Only Phil Hall, of the late and much missed “Film Threat,” would have the gall (or the balls) to (rightly) include Clint Eastwood‘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 Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle). For nearly a decade Bara ranked behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford 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 ((Due in part to the actress’ ill-advised effort to escape typecasting—although she had earlier vowed to “vamp” as long as people sinned.)) 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.
Naturally, Hall discusses what is perhaps the most famous and sought after lost film: London After Midnight (1927). A still photo reproduction of this Tod Browning/Lon Chaney 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 was Browning’s most profitable enterprise. Critically, Ackerman is in a lonely minority. London After Midnight was primarily panned in its initial run. William K. Everson, one of the most esteemed film historians, saw it and assessed it as a poor effort, going so far to say it was inferior to the 1935 remake, Mark of the Vampire (and even that is not among Browning’s best work).
More tragic is the skewed labeling of Chaney as American cinema’s “first horror star.” It is primarily the actor’s macabre work that has survived, giving prominence to that aspect of his multifaceted talent. But with the majority of Chaney’s films lost, we are left with a woefully incomplete portrait of this artist. Actually, a scant few of his total output could be slapped with a horror label. Indeed, as Hall points out, one of Chaney’s most acclaimed and popular performances was his “straight” role in Tell It to the Marines (1926). It is Chaney’s performance alone that has appeal today in that mawkishly dated film. Chaney was, by most accounts, an accomplished dancer, but we are only privy to a fragmentary view of his talents in what is left of The Fascination of the Fleur de Lis (1915).
In addition to London After Midnight, the Browning/Chaney collaboration The Big City (1928) is also believed to have perished in the infamous 1967 vault #7 MGM fire. MGM had a notorious (and well-deserved) reputation for intentionally destroying older films. To promote 1953’s House of Wax, the studio bought up and destroyed copies of its predecessor, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Fortunately, they missed a few prints, and the earlier film eventually resurfaced. With the 1944 version of Gaslight, the studio again attempted (and failed) to eradicate the superior 1940 British version. They did the same with their wretched remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and, again, failed to exterminate the earlier, superior 1931 film. The studio was hardly hypocritical, destroying copies of its own earlier films when it produced “updated” remakes. It is likely that MGM itself destroyed numerous copies of London After Midnight when it premiered Mark of the Vampire. Still, with Chaney cast “against type,” The Big City may be the greater loss, although Browning biographer Bernd Herzogenrath has made an unsubstantiated claim that a “mostly intact” copy exists in a private collection. Hall provides a glimmer of hope for retrieving the actor’s canon when he reveals that an early Chaney comedy, Poor Jake’s Demise (1913) was discovered in 2006.
Hall spotlights the lost films of early African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Although eminent critics J. Hoberman and Richard Corliss have assessed Micheaux as the epitome of bad filmmaking, the loss of the majority of his work is, at the very least, a historical tragedy. Among the forever lost is his first film, The Homesteader (1919), an adaptation of Micheaux’s own novel about race relations. According to the director’s critics, his earlier efforts were his best. Fortunately, we have his second film, Within Our Gates (1920) as a testament. Enraged by D.W. Griffith’s vile and racist, but aesthetically groundbreaking, Birth of a Nation, Micheaux produced Within Our Gates as a response. Dennis Schwartz wrote that Micheaux’s films are “about murder, racial injustice, and lynchings,” and calls this earliest surviving film from an African American filmmaker “a lost treasure, found in Spain, in 1979, and restored with only a few scenes missing… suffering from a disjointed narrative and exaggerated characterizations, it is nevertheless a special film from a special director and deserves to be seen by a wide and diverse audience.” Unfortunately, Micheaux’s most famous film, Body and Soul (1925) starring the legendary Paul Robeson, dates badly and now looks pedestrian—which, as Hall points out, is due in part to “the hastily edited version submitted to the New York State censor review. The original director’s longer cut no longer exists.” Similarly, only a censor-approved, heavily-edited version of Micheaux’s God’s Stepchildren (1938) exists. The film’s harsher plot elements about a black woman passing for white were excised and, tragically, only the mutilated edition has survived. Because Micheaux’s films were independently financed and distributed, no print survives of his last film, the three hour The Betrayal (1949). This race film met with hostility for both its content and its disjointedness.
In surveying the silent comedians, Hall laments the lost films of Lloyd Hamilton and Raymond Griffith. Hamilton was highly regarded by both Chaplin and Keaton, along with several period critics. Unfortunately, as Hall reports, 85 % of Hamilton’s work has vanished, leaving a threadbare canon. Similarly, Griffith possessed a highly-regarded, individualistic style, described as “cerebral and modern, taking the elegance of Max Linder and combining it with a fatalistic outlook.” His relationship with Paramount Studios soured, dooming the preservation of his work. Even his one “certified classic” still in existence, the civil war comedy Hands Up (1927), has never been released. Hall also briefly covers Harry Langdon‘s tragically lost directorial effort Heart Trouble (1928), which was yanked by First National and, most likely, intentionally destroyed by that studio.
One of the greatest movie tragedies is the loss of the first animated feature, The Apostle (1917), produced and directed by Italian filmmaker Quirino Cristani. Cristani was also responsible for the fist sound animated feature, Peludopolis (1931), which has also been lost to posterity.
The filmography of openly gay Chinese-American woman filmmaker Esther Eng is a scant one, consisting of eleven films spanning from 1935 to 1961. It appears that only one of this pioneer’s films has survived, Golden Gate Girl (1941), which features the film debut of the legendary Bruce Lee (as an infant). Oddly, even this film has never seen an office release.
Chapter Three’s “In Search Of Ten Unique Lost Silent Films” covers the sole missing Laurel & Hardy opus Hats Off (1927), the first (and reportedly best) screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1926), and a Mormon propaganda film, One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913).
One can’t help but agree with Hall when he counts Errol Flynn‘s 1934 Hollywood breakthrough Murder at Monte Carlo and the original 1935 version of Bela Lugosi‘s Mystery of the Marie Celeste as among the most intriguing of lost early sound films (the latter exists in only an American truncated version, unimaginatively titled The Phantom Ship).
Hall reserves the mouthwatering tidbits for weird movie aficionados with descriptions of Phil Tucker‘s lost 1950s trash masterpieces Space Jockey and Pachuo. Of course, we know Tucker from his Certified Weird Robot Monster (1953), along with his sizable coverage in the Medved brothers’ books “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” and “Golden Turkey Awards.” By Tucker’s own account, Space Jockey is “a piece of shit and probably the worst film ever made,” which, coming from this director, is a telling assessment. The mystery of that film’s complete disappearance is complicated by Tucker’s faulty memory and, apparently, a dispute with his financiers. One might be tempted to write the alleged twelve day production off as a complete fabrication, were it not for a “tantalizing” article about the production. It’s plot, or lack thereof, concerns an astronaut who sacrifices the tranquility of marriage for space travel. Hall questions whether Tucker actually finished editing Space Jockey. Even Ed Wood had something to say about the film, implying that his trash competitor faked a suicide attempt to arouse sympathy and raise funds to complete it.
In contrast, Tucker referred to Pachuo as “my masterpiece and greatest achievement.” Apparently, the Medveds screened it and begged to differ, writing it off as a violent and incoherent mess. According to them, the film only had a single commercial showing at a west Texas drive-in theater, which resulted in a riot (the reasons for which are vague). However, a rival source places the destructive premier as having taken place in Austin.
Hall does not neglect missing sequences from originally longer films, such as Erich Von Stroheim‘s infamous Greed (1925), the holy grail of mutilated tragedies. Originally nine hours long (some sources list it as seven), Irving Thalberg took it out of the director’s hands, first cutting it down to three hours, and finally to a truncated 140 minute version, which resulted in an epic box office flop. At the opposite end of the spectrum is 1943’s schlock Universal monster-mash Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, which featured a frail, sixty-year-old Lugosi attempting a role he had once lost out on. Apparently the sound of Frankenstein’s monster speaking in that thick Hungarian accent left test audiences in stitches. In a panic, Universal muted the dialogue, leaving several scenes of Lugosi’s monster (not a good portrayal to begin with) mouthing nonexistent lines. References to the creature being blind were also snipped, rendering the actor’s sightless groping laughably inexplicable. The script, by hack writer Curt Siodmak, was even worse.
The remainder of Hall’s opus runs the gamut from Orson Welles‘ Moby Dick–Rehearsed to an almost mythological Lugosi feature, Lock up Your Daughter (reportedly shown in 1959, three years after actor’s death) and the gay porn film Him (1974).
Hall’s “In Search Of Lost Films” is an essential primer. Its only flaw lies in leaving the reader craving a second volume.
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The Projection Booth Podcast recently did an episode about the book – http://projection-booth.blogspot.com/2016/10/special-report-in-search-of-lost-films.html