I don’t think there is any news that thrills classic film fans more than news that a movie that was thought to be lost has been found. With the news that an astounding 75 lost silent films have been found in New Zealand, I’m sure many fans of silents are feeling like they just won the lottery. It’s exciting enough when just one lost film is rediscovered, but to find 75 of them is truly incredible. Among the most noteworthy finds are: Upstream, directed by John Ford; The Woman Hater, starring Pearl White; Won in a Cupboard, directed by legendary Mack Sennett star Mabel Normand; Mary of the Movies, which is now the oldest known surviving movie produced by Columbia; and Maytime, starring the ‘it’ girl herself, Clara Bow.
It is believed that about 80% of films from the 1890s-early 1930s are now lost for good. In some cases, virtually nothing exists anymore from some of the biggest stars of the time. Theda Bara starred in 40 films during her career, but only three and a half currently exist. But luckily, the films of other major stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks fared much better and very little of their careers have been lost to the ages.
There are many reasons for how films wind up being lost. In many cases, the films just weren’t well cared for. In the early days of film, nobody was thinking that anybody would be interested in this stuff a century later so they thought nothing of throwing away unused footage or entire movies that no longer had any commercial value. Sometimes films would be destroyed in order to recycle the silver in the film stock. Nitrate film stock is extremely volatile and can easily catch on fire if it is improperly stored. Fox lost all of their pre-1935 negatives due to a vault fire. If they didn’t burst into flames, they’d often just decay and disintegrate into a pile of dust. A lot of times, scenes would be cut after initial screenings to make it more marketable or due to censorship. Most famously, much of the original cut of Metropolis was lost for decades before a complete print was discovered in Argentina in 2008. And then there’s the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born. That one had to be drastically cut down after its premiere and is currently available in a nearly complete restored version, but a complete print is believed to exist. And then there’s the case of 1933’s Convention City. The entire film was intentionally destroyed because it was way too pre-code to even be censored and re-released while the Production Code Administration was in charge.
Since I love the stories about how lost films (or lost scenes) surface, here are some of my favorite rediscovery stories:
1. A Trip to the Moon/Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) Although this landmark sci-fi movie has never been completely lost, the original cut featured a hand-colored ending where the space travelers return to Earth and are greeted by a celebratory parade. Apparently, this scene was cut at some point and was considered lost until 2002, when a copy was discovered in a barn in France. The footage was restored and was first screened at the Pordenone Film Festival in 2003.
2. Beyond the Rocks (1922) Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino starred in this silent melodrama. Gloria Swanson said in her autobiography that she was afraid this movie was lost, but was hopeful it would surface someday. And she was correct! A print of Beyond the Rocks didn’t surface until 2003 when a Dutch collector donated two thousand film canisters to the Nederlands Filmmuesum and the Haghefilm Conservation. The footage was restored and was released on DVD in 2006.
3. Nosferatu (1922) Since the story of Nosferatu is similar to the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bram Stoker’s widow sued and as part of the settlement, all known prints and negatives had to be destroyed. But luckily for us, they weren’t able to destroy all of them and copies eventually surfaced in various countries. There are currently several different edits of Nosferatu available on DVD.
4. Wings (1927) The first ever Best Picture winner was thought to be lost for some time, but a copy surfaced in the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. I’m not sure when the print in Paris was found, but I’m guessing it was sometime before 1997, when it was added to the United States National Film Registry. Now, if only they would get around to releasing it on DVD in the United States.
5. The Passion of Joan of Arc/La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) One of the great masterpieces of the silent film era, director Carl Theodor Dreyer went to his grave believing his definitive cut was gone for good. His original negative was destroyed in a fire and he attempted to reconstruct the movie from unused footage. French film historian Lo Duca discovered another negative in 1950, but Duca decided to take some creative liberties with the film that Dreyer was not at all amused by. In 1981, another complete version in pristine condition was found in the janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Oslo, and this is the version currently available on DVD.
6. The Devil is a Woman (1935) This one isn’t so much a lost film story as it is an almost lost film story. You may remember from my review of the documentary Marlene that this was Marlene Dietrich’s favorite of all the movies she made. Unfortunately, the Spanish government didn’t care for the way it portrayed the Spanish police and threatened to ban all Paramount movies in Spain and in all Spanish territories unless Paramount withdrew the film worldwide. After the initial run, Paramount withdrew the film and destroyed the original print. It wasn’t seen again until 1959 and even then, only in lesser quality prints. Fortunately, Dietrich was a very smart lady and made sure to get a copy to keep for herself specifically because she was afraid it would be lost forever. She kept her copy in a bank vault until the 1980s when she allowed new prints to be made from her copy. Marlene’s excellent foresight is the reason we are still able to see The Devil is a Woman in perfect quality today.
And, of course, I can’t forget Metropolis, but I’ve already discussed that discovery plenty on here!