Tag Archives: lost films

A grand gift for silence: the search for the lost Sherlock Holmes films

If it takes a thief to catch a thief, it will surely take a team of sleuths to catch the greatest detective of them all. So I bring you news of a new project that is not only bound to be of interest to all Silent Londoners, but also one that requires your valuable assistance.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive and Holmesians par excellence The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) have joined forces on a new project called Searching for Sherlock: The Game’s Afoot.

Currently, according to Dr Jan-Christopher Horak, more than 100 films about Holmes are lost or in need of restoration or preservation, which sounds to me like more than a three-pipe problem.

A Study in Scarlet (1914)
A Study in Scarlet (1914)

There are several silent films on the wanted list. Among the lost films are: a British production of A Study in Scarlet, produced in 1914; a Danish series, produced by Nordisk films, beginning in 1908; and The Missing Rembrandt, produced in 1932, starring Arthur Wontner.

Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes
RDJ as Sherlock Holmes

So the Searching for Sherlock team has put together a starry committee to lead the hunt, including lots of names you’ll know, from Kevin Brownlow to Bryony Dixon. Robert Downey Jr, who played the detective in two recent big-screen adaptations, is the honorary project chair. And if Iron Man himself, with that kind of support behind him, can’t get the job done, who can?

Well, actually they do need your help. Searching for Sherlock is hoping to get the word out there, to scour the streets for Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. The committee will be getting in touch with film archives, Sherlock Holmes societies, film historians, collectors, and other potential sources around the world to find, restore, and eventually screen, currently lost films featuring the world’s first consulting detective. If you know someone they should talk to, or if you are someone they should talk to, make yourself known.

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes in 1916

There have been a few notable Sherlock Holmes film discoveries recently, including a 1916 film, starring William Gillette, reprising his acclaimed stage interpretation of the detective. After its rediscovery, this Sherlock Holmes was restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinématheque Française and released on disc by Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Slapstick 2017: Ben Model on being a silent comedy detective

Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs. 

The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved  comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.

Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …

Ben Model
Ben Model
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?

Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.

Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?

It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.

Continue reading Slapstick 2017: Ben Model on being a silent comedy detective

Cheese Mites (1903) and 10 more disgusting moments in silent cinema

Silents by numbers

Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”

The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou (1929)

The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou

Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.

The maggots in Battleship Potemkin

Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery

George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.

Continue reading Cheese Mites (1903) and 10 more disgusting moments in silent cinema

Lost Betty Balfour film discovered by EYE: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Genuinely exciting news for silent film fans. A long-thought-lost film starring the wonderful Betty Balfour, and directed by the somewhat elusive George Pearson, has been returned to us. The film is Love, Life and Laughter (1923): Betty “Queen of Happiness” Balfour stars in a typically winning role as Tip Toes, an impoverished chorus girl who dreams of fame on the music-hall stage. She befriends a young aspiring writer, also down on his luck, and they decide on a plan – to meet two years later back at their tenement building to see if either of them have achieved their fondest wishes.

Love, Life and Laughter was found in a cinema in Hattem, in the Netherlands. The cinema was due to be rebuilt and so the anonymous film cans stored there were taken to EYE, the the Dutch Film Museum, in the hope that they might contain footage of local historical interest.

The BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, welcomes the discovery with open arms, saying:

Contemporary reviewers and audiences considered Love, Life and Laughter to be one of the finest creations of British cinema, it will be thrilling to find out if they’re right! We hope to be able to acquire some material from our colleagues at EYE soon so that British audiences can have a chance to see this exciting discovery.

We know that the copy EYE has acquired of Love, Life and Laughter has Dutch intertitles and has the original tints and tones intact – and we do have reason to believe that it is a very special picture. Contemporary reviews praised the film, with the Telegraph saying it was “destined in all probability to take its place among the screen classics”. In the Manchester Guardian, CA Lejeune’s gives nicely rounded sense of the film, and its importance:

Love, Life and Laughter is the latest Pearson film, and legend has it that the latest Pearson film is aways the best. It is certainly the most ambitious, spectacular at times in the De Mille ballroom manner, lit and photographed with a beauty to dream of. Devotees have called it George Pearson’s masterpiece, and so it is – of bluff. He lights common things uncommonly, and legend makes them symbolic; he catches a series of farcical situations, and legend makes them comic; legend turns sentimentality into sentiment, and confusion into mystery.

This fantasy of a chorus girl and a young poet is clever, but chiefly clever in simulating cleverness, in tickling the intellectual vanity of its audience with a goose feather, coloured peacock by imagination. It will succeed. And its success will be the result not of innate quality but of the great Welsh-Pearson legend – and, when all is said and done, nothing else matters.

That rather guarded review takes on a new aspect when we remember that the “great Welsh-Pearson legend” has now been forgotten, and their films have almost entirely vanished – which has the affect of rather enhancing the title’s allure. Until its rediscovery, Love, Life and Laughter sat on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of much-missed British films.

A 1923 programme for the film offers this romantic and tantalising description:

“The Story is but a simple exposition of the oldest, yet ever youngest desire of the human heart, the achievement of an earnest ambition. The incidents tell in picture form of the striving of a boy and girl, against the odds of the world. The portrayal of this struggle towards a final goal of the desired happiness is unconventional in treatment. The Boy and Girl laugh and weep, succeed and fail, move onward and forward to an inevitable destiny, and to a climax which should live long in the memory.”

One of the many attractive elements to this news is that the film’s subject matter – of two starry-eyed types struggling to achieve their artistic ambitions – resonates against the life stories of the director and star both. Poignantly, in light of the fact that this film has been missing for so long, both Balfour and Pearson were highly acclaimed in the silent era and subsequently forgotten by most. It’s discoveries such as this, in fact, that make us appreciate anew how terrible the odds of survival for silent cinema are – with 75% of silents by the wayside, for each one we treasure there are three more we may never see.

Continue reading Lost Betty Balfour film discovered by EYE: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Ten lost silent films

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blogThe 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.
The Drag Net (1928)
The Drag Net (1928)
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 …
FW Murnau
FW Murnau
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.
The Patriot (1928)
The Patriot (1928)
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.
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle
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?

Spiritismes: Guy Maddin revives lost films in Paris

The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921)
The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921)

“Over eighty percent of silent films are lost. I’ve always considered a lost film as a narrative with no known final resting place — doomed to wander the landscape of film history, sad, miserable and unable to project itself to the people who might love it. This absence haunts me. I need to see these films. It’s eventually occurred to me that the best way to see them would to make contact with their miserable spirits and invite them to possess me. And with actors quite willing to participate in some para-normal cinematic experiments … Every day my actors will plunge themselves deep into a trance, and open themselves up to possession by the unhappy spirit of a lost film. And every day my actors will act out the long forgotten choreographies that once lived so luminously on the big screen for thousands, maybe millions of viewers.” – Guy Maddin

Last weekend, I visited the set of The Blue Mountains Mystery, which was shot in Australia in 1921. The day before, I dropped by to see the same crew, and largely the same cast, working on an Erich Von Stroheim script, Poto-Poto.

The filming took place, not in another dimension, but in Paris, at the Pompidou Centre, where Canadian film director Guy Maddin has taken it upon himself to shoot an entire film each day, or rather to revive a lost film, in a series of “ciné-séances”. The filming takes place in public, in the basement of the arts centre and I elbowed through the crowds to glimpse the hanging around, whispering and brief bursts of activity that comprise the magic of movie-making. The set of Poto-Poto was very reminiscent of the second half of Queen Kelly, with a large, draped bed, but there was little happening when we swung by. We had better luck with Blue Mountains the next day, somewhere over the shoulders of the crew we may have witnessed a murder, or something that looked a lot like one.

Guy Maddin's The Blue Mountains Mystery séance, Paris 26/2/12
Action! Guy Maddin's The Blue Mountains Mystery séance, Paris 26/2/12. Maddin is in the black T-shirt, with the still camera

“Every day, Guy Maddin invites visitors of the Centre Pompidou to witness the making of a new film inspired by a long-lost movie. Summoning these wandering spirits of cinema in theatrical “séances”, Maddin and his actors inhabit their ghostly scenarios.” – Pompidou Centre

You can read more about the project, and watch a live stream of the filming, here on the Pompidou website. Spiritismes began on 22 February and runs until 12 March; the schedule includes films by Jean Vigo, Kenji Mizoguchi, Lois Weber and William Wellman as well as a few surprises to be announced along the way. Actors in Maddin’s rep troupe include Isabella Rossellini, Geraldine Chaplin and Udo Kier. The films will all apparently be edited and finished and made available to view at a later date.

Spiritismes has taken up residence at the Pompidou in the lead up to the French release of Maddin’s new film Keyhole and will apparently be repeated at other venues across the world, including New York. Let’s hope it comes to London. You can read more on this blog by Kim Morgan, Maddin’s wife and another of the actors involved. I leave you with some blurry phone snaps, and some more wise words from the director.

The set of Guy Maddin's Poto-Poto séance, Paris 25/2/12
The set of Guy Maddin's Poto-Poto séance, Paris 25/2/12. Could that be Geraldine Chaplin in the bed?
The set of Guy Maddin's The Blue Mountains Mystery séance, Paris 26/2/2012
The set of Guy Maddin's The Blue Mountains Mystery séance, Paris 26/2/2012

“This project made its way into my head for almost twenty years. During all these years, he moved my heart and even my soul, until I myself am possessed! I learned that there are lost films. Beautiful films, made for a very long, generally silent, popular films, glorified, loved, raised to the level of myth by millions of spectators, some obsessively. Films which, however, dying in obscurity. Since I realized this, I literally haunted. Some of these films were destroyed by the studios, simply because they needed shelves, some were thrown into the sea or burned in a bonfire at picnics countryside. Others were reduced to dust because they were poorly preserved, others perished in the flames in an accident of projection. Some of these films have simply disappeared from history.” – Guy Maddin

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