Well, this has been an adventure! My power was out for over 30 hours and since I both blog and work remotely, that obviously took a big bite out of my productivity. Fingers crossed I will be able to keep the lights on but here are my plans for November:
One of the first things you learn as a silent movie fan is that most silent movies are lost. Whether through deliberate studio vandalism, accidental fires or misfortune, the majority of all silent films are simply unavailable.
There have been some high profile articles on why losing films isn’t so bad but fortunately, this harmful nonsense is very much on the fringes. In fact, most silent movie fans celebrate a recovered film the way most people cheer their favorite sports team. So, this whole month will be dedicated to films that were lost but are now found and available to enjoy once again.
Just as there are various ways that silent films are lost, there are different ways that they are found. Broadly, there are three categories. This is not an exhaustive list but most rediscoveries fit into one of them. So, let’s get down to celebrating!
A complete print of a lost film is found.
These get all the headlines. “Lost Film Found in Attic!” It just sounds exciting. It IS exciting. I gasped with everyone else when Beyond the Rocks, the long-lost collaboration between Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, emerged in a Dutch collector’s stash.
And as wonderful as these Indiana Jones-worthy recoveries are, let’s not forget that a lot of hard work went into all of them. After all, even Beyond the Rocks had to have its identity confirmed and its Dutch titles translated back to English.
The film was held by an archive or a collector but it was unlabeled, mislabeled or otherwise unidentified.
The Unknown was famously rediscovered when someone realized that the label on the tin did not mean “unknown” but was the actual title of the picture. The last bits of Metropolis emerged from an archive when an intrepid archivist knew he remembered seeing a complete print somewhere. The Library of Congress holds an annual event to help identify the “mostly lost” mystery films in their vast collection.
(Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions has released two volumes of these newly-identified films in the Found at Mostly Lost series. Very highly recommended, by the way.)
When I researching Kidnapped prior to producing its release, I found that some sources claimed it was lost. And this was despite the fact that the Library of Congress has never made a secret of preserving the only surviving copy, including it in both print and online catalogs of its holdings.
It’s worth noting that some confusion was deliberate. European archivists hid banned material from the Nazis by removing labels, hiding works of art (including films) and engaging in other cleverness. But the war was long and rediscovering what was what is an ongoing process.
Fragment by Fragment
The film was pieced back together from surviving fragments.
The least sexy but the most important method, in my opinion. Finding a film in a bathtub or a barn makes the news. Working years and years tracking down every last frame? Well, Napoleon is probably the most famous and its restoration is surely one for the record books but there are so many other stories to tell.
Epics were particular susceptible to being cannibalized for stock footage. The Sea Hawk had its spectacular ship battles snipped out by Warner Bros. but a Czech print was used to restore them to their proper place. Michael Strogoff was hacked to bits and for a while, the 9.5mm condensation was believed to be the only copy but an epic bit of restoration rebuilt the film down to its gorgeous stencil color.
And it wasn’t always the studios either. Charlie Chaplin did his best to bury the 1925 cut of The Gold Rush but it was carefully reassembled for all to enjoy.
All of these stories are a testament to the hard work and dedication of archivists, film producers and passionate amateurs and I tip my hat to each and every one of them. They’re saving film history for future generations and I cannot possibly express all the gratitude I feel. This one’s for you!
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