Tag Archives: lost film

PHIL HALL’S IN SEARCH OF LOST FILMS

Only Phil Hall, of the late and much missed “Film Threat,” would have the gall (or the balls) to (rightly) include ‘s Oscar nominated Mystic River (2003) in a 2013 book entitled “The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time,” right alongside Plan 9 from Outer Space and the 1970 “UFOs built the pyramids” documentary Chariots of the Gods. Of course “Film Threat” was so titled because it was a provocative endeavor, frequently taking the likes of Steven Spielberg to task for complacency while promoting the riskier independent film scene—which was slowly and inevitably devolving into a crowd-pleasing landscape itself. Yet, “Film Threat” was also (and primarily) a pedagogical effort, written and edited by a team of writers who knew and loved film and saw it as the youngest of the major art forms, one that had boundless potential for experimentation and growth. Thus, it’s really not surprising to see Hall dipping into the history of film and its missing gems in his 2016 opus “In Search of Lost Films.”

Hall opens with a concise dissertation on the history of lost films, writing that the tragedy of lost films is all the more unfortunate because, unlike a lost painting, film is a collaborative work of art. Correcting the general misconception that lost films are confined to those produced during the silent era, Hall propels the reader through examples that expand into the 1970s.

One of the most compelling sections focuses on the lost films of “vamp” Theda Bara. Bara’s reputation as America’s first cinematic sex symbol was once so pronounced that even Marilyn Monroe paid tribute to her predecessor in a famous photo shoot with Richard Avedon. Yet today, with only four of Bara’s forty four films in existence, it is difficult to fully fathom her impact. Of the four survivors, only one is a starring role in a feature film tailored around her screen persona. Fortunately, it is among her most famous films and the one that established her “vamp” image: A Fool There Was (1915). Less than thirty seconds of her biggest box office hit, 1917’s Cleopatra, survives. That film was so popular it spawned numerous imitators (including one by Cecil B. DeMille) and spoofs (including one by ). For nearly a decade Bara ranked behind only and among major silent film stars, but her oeuvre has suffered the greatest loss, primarily due to a 1937 Fox Studio vault fire. Although Bara had been one of Fox’s biggest stars, the studio was negligent in preserving her films after its contract with the star expired[1] in 1919. By 1937, a renewed wave of puritan values had created the Production Code and Bara’s screen persona became an erotic relic (A Fool There Was bears this out). Coupled with a general studio attitude that saw no value in preserving films beyond their initial release period, this set the stage for Bara’s main body of work being reduced to nitrate ash.

London After Midnight (1927) publicity still
Lon Chaney in a publicity still from Tod Browning’s lost film “London After Midnight” (1927)

Naturally, Hall discusses what is perhaps the most famous and  sought after lost film: London After Midnight (1927). A still photo reproduction of this / production was released by Turner Classic Movies several years ago, and only inspired further speculation and futile hope of finding it. The late Forrest J. Ackerman, undoubtedly the horror genre’s most famous fan, had already fanned the flames of desire when he claimed to have seen the film and declared it a lamentably lost masterpiece. 1927 audiences apparently shared Ackerman’s enthusiasm. Up until 1931’s Dracula, it Continue reading PHIL HALL’S IN SEARCH OF LOST FILMS

  1. Due in part to the actress’ ill-advised effort to escape typecasting—although she had earlier vowed to “vamp” as long as people sinned. []

TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)

London After Midnight (1927) is the most sought after and discussed lost film of the silent era.  Whether it actually deserves to be the most sought after has been intensely debated, but the fact that London After Midnight is lost is solely the fault of MGM.

MGM head Louis B. Mayer was something akin to the devil incarnate.  For Mayer, film was strictly profitable, escapist fare to corn feed and increasingly dumb down audiences.  At the opposite end of the spectrum was his in-house studio competitor, producer Irving Thalberg, who nurtured the Tod Brownings and Lon Chaneys of the world.  Thalberg was hardly infallible (he sided with Mayer, against Erich von  Stroheim’s 9-hour version of Greed [1925,] which resulted in the film being excised and led to an actual fistfight between Mayer and Stroheim).  However, Thalberg’s concern was to make quality films, as he saw quality.  Hardly the egoist, Thalberg never took a producer’s credit.  He could turn out escapist family fare, but he was eclectic in his tastes and had a penchant for edgy, risk taking films with only the side of his eye on the profit meter.

London After Midnight (1927) lobby cardSometimes the devil wins, and when Thalberg died at the age of 37, Old Nick (Mayer) had no one to rein him in.  MGM, under Mayer, had a notorious  habit of buying out rivals—the original versions of the studio’s watered-down remakes—and then would make every attempt to destroy and/or suppress the superior original.  For instance, they bought out the 1940 British version of Gaslight and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy all the copies just in time for the debut of their inferior 1944 version, starring Charles Boyer.  MGM did destroy many, but not all, Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) & MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)