vaults #6: The Cossack Whip (1916)

Status: Complete reconstructed print held by the George Eastman House. There are also prints held by the Library of Congress and the National Archives of Canada.

I first heard of this film in Kevin Brownlow’s marvelous Behind the Mask of Innocence. It is one of the films of director John Collins, a talented artist whose early death from Spanish Influenza deprived the fledgling motion picture industry of one of its potential greats. Collins directed his wife, Viola Dana, in this anti-czarist film, a reasonably common genre at the time.

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Brownlow praised Collins for his rapid cross-cutting and sophisticated style. Star Viola Dana recalled the difficulty she had in handling the whip of the title. Tiny, delicate and just nineteen, Dana was universally praised for her performance. The popularity had a downside: she was mobbed by enthusiastic fans during a personal appearance promoting the film.

Moving Picture World provided this synopsis:

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A long line of prisoners winds over the snow-covered Russian steppes toward the train which is to carry the unfortunates to Siberia. A band of revolutionists, bent on freeing their brothers from the living death, attack the Cossack guard and in the excitement several prisoners escape. Turov, Prefect of Police, learns of the attack and orders the whole district raided that he may punish the perpetrators of the attack.

In their crude home live Sasha and his daughters, Darya and Katerina. Suddenly the still air is shattered with the blood-curdling yells of the raiding Cossacks. Little Darya is quickly hidden, hut Sasha and Katerina are led before Turov. The father is sent to Siberia. Soon afterward Katerina. robbed of life and honor, creeps back to the little settlement to die, carrying with her the Cossack knout with which she has been flogged.

Over her sister’s body, Darya swears revenge and keeps the Cossack’s whip as a reminder of her vow. Then follows a story of action and power, telling how Darya becomes the favorite dancer of the Imperial Ballet; how she brings the bloodthirsty Turov to her feet and finally accomplishes her revenge; how, at last, she listens to the pleadings of Sergius, a revolutionist and master of the ballet, and how the two of them make their way out of Russia and across the ocean to the great land of liberty and opportunity.

And the review from the same magazine was very positive:

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It is not often that a motion picture visually telling of Russian revolutionists and of oppression by the Russian police diverges from a rather tiresome sameness, but this Is done to a considerable extent in “The Cossack Whip,” a five-reel picture produced by Thomas A. Edison, Inc.. for release through K-E-S-E. Good entertainment is furnished by the five reels of this production, and the work of Viola Dana in the leading role is flawless. She plays the part of the youngest member of a Russian household, which is crashed by the police, with a finesse of understanding and sympathy. As the plot develops. Miss Dana’s screen characterization develops with it, but so gradually and so subtly does she change from a simple lass into a revengeful woman that the spectator is forced to feel for her.

The story has been superbly screened, and no little amount of credit is due Director John Collins. Many unusual and novel settings are seen in the film — especially the ballet scenes. Photographically, the production is excellent, and it is evident from a showing of the finished product that director and company worked in harmony.

The players appearing in support of Miss Dana make the story convincing. Richard Tucker pleases in the leading male role. Frank Farrington does commendable work as the superintendent of police, and Sally Crute makes a lovable Mme. Pojeska. Grace Williams, as the sister of the girl, and Bob Walker, as Alexis, both do good work.

Darya, the girl, keeps the scourge with which her sister has been flogged to death. She swears to avenge her sister and her father, and becomes a ballet dancer. She becomes famous in London and, returning to Russia, is entertained by the chief of police. By a clever ruse she gets him to put his hands in the handcuffs which held her sister. She flogs him with the whip used on her sister. The despot is killed by a brother-revolutionist.

Photoplay was happy:

A corking Russian story  evidently made some time ago by Edison, but released only a few weeks since. It has vigor, action, speed, suspense and fine heart interest. Viola Dana plays the chief role.

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John Collins has a high reputation among film scholars but most of his films are not made available to the general public. It is high time that we be given a peek at his work.

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About Silent Movies: Lost and Found

The number of lost films from the silent era is enough to make a film fan weep. If you have been reading my Lost Film Files series, you will see that the missing films are not just small, obscure productions. No, the missing films include works from top stars, directors and studios. These were big hits, some of them considered the best films of the year.

Some movies were lost through neglect and decay, others were purposely destroyed. Nitrate film is flammable and a great many films have been lost to fire.

Let’s consider a few questions that commonly crop up when discussing lost films.

How many silent films are lost?

The definitive answer is we don’t know. Some sources put the amount as high as 90%. However, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. If no archive or collector claims ownership of a film print, then we can assume that no copies of the film exist. However, archive catalogs are not perfect and not every private collector shares their treasures.

Further muddying the waters is the misinformation spread about silent films. Two movies with similar names can be confused. Historians may misremember a viewing experience. There have even been instances of IMDB reviewers allegedly pretending have seen lost films (using information culled from contemporary reviews) and of elaborate hoaxes claiming that long-lost films have been found.

Big name films are hard enough to find information about. Smaller, more obscure films can be well nigh impossible to track down. So, in short, it is quite possible that a “lost film” is actually in existence somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.

Here are some common questions that crop up around lost films.

What is nitrate film?

It’s a word that keeps getting thrown around whenever the subject of lost films is discussed. Nitrocellulose film was first produced by Kodak in 1889 and was used for movies until the early 50’s. What is it about nitrate film that makes it so significant?

It’s flammable: As you can see from the video above, nitrate film is extremely dangerous. Nitrate fires are responsible for many lost films and, in some tragic cases, lost lives. Fires were often caused by candles, matches, cigarettes and electrical shorts but nitrate film can also spontaneously combust.

It decays: Nitrate film is chemically unstable and, in extreme cases of decay, films can be reduced to dust.

It’s difficult to store: Theda Bara and Hobart Bosworth, among others, kept personal collections of their films. In both cases, incorrect storage conditions meant the irreplaceable collections were lost to decay.

Kodak has a very detailed article on nitrate film storage. A sample:

“Never store any nitrate base materials in sealed containers or without ventilation. Such dead storage simply increases the rate of decomposition. Pack the reels loosely in ventilated metal boxes or cabinets, and store them in a room apart from all other photographic materials. Do not let the storage area temperature exceed 21°C (70°F). If you achieve a lower temperature without increasing relative humidity above 45 percent, that s even better. Relative humidity below 40 percent retards decomposition even more, but makes the film more brittle.”

Why would studios purposely destroy their own films?

Seems strange, doesn’t it? The best way I can explain it is the story I hear again and again. I’m sure you’ve heard it too:

“I had a complete collection of (Superman comics/Original Star Wars action figures/Barbie dolls in their packaging/name your collectible) in the basement but my mom threw them away when I went to college. Do you know how much they would be worth now?”

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The movie studios are mom. Nitrate film is flammable and expensive to store. Plus, a small amount of money could be made from recovering the silver out of  film. Talkies were the wave of the future and surely no one would want to see those creaky old silents. Why not make room in the vaults and recycle the old stuff? Film preservationist Robert A. Harris stated that while nitrate decay was responsible for some lost films, “most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios.”

However, as Kevin Brownlow brings out in his introduction to the book Silent Movies, these same studios are more than willing to claim any and all copyrights and royalties on the very films they tried to destroy.

How are lost films rediscovered?

Quite a few lost films have been found, I am happy to say! I am just going to share four case studies that illustrate the different ways a film can be rediscovered.

Oh, that’s where they were

"The Arab" was one of the films found in Russia.
“The Arab” was one of the films found in Russia.

Sometimes archives have copies of films and either have not cataloged them, or have not shared their catalogs. In this case, ten American silent films were in the collection of Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive. The Russians graciously presented copies of the films to the Library of Congress.

In the case of archives, it is usually lack of budget, unintentional oversight or political climate that prevents their contents from being publicized. What about private collectors? I am speculating here but perhaps private collectors conceal their films in order to keep their treasures to themselves or to bask in the knowledge that they own the only copy of something. Or they may simply not be interested in cataloging their collections.

And maybe grandma just really needs to clean her attic and consult an expert before selling that old film can on eBay.

Eureka! Beyond the Rocks

For years, Beyond the Rocks was a tantalizing mystery to film fans. The one and only screen collaboration of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino? Who wouldn’t want to see that? Sadly, it was missing and presumed lost.

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When a private collector died and left his large collection to Nederlands Filmmuseum, the museum staff began to go through the films hoping to find lost Dutch movies. They stumbled on one reel of Beyond the Rocks but did not know what the had until they researched the name of the heroine.

This is the kind of story silent film fans daydream about. Getting a stack of nitrate and discovering those intriguing titles that had been out of reach for too long.

Piece by piece, The Sea Hawk

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There was no eureka! moment for The Sea Hawk, just lots of hard work. The Library of Congress had a partial print of the film but pieces, including the justly famous battle scenes, were missing. The missing footage had to be tracked down (in Russia, the Czech Republic and from a private collector) and the entire film restored. TCM provided the money and UCLA provided the know-how. The result was absolutely worth it. However, think of how many fragmented films just waiting for the same treatment. This work does not come cheap and tough decisions have to be made.

The last few feet, Metropolis

Metropolis has been a bit lost since it was released. Oh, most of the film existed but not the director-approved version that Fritz Lang released in 1927, which was hacked down almost immediately after the movie premiered. There were restorations (which filled the gaps with stills and title cards) but that last bit of footage seemed to elude historians.

We owe a large debt of gratitude to Fernando Peña, who heard rumors that the missing footage was being held in Argentinian archives and did not give up until he found it.

Gloria Swanson’s film Sadie Thompson is also famously incomplete, missing its final reel. Here’s hoping that there is another intrepid historian on the verge of discovery.

What now?

The good news is that mass communication and revival of interest in pre-sound films has meant more attention toward film preservation. Some are even taking matters into their own hands.

For example, silent film accompanist Ben Model launched a successful Kickstarter fundraiser for a project he is calling Accidentally Preserved. He raised funds to transfer and score 16mm prints of rare and presumed-lost silent films from his personal collection. He has made several films available on Youtube.

I especially love that this project focuses on rarer films that may never have gotten any attention otherwise.

So, the story of lost films is sad but there is a hint of a happy ending. Keep searching those vaults, buying those old film cans on eBay and using the power of the internet to share films that are lost and found.

Lost Film Files #11: The Sea Wolf (1913)

The Sea Wolf (1913)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

In 1913, Jack London was a white hot author in 1913. Only a few years removed from his three biggest successes (White Fang, The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf), it was natural that film-makers would want to adapt his rugged adventures to the screen. The stories were especially well-suited to the gritty, grimy, outdoorsy world of silent movie making. Because there was no sound equipment to consider, silent movies had freedom to film almost anywhere. The great outdoors were at their disposal.

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At the same time, actor Hobart Bosworth was striking out with his own production company. A burly six-footer, Bosworth was born to act in Jack London stories. He had escaped a wicked step-mother, worked as a sailor, a whaler, a rancher, a wrestler, a boxer, a miner, a magician’s assistant…

(You know what? This guy was awesome!)

He bears a rather striking resemblance to Rutger Hauer and had a similar masculine bearing. In short, ideal to play Wolf Larsen. (Larsen was described as a perfect physical specimen in the Scandinavian mode.)

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Anyway, Bosworth took to the stage where his blue eyes made him a sensation with the fair sex. He was also an extremely good actor, subtle and powerful. Tuberculosis robbed him of his health and his voice. Fortunately, he was able to join the fledgling motion picture industry in California, where the warmer weather ensured better health.

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Bosworth’s production company obtained the rights to London’s novels and began production on The Sea Wolf but another production company, Balboa, attempted to make a film using the same source material. Jack London sued for copyright infringement. I mention this because the ads for the film seem a bit paranoid otherwise. You know, The One and Only Authorized Version kind of thing.

Moving Picture World praised Bosworth but felt the film was too long:sea wolf 1913 image (4)

No praise can be too high for the settings and for the photography. The spirit of the ocean, which London conjures with such enviable ease, is on the screen and travels from the screen to the delighted audience. The attention to detail in all nautical matters, the characterization of the types of sailors, who sail in the London stories — and we all know they are true enough sailors and always mighty interesting — leave not the least thing to be desired. I think a word of acknowledgment is likewise due to the cameraman, whose task was a heavy burden. He has done well. The realism for which a London story affords such fine chances is not lacking. It is convincing no less than exciting. Take the accident. It has every appearance of being real, and the cheers the scenes brought forth from a rather critical audience were well deserved.

Far the most difficult part of the whole production was the rendering of the “Sea-Wolf.” Mr. Bosworth had the physique and the artistic size required by the part, though in the characterization he was not quite as strong as in the “straight” acting. He seemed in the early part of the story not quite certain of his ground, but as the action advanced to the great dramatic moments he electrified the audience by his masterly portrayals. He does not always succeed in expressing a mood, but a passion he can express according to Shakespeare. He found his footing at the first great dramatic moment and never lost it afterward. It was his acting which was chiefly responsible for the sharp revival of interest toward the end of the story just as the action was beginning to drag.

His support was fair. Viola Barry, the only woman in the story, is conscientious in her work. It would have been better if she had not emerged from the shipwreck with her makeup in a flourishing condition.

I think five reels would have been much better than seven. In saying this I realize very well that the adaptation for the screen may be allowed on a much more generous latitude than an adaptation for the conventional stage.

Indeed many of the incidents of the story, though they do not carry the action forward by the fraction of an inch, are entirely welcome to the motion picture audience. What could be more interesting than the rough but good-natured comedy of the sailor folk? The throwing overboard of the cook and “washing” him because of his contempt of sailors’ stomachs, the appearance of a man eating shark going in the direction of the unlucky cook and finally the capture of the monster are incidents that add not a little to the charm and the general effect of the story. Other scenes, however, were painfully superfluous. The lingering of the poet and the critic on Endeavor Island was altogether too long and the action in the last thousand feet could have been fully brought out in less than five hundred feet without the least danger of crowding. The trips to the boat and the final incidents on it might profitably have been cut even at the risk of cutting the story itself. These and other scenes that might be mentioned in different parts of the production have not enough humorous or spectacular value to allow them to detract from the central theme of the story.

The motion picture art is in a fair way to profit by further screen adaptations of the London stories. I predict that in his second venture Mr. Bosworth will touch perfection. He has the ability and he has the ambition which is justified and useful only as it is supported by ability. There was a lavish expenditure of money in the production, an item that counts for much when the money is expended judiciously, as it was in the present case. Every friend of the good motion picture will hail the present and the future work of Mr. Bosworth with sincere joy. We cannot have enough good, clean, thrilling pictures of adventures at sea and in strange lands.

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Bosworth would remain with his production company until 1921’s The Sea Lion, a tale very much along the same lines as The Sea Wolf. He would continue playing fathers, mentors, and other kindly figures but he also included a fair dose of salty (and sometimes psychotic) seamen.

I have seen Bosworth in so many Sea Wolf-like parts that I would love to see him doing the real thing. Check the vaults, please!

About Silent Movies: Kinetoscope, Vitaphone, Part-Talkie…. huh?

Let’s talk a little bit about the terms that are bandied about silent film circles. This is just a brief overview, nothing too heavy. I will probably write some more in-depth articles later but I wanted to provide a handy glossary for readers who may be new to silent film viewing. Here are some important terms:

Time Periods:

These are just generalizations used for easy reference. No two film historians seem to agree on what exact dates these eras began or ended. I like the dates used by the University of California Press’s History of the American Cinema series and they are the ones I borrow for my writing.

Early Cinema (Invention-1907)

There is debate over just what can be considered the first motion picture. (You may have noticed that film historians cannot agree on anything.) Here are the facts: The Lumiere brothers showed a projected film to a paying audience of more than one person in 1895. To me, that counts as the start of movies as we know them. This is open to debate but it works for the purposes of discussion.

Movies were seen as low-class entertainment. Nice girls did not go to movie theaters and respectable actors did not perform in these vulgar little pictures. Gracious! **fans self*** Most films ranged in length from a few seconds to a few minutes. They were often vignettes, news footage, dancing sequences, brief scenes from famous plays or books and even home movies. Later in the period, films got longer and the plots got more elaborate.

Check out Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema (they go up to 1915), if you want more information on this time period.

Kinetoscope
Kinetoscope

The Nickelodeon Era, or, the Pre-Feature Era (1907-1915):

You pay a nickel and you get to see a collection of short subjects, ranging from about 10 to 20 minutes each, in a cheap, chintzy theater. Movies were still not respectable but the ubiquitous nickel theaters were extremely popular. This is when the motion picture industry as we know it began to form and when movies started to migrate en masse to California from New York and New Jersey. Fan magazines were becoming popular and actors were starting to be credited. (They were not allowed screen credit early on because producers feared they would ask for more money.)

You could further divide this era into 1907-1912 for the true Nickelodeon era and 1913-14 for the early feature era but that’s getting a bit fussy for our purposes.

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Silent Feature Film Era (1915-1928):

This is what most people think of when they say “silent era.” While feature-length films had been made prior to 1915, this was the year when they well and truly cornered the market. Movies were potentially respectable family entertainment, actors were idolized, movie theaters were palaces. It also marked the ascendancy of Hollywood in dominating the international market, as their international rivals had been disrupted by World War One.

Pre-Code Era (1930-1934):

The motion picture code was a list of what behaviors were unacceptable in a “decent” motion picture. When people use the term “Pre-Code” they are referring to movies made after the introduction of sound but before the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced. In the silent era, film producers would have to present their films to various regional censor boards for individual approval and was this process ever a pain! Plus, several Hollywood scandals had prudes everywhere calling for federal censorship. Will Hays was invited into the movieland fold in 1922 to try to make sense of the mess, create guidelines for good on-screen behavior and to prevent wholesale censorship. You only need glance at a few 1920’s films to realize that he was unsuccessful in getting Hollywood to behave.

I know some have the warm fuzzies about the Code but you should know that it did not just cover sex and violence. Oh no. The Code was quite racist, sexist and any good it did was counterbalanced by a large dose of the bad. You can read the whole thing if you like.

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Technology:

Kinetoscope:

An early way of watching movies. These coin-operated boxes allowed the viewer to see a few seconds of film. A later advance was the Kinetophone, which added music via earphones. These machines fell out of favor when it became clear that projected films were the future.

communal earbuds. Yay.
communal earbuds. Yay.

Vitaphone:

Warner Bros. famously used this sound system for its popular talking pictures. However, it was initially used to add music and sound effects to silent films. It was Sound-on-Disc, which meant that the sound was on separate records instead on on the film itself. Some silent movies still have their Vitaphone scores but many have been lost. The Vitaphone Project is dedicated to reuniting films with their discs. (Fox Studios used Movietone, early sound-on-film, for some of its silents.)

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Orthochromatic vs. Panchromatic

Without getting too far into the nitty-gritty, earlier orthochromatic film made blues “blow out” and reds show up very dark. This meant that silent era performers had to employ heavy makeup (lest they look blotchy) and be careful of blue eyes (which could look white and dead).

Panchromatic began to replace orthochromatic film in the early ‘twenties.

Hand-colored, Hand-tinted

Colors were painstakingly added frame by frame. Imprecise but beautiful.

Pathécolor:

A much more precise color process. Using stencils, film frames were individually colored. This process created the illusion of color film. Some of it is truly stunning.

Check out the glorious shades found in Cyrano de Bergerac.

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Tinting and Toning:

Used to add mood to a film. Amber for daytime, rose for romance, blue for night, green for mystery and so-forth. A very popular process in the silent era. Tinting changed the “whites” while toning changed the “blacks” of the film.

Here is a small sample:

Two-color Technicolor:

Technicolor only recorded red and green in the silent era. It was also incredibly expensive and hard to work with. A few high-budget silent films used color for the whole movie but most used color sequences lasting a few minutes.

Ben-Hur (1925)
Ben-Hur (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Film Marketing Terms:

Reels:

Movie lengths used to be referred to not in minutes but in reels. How many reels of film did the movie have? And how long was a reel? This is extremely general but a short film was usually one or two-reels long. A feature film was between five and eight, give or take. A reel (depending of projection speed) lasted about 11-15 minutes in the silent era. Again, give or take. Cameras and projectors were both hand-cranked, which meant there could be variation in the motion picture running time.

Talking Sequences/Part-Talkie:

When sound pictures first became popular, many in the film industry were not sure if it was a fad or not. Besides, many theaters were not equipped for sound. As a result, movie studios hedged their bets. From 1927-1929, movies were sometimes shot silent and then had sound sequences added to improve to their box office appeal. Or a film may have been conceived as a part-talkie, a film that divided its time between sound and silent. Once it became obvious that sound was going to stay, the part-talkie was abandoned.

Lost Film Files #10: Alias the Lone Wolf (1927)

Status: Two reels (out of the original seven) exist in the UCLA Archives on 16mm. No other prints are currently known to exist.

Based on the popular Lone Wolf novels by Michael Lanyard, this was the third of five films in which the title character would be played by Bert Lytell. Other notable actors who tried their hand at the Lone Wolf were Henry B. Walthall, Jack Holt, Thomas Meighan and Melvyn Douglas. Many of the original novels are in the public domain and can be downloaded from your online archive of choice.

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I’m not going to lie, I got interested in this film due to the fabulous ad campaign surrounding it. The fact that it co-stars Lois Wilson (one of the best and most underused actresses of the silent era) was the icing on the cake.

Reviews were positive. Motion Picture World wrote:

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Those who like a real good mystery-crook melodrama — and most folks do — will not be disappointed in this offering from Columbia. Their previous picture along these lines, “The Lone Wolf Returns” made a decided hit with the fans, and this companion production should prove to be just as much of a winner. The story is another of Louis Joseph Vance’s — and that gentleman’s reputation speaks for itself. Edward H. Griffith, director, has done a neat piece of work, while that of the featured players, Bert Lytell and Lois Wilson, also ring true; in fact, the entire cast is particularly good.

The story opens aboard an ocean liner en route from Europe to America. Among the passengers are, the “Lone Wolf,” a supposed crook, two others of the underworld and a French mademoiselle. The latter, with true feminine disregard for any law which does not suit the occasion (editor’s note: I beg your pardon?!?! So men never disregard laws? I want to reach through the page and shake this creep!), is inclined to smuggle some family jewels in order to raise money for a brother charged with embezzlement. And so a clever game starts between the “Wolf” and the other crooks to gain possession of the jewels — which finally reach New York. In the City, further attempts are made by the gang to gain the necklace, and in the meantime romance develops between the girl and “The Lone Wolf.”

The New York Tribune singled out the actors for praise:

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Lois Wilson looks extremely pretty, and she plays with her usual sincerity. Bert Lytell is the wisest choice we can think of for the Lone Wolf.

The genteel crime picture of the early twentieth century is a refreshing change of pace from serial-killer-of-the-week television shows and graphic police procedurals. Here’s hoping that Alias the Lone Wolf is in an attic, an archive, a private collection waiting to be rediscovered.

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Lost Film Files #9: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

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The famous 1953 film starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe was the second film incarnation of the 1925 Anita Loos novel. Well, actually, it was adapted from a musical version that was based on the novel but let’s not split hairs. The plot of gold-digging was quite current for the 1920’s and the novel (again following a stage adaptation) was brought to the screen in early 1928.

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The roles that would later go to Russell and Monroe were played by Alice White and Ruth Taylor. Sennett veterans Chester Conklin, Ford Sterling and Mack Swain have supporting roles. Holmes Herbert (who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite forgotten silent actors) is on hand as one of the rich targets for matrimony.

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Photoplay raved:

WHETHER or not you read Anita Loos’s laugh provoking “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” you are certain to go into ecstasies when you witness the picturization of the tale. It is sure to be one of the outstanding comedy screen successes of 1928. First, because it is a laugh compelling tale of a beautiful but far from dumb gold digger, who took men like Grant took Richmond. Only much faster! Her triumphant climb from a small Arkansas town to Little Rock, Hollywood, New York, and, finally, Paris, along a road that she left strewn with shattered hearts and swains from whom she had painlessly extracted jewels and gowns and the wherewith to make it possible for her to live and pursue her educational quest, is absorbingly pictured.

Second, because it will bring to you a new screen personality in Ruth Taylor as Lorelei Lee. You are going to love her. She was selected for the role after a nation-wide search and proves herself so capable an actress in this role that she has been placed under a long term contract by Paramount. The fat laugh lines are in the very capable hands of Alice White, the living embodiment of Dorothy.

Ford Sterling as the Chicago Button King will cause you to laugh until you cry, and Mack Swain will make you laugh some more. Holmes Herbert as the eligible millionaire bachelor gives a great performance. Chester Conklin and Trixie Friganza add to the gaiety. Mal St. Clair has turned out a delightfully handled production that keeps him in the forefront of directors. Atop of all this, the picture is titled by Anita Loos, an assurance of an evening of laughter.

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Motion Picture News said:

It is good entertainment and stirs up some good humor.

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Ruth Taylor, in spite of her success in the role, did not stay in motion pictures. She quit the movies to marry a millionaire.

Please check the basement, the attic, the safe deposit box, the estate sale of that crazy old guy down the street…

About Silent Movies: Which version should I buy?

It can be one of the most confusing aspects of silent film fandom: You have decided to plunk down some hard-earned coin for a silent movie and you are faced with rows and rows of choices and prices– and all for the same film! Which should you buy? Sure, you can read the reviews one by one but I am going to share a few hints that will make you a smarter shopper.

Popular and famous titles like Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera or Orphans of the Storm may have dozens of releases available but generally they fall into three categories. (I am covering discs for this section and will move on to streaming next.)

High-quality releases
High-quality releases

High-Quality and Official Releases: These releases are the highest quality and often the most expensive. It is the only way to legally obtain films that have not yet entered the public domain. Even if the film is in the public domain, high-quality and official releases often obtain the best possible print for maximum enjoyment. These films are (usually) restored, feature custom scores and other special features. Look for the logo of a major film studio or companies like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Criterion Collection, Image Entertainment, or Milestone Films.

DVD-R selections.
DVD-R selections.

Public Domain Vendors: These are folks who obtain public domain silent movie prints and release them on DVD-R. The companies are run by fellow fans and while they cannot afford to restore the films, they often release rare titles that the big boys won’t touch. The most famous vendor is probably Grapevine Video, which releases some really rare stuff. Reel Classic DVD is another choice, though I have not dealt with them before. Sunrise Silents and Unknown Video were excellent but are, sadly, out of business.

Note: Warner Archive straddles these two levels. They release films onto DVD-R format with no frills or extras.

Bargain releases are often anything but.
Bargain releases are often anything but.

Bargain Bin Releases: Just what the name indicate. These are cheap discs (usually under $10) of public domain films and the quality is usually atrocious! Battered prints, inappropriate (or absent!) music, everything at the wrong speed… There really is no worse way to see a silent film. Very rarely (even a blind pig gets a truffle) there will be a worthy release but not often. Just remember, you get what you pay for. (These companies love their box sets. If you see a box with famous films and a price that seems a little too low, the quality is probably going to be pretty poor.)

There is one more type of vendor to consider, one that it not worth dealing with.

Seems legit.
Seems legit.

Pickup truck with motor running: There are fly-by-night operations that sell duped DVDs, recordings from TCM and other pirated or near-pirated goods. Generally it is a game of whack-a-mole between these sellers and the copyright holders. My philosophy is this: I buy legitimate copies so that I can support the folks unearthing and restoring silent movies. It’s just the right thing to do.

Leaving the Physical World behind…

Now let’s move on to the brave new world of streaming. There are a lot of different services and I won’t cover them all but here is a basic overview:

The big boys: Companies like Amazon and Netflix do offer to stream silent films. These are often a mixed bag of high-quality and bargain bin releases. To make matters worse, more than once the artwork of a high-quality release has been used for a bargain bin release. Disappointed does not begin to cover it.

Quality streaming.
Quality streaming.

The niche streamers: I like these. Companies that specialize in the old, rare and esoteric. Fandor (which I subscribe to and love) has partnered with Flicker Alley and Kino to stream some really gorgeous and rare stuff. Warner Archive Instant is a good concept (TCM on demand!) but as of this writing, they only offer six silent titles. Both services have free trials so I say try ’em both and see. Fandor is my pick for silents.

The freebies: These can be a great way to watch silent films without spending a dime. Plenty of films are in the public domain and are posted for all to enjoy. Archive.org features quite a few silent titles in the public domain for download and streaming. Youtube also has its share of silent films (though I would be careful about linking to them as some have pirated content).

Which version of "Caligari" is the best?
Which version of “Caligari” is the best?

I hope this saves you some headaches and guides you to the best possible viewing experience. Happy watching!

PS, I just realized how much I talk about copyrights and the public domain. I think this calls for an article…

In the Vaults #3: The Blood Ship (1927)

Status: Print, held by the Academy Film Archive, was missing one reel. The missing final reel was located and the complete film has been shown at festivals but has not been made available to the general public. Hint hint.

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It stars Hobart Bosworth, my absolute favorite old sea salt, and Richard Arlen, who provides the hubba-hubba.

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From the descriptions available, it sounds like it has everything a viewer could want in a seafaring adventure: Shanghaied crew, mutiny, ruthless captain…

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Bosworth is out to revenge himself on the nasty captain who framed him for murder and stole his wife and daughter. Arlen, naturally in love with said daughter, is ready to lend support. Sounds like some grade “A” tuppenny blood stuff!

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Reviews were very positive for this nautical yarn.

Motion Picture News was quite enthusiastic:

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A good old nerve-tingling title decorates this picture — the action of which lives up to its colorful moniker. The piece carries a wallop in the play of melodrama on the high seas. Before you are barely ready to say “Captain Kidd” it informs you that the clipper is a hell-ship the master of which has a habit of beating up his crews. As you can see, the story is a blood relative of Jack London’s “Sea Wolf,” though there are many marks of originality about it which sets it apart from the London opus.

The skipper has a “shanghai” complex. When a crew runs out on him after a punishing cruise he and his first mate (who registers an equally hard-boiled disposition) use strong-arm methods and shanghai enough sailors to run the ship. Of course, with such a background it is easy to guess that the motivation will concern a mutiny. It’s red-hot action which is served up here — and no mistake. The players entertain a deal of punishment from the brutal skipper before he is knocked for a row of anchors.

A love note punctuates the action to balance the hard moments — and Richard Arlen and Jacqueline Logan take care of it very romantically. But it is the melodrama which provides the real interest and suspense. Everything happens that could possibly happen during the voyage. So put it down as vigorous entertainment.

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Photoplay liked the film but felt it was too brutal:

A real he-man picture and this is one time we feel the ladies will like to be excused. (Editor’s note: This lady will be staying, thank you very much.) A picture that is well- produced and directed; filled with splendid performances; but its story is one of mutiny, brutality, murder and a girl. Too gruesome for real enjoyment. Hobart Bosworth, Jacqueline Logan and Richard Arlen are in the cast, with Bosworth giving one of the finest performances of the month.

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The New York Times liked what it saw:

Vivid characterizations give vitality to “The Blood Ship,” at the Roxy this week. It’s a story of mutiny, murder and men, with a lone girl among them.

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The original 1922 novel by Norman Springer is in the public domain and may be downloaded from several sources. Until the film is released to the viewing public, that is about as close as we can get to it.

Richard Arlen. Hubba!
Richard Arlen. Hubba!

Lost Film Files #8: Merton of the Movies (1924)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Harry Leon Wilson is not well-remembered today but he was a popular writer in the early 20th century. He wrote zany, breezy comedic novels that often involved a cripplingly eccentric hero who must be rescued by a sensible and maternal young lady. Wilson’s novels are goofy and cute and they make great reading.

The 1919 novel Merton of the Movies is probably Wilson’s best remembered story. It tells the tale of Merton Gill, a movie struck lad who arrives in California determined to be a great actor. With the help of a spunky young comedienne named Flips, he breaks into pictures. What he doesn’t know is that his acting is terrible. So bad, in fact, that he is unwittingly creating comedy gold.

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In 1924, Paramount adapted the novel into a film starring stage actor Glenn Hunter as Merton and Hollywood veteran Viola Dana as Flips.

Here is what Photoplay had to say:

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HARRY LEON WILSON’S superb satire of movieland has reached the screen minus a considerable measure of its tang. James Cruze’s version avoids the biting satire and centers upon the pathos of the dreaming small-town boy who wanted to do better and bigger things on the screen. The adaptation follows Merton Gill from Illinois to Hollywood, traces his tragic collision with the world of celluloid make-believe, and reveals his ultimate success — as a burlesque comic foil for a cross-eyed comedian. In this the screen “Merton of the Movies” is pretty satisfying. But you will miss the pointed satire of filmdom. You will resent, too, the making of Flips Monlague into a soubrette, although Viola Dana has a good moment or two. We would rather have had Charlie Ray as Merton than Glenn Hunter.

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The New York Times was considerably more enthusiastic, naming Merton as one of the top ten films of 1924, along with such titles as The Sea Hawk, The Thief of Bagdad, He Who Gets Slapped and Beau Brummel.

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The book was adapted as a pre-Code comedy in 1932 and again in 1947 as a Red Skelton picture. The Marion Davis vehicle Show People also owes a lot to Merton, albeit with reversed genders.

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Now seems to be the time to ask everyone for the requisite attic checking. This film looks like a ton of fun.

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Lost Film Files #5: The Great Gatsby (1926)

Status: Missing and presumed lost except for the fragments found in the film’s trailer.

This is the very first film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, filmed a mere four years after it was written. No need to make this a costume picture. The twenties were roaring away as the cameras cranked.

1926 was a banner year for silent film and The Great Gatsby, while praised, seems to have been a bit lost in the shuffle of Beau Geste, Old Ironside, What Price Glory, Night of Love, Flesh and the Devil… 

Here are some vintage reviews:

Photoplay particularly praised Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the great war’s aftermath presented unusual film difficulties. Herbert Brenon, the director, has managed to retain much of the feeling of the story. Gatsby comes out of the war to achieve a fortune unscrupulously. He falls, of course, in the end, finding that happiness can’t be won that way. Lois Wilson runs away with the film as the jazzy Daisy Buchanan who flashes cocktails and silken you-know-she-wears-’ems.

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The distributor magazine Motion Picture News had this to say:

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Every good job has been done by this picture — an adaptation of the novel and play. It offered material which necessitated the intelligent handling of characterization so as to keep its spirit intact. In other winds, it depended upon the director emphasizing the central figure as he was emphasized in the novel and play to approach a “nearly perfect gentleman.” This Herbert Brenon has done and so well has Warner Baxter responded that his performance is quite the best of his career and one of the best of the season.

A tragic figure is Gatsby, a product of the gutter who comes up in the world and tries to assume the culture which only goes with long-established generations of ancestry. The manner in which Brenon works is in showing the mute pride and helplessness of the man in attempting to “belong.” Of course, Baxter has his work cut out for him, too.

It’s a sophisticated story, told with first-rate lights and shadows. The spirit of the original is there with plenty to spare. It has its dramatic moments, its romantic scenes, its contrasts and conflicts. And it is splendidly acted by every member of the cast, including Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, William Powell, Hale Hamilton, and Georgia Hale.

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You read that cast right. William Powell, Lois Wilson, Georgia Hale…

The New York Times felt that something was missing from the final product:

The screen version of “The Great Gatsby” is quite a good entertainment, but at the same time it is obvious that it would have benefited by more imaginative direction. Although Mr. Brenon has included the tragic note at the end, he has succumbed to a number of ordinary movie flashes without inculcating much in the way of subtlety. Neither he nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters.

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Zelda Fitzgerald was even less happy with the film (she and her husband walked out):

“We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

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Unfortunately, we will never be able to judge for ourselves. The Great Gatsby is one of the more sought-after lost films of the silent era. It is a shame that it is gone since it would have provided a unique perspective on the novel, as played by the men and women who made up that Lost Generation.

Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks

Note: This article covers the origins of the trope, how it erroneously became associated with silent films and why the myth persists. For more details on the actors involved, the Snidely Whiplash connection and examples of this trope subverted, check out my follow up article. You can also check out real footage and vintage images in my video response.

Continue reading “Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks”