This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
1) The Drag Net (1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Dracula survived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf (The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot (1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman (1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
5) The Mountain Eagle (1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?
6) The Honeymoon (1928). The second part of a diptych begun with The Wedding March, released the same year, this was directed by Erich Von Stroheim and starred himself with Fay Wray and Zasu Pitts. To reduce Stroheim’s typically lengthy cut to a form considerered more releasable, the studio enlisted Josef Von Sternberg (see above), who produced a cut that Stroheim hated. This wasn’t unusual: no Stroheim film survives in the form he intended.
In a sense, more of Stroheim’s films were lost than those he made: there were also all the potential films. He didn’t complete a film as director after the coming of sound. As he neared his death in 1957, he complained, “This isn’t the worst. The worst is that they stole 20 years of my life.”
To add further insult to injury, a few days after he died, the last known print of The Honeymoon was destroyed in a fire at the Cinématheque Francaise.
7) Treasure Island (1920). One year after (possibly) inventing the over-the-shoulder shot in Victory, Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques) directed Charles Ogle as Long John Silver. Ogle is famed for his rather ebullient turn as Frankenstein’s monster in Edison’s early silent, but we can assume the dictatorial Tourneur would have extracted subtler work from him. Lon Chaney appeared in two roles, as Blind Pew and Merry. Not yet a star, he was beginning to make his name as a man of many faces, the first movie star to build a reputation on going unrecognised.
8) Huge numbers of films from the Fox Film Corporation were destroyed in a studio fire, including a dismaying number of early John Ford shorts and features. Borzage got off lightly, but The River (1929) is incomplete, with only one long, beautiful section surviving. Most of Theda Bara’s films were destroyed, and from the few remaining it’s hard to see what the fuss was about. Movie stills make her elaborate historical pictures look pretty enticing though, epic, exotic and erotic, and so I wish we still had Salome (1918)
9) As I’m obsessed with comedian Raymond Griffith (really a brilliant actor with unique comic talent, rather than being a clown) I’m saddened by the number of his films lost. One of his best surviving features, Paths to Paradise (1925) is minus the last reel, but several others are gone entirely. Let Wedding Bill$ (1927) stand as an example.
10) I’m allowed one sheer folly, surely? Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933) was Japan’s answer to the giant ape movie to end them all, rushed into cinemas using the technique which would become associated with kaiju movies ever after: a man in an unconvincing costume blundering around miniature sets stomping on stuff. Since Japanese cinema had not yet begun to talk, he would have been doing it without the aid of sound effects.
OK, if you want a worthier selection, the great Yasushiro Ozu made A Straightforward Boy in 1929 and it was a huge hit. A cross between O Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief and Home Alone, it featured six-year-old Tomio Aoki as a kidnapped kid who drives his abductors to distraction with his mischievous antics. A chunk of this one survives, and is pretty funny, so it’d be great if the rest could be uncovered. But Japanese film preservation got started late, and the war obviously didn’t help: the situation there is even worse than in Hollywood.
The cinema is a great time machine. But we need another time machine to go back and rescue it.
By David Cairns