The Tragedy of Lost Art – Silent Film and Finding The Forgotten

by Paul Batters

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Recently an article from The Silent Film Quarterly was shared by on a social media forum by film critic Steven Finkelstein. My interest was piqued not only because I respect Steven’s views and critiquing but by the article’s attention-seeking title which was looking to pick a fight. The title of this article alone ‘No More Tears Over Lost Films’ (penned by Charles Epting) had me choking on my coffee, as my sensibilities flooded with disbelief.

Disbelief turned to spluttering rage after reading the first paragraph and the writer’s response to his own question. To paraphrase, Epting’s premise is that the loss of 90% of films made before 1929 (according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation) is nothing to get upset about and that we’re not missing out on anything. To throw fuel on the fire, Epting claimed that the figures highlighting this loss are ‘essentially meaningless’ and that the ‘missing films’ are not significant.

Trying to maintain my composure, I decided to look into Epting’s arguments for why we shouldn’t care that 90% of pre-1929 films are missing and/or permanently gone.

Firstly, Epting makes the claim that for every masterpiece a la Metropolis or Wings, there are ‘countless low-budget, forgettable films’ e.g. His Neighbour’s Pants which if found would not expand our appreciation or understanding of classic cinema in any way or form. Perhaps. He furthers his argument with a fairly facetious comment that ‘by Scorsese’s count, the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants is just as important as the survival of The Gold Rush’. To attack the incredibly valuable work of Scorsese in trying to save and/or restore lost silent film alone is quite a laughable and reprehensible observation to make. It’s also stunning that someone can make a comment that a film that is lost and unseen has no merit. The most obvious response is ‘how do you know?’ If they have not been seen, how can they be judged as having ‘no merit’?

Additionally, Epting’s draws a long bow of correlation between Wings and His Neighbour’s Pants, in terms of their cinematic and cultural value. No-one would suggest equal artistic merit (despite never having seen the latter!) between the two but why choose such films to compare? Gloria Swanson’s Beyond The Rocks might be a better comparison in terms of time period and production quality. It was a film whose initial loss greatly saddened Swanson and its’ eventual discovery, restoration and screening should surely be celebrated. Similarly, the additional footage found and re-edited into Metropolis is cause for celebration as we have the closest version to date, which reflects the original release. By Epting’s assessment, these shouldn’t matter.

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He continues to ‘argue the point with prose’ by declaring that ‘studios were under no obligation to preserve the nitrate stock for posterity’s sake’. Nonsense. Of course they were and it is to the shame of those studios and to the lament of the filmmakers and their audiences that those films were not preserved. Studios like Paramount were inept in their neglect and derelict in their duty to leave their stock to rot. How many of Clara Bow’s films were lost to this negligence? To the credit of MGM, they invested in the protection of their stock, although the tragic fire of 1967 saw the famed studio lose much of its’ celebrated titles. I wonder Epting’s response to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria would have prompted? Or in the context of this article the Fox Studio vault fire of 1937?

Epting uses some bizarre logic to make his argue his case; even attempting to use ‘data’ as his ace up the sleeve. He states that of the 23 films that received nominations at the 1st Academy Awards in 1928, nearly three-quarters have survived, which he states is ‘not a bad percentage’. Personally, I find it appalling that anyone would base the value of lost or surviving films on numbers alone. But he doesn’t care to dwell on this and then declares that we have 98.7% of Chaplin’s silent films. (I guess this is better than 98.6%…) Incredibly, he argues that the figure is much higher if we consider the number of surviving reels rather than titles. This is perhaps the most absurd use of data I’ve encountered and is akin to comparing numbers of chapters to number of book titles.

The use of data as evidence for his arguments continues to leave convoluted points in place. Some of cinema’s greatest directors, Griffith, Murnau, deMille and Von Stroheim have much of their work intact yet all have varying ‘percentages’ of lost films as well. True, their reputations and legacy remain remarkable and intact regardless of whether those films are found or not. But that is beside the point. Those lost films need to be found, restored and viewed because it’s the work of the aforementioned directors. As fans of classic film, the audience’s experience of those great filmmakers can only be enhanced and we can always learn more about a director and the context of his or her time from their work. To suggest otherwise is laughable at best.

At any rate, rattling some of the best-known directors of the period makes not an argument. What undiscovered works from lesser known directors or artists remain hidden or lost?

The same argument is used regarding the great Lon Chaney Snr and the most frequently discussed lost film, London After Midnight (1927). I have previously written about this film and have stated that the film may disappoint for a number of factors. But I would never suggest that a print of the film would not be valuable to classic film fans. Yes there is no shortage of Chaney films to view and discuss. Does that mean that adding another would not be worth it? According to Epting, the loss of The Miracle Man (1919) is meaningless because we have enough of Chaney’s work anyway. To use an earlier argument of his using ‘data’, what existing footage there is of The Miracle Man is enough at any rate. Being Chaney’s breakout performance and judging by the footage that does exist, it’s not hard to imagine that the film would have been a masterpiece and if found, will prove an exciting discovery. Again, it is hard to accept Epting’s arguments. Imagine suggesting that discovering a lost play by Aeschylus or a previously unknown artwork by Van Gogh is not worth worrying about because we already have existing works by these artists. 

By contrast, two of the silent era’s biggest stars have a vast amount of their work lost and/or missing. Both defined their time and are important in cinema history, particularly in the portrayal and development of archetypes. The first is the original vamp, Theda Bara, who was perhaps the biggest star of the 1910s and certainly one of the first, if not the first sex symbol. We have hardly any of work to view or critique, and regardless of whether they are dated or, to paraphrase Epting, not worth seeking or saving, Bara’s films would certainly be important to cinema history. One of her most celebrated films, from which prints often turn up in film books, is the long-lost Cleopatra (1917). Its’ discovery would be an exciting one and should not prompt disdain from Mr. Epting. The same could be said for Madame Du Barry (1917) or Salome (1918). The loss of such films are a tragedy to our understanding of cinema and its’ early development.

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The second star is the aforementioned Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl, whose story is one of sadness and tragedy despite the charm and naturalness she brought to the screen. Bow ushered in a new era in the 1920s, which eclipsed the previous sex symbol characteristics employed by Bara and reflected the post-WW1 period for young women in a way no one else did on the silver screen. She was the quintessential flapper of the 1920s. Yet almost half her films are lost, which Paramount with willful negligence let deteriorate in their vaults. To re-discover her films and be able to see them again would be a boon to classic film fans.

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Using the reviews and audience responses of the days are not necessarily helpful either. There are numerous films that were poorly received upon their release. Yet time and re-assessment have changed our views and those films have been seen in a new light. In contrast, films that were well received upon release have not always aged well and have even been forgotten in some cases – even Academy Award winners (Cimarron a case in point). At one point, Epting seems to contradict himself by claiming that box office figures during the silent era are notoriously difficult to corroborate and perhaps should not be used as a guide for what is a successful film. Yet he later claims that ‘box office flops’ which are less likely to exist are not a great loss. At any rate, do we simply judge the value of a film by its’ box office receipts?

In fairness to Epting, he tries to employ the positive notion that we should celebrate what silent film does exist and enjoy it. But to denigrate the desire to find and/or preserve silent films that are lost or need restoration is not the stuff of cinephiles. It is most disconcerting when comments such as the following, are made by Epting: Once a movie was released and shown at theaters across the country, it was effectively finished. Storage of nitrate film reels was costly and dangerous. If these films had no commercial potential, what was the point of utilizing valuable resources to save them?

Really?

Lastly, suggesting that what survives is special because the rest has perished becomes a dangerous premise to go by. Indeed, the destruction of past works becomes the drive not only to protect what we have but also becomes the inspiration to appreciate, archive and protect all works and find better and more lasting ways to preserve them. Our appreciation of classic film will not only be enhanced by appreciating what we do have but by continuing to seek out lost treasures and preserving what we do find. Knowledge and understanding does not grow and is not nurtured through limitations but by continually seeking and looking at what the possibilities are.

Thankfully there are many involved in the search and preservation of classic films and undoubtedly they will not be overly perturbed by the sentiments of Mr. Epting. Susan King, who writes on classic film in the Los Angeles Times is one writer I regularly notice who keeps me abreast of new discoveries and the future for film restoration and discovery looks bright, if luminaries such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg continue their efforts.

And yes, I would like to see His Neighbour’s Pants if Mr. Scorsese manages to restore it.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

City Lights (1931): Charlie Chaplin’s Most Poignant Masterpiece

by Paul Batters

The films of Charlie Chaplin are perhaps the easiest to watch and the most difficult to write about – easy because they are such an incredible joy to the heart and soul of the individual and difficult (for myself at least) because it feels like sacrilege to even try and analyse the work of the great master of cinema. Chaplin’s works are true masterpieces of cinema, reaching across time and space with powerful emotion, shaped and built with precision in every aspect of the film making process. Despite the enormity of the work that Chaplin put into his films, they remain deeply personal in how they touch us and the Little Tramp remains a character that we all find in a facet of ourselves. For me, City Lights (1931) is an incredible blend of pathos and humour that is also one of his most emotional and touching films, where we all find ourselves hopelessly lost in the sheer beauty of the story whilst still laughing at the Little Tramp. Indeed, City Lights (1931) just may be Chaplin at his most poetic.

The many films of Chaplin reveal an incredible richness not only in story but also in tones and qualities. For all the pathos and sentiment that is evident in City Lights, there is also Chaplin’s classic irreverence for pomposity and hypocrisy as well as slapstick and farce.

The great Roger Ebert, in his review of City Lights beautifully describes the beauty of Chaplin in the following way:

‘Children who see them at a certain age don’t notice they’re “silent” but notice only that every frame speaks clearly to them, without all those mysterious words that clutter other films. Then children grow up, and forget this wisdom, but the films wait patiently and are willing to teach us again’.

The film opens with a classic dig at the aforementioned pomposity and hypocrisy. The scene reveal a group of well-healed citizens and dignitaries around a monument to ‘Peace And Prosperity’ that is about to be unveiled. After a series of long-winded speeches, where Chaplin effectively uses sound to convey the meaninglessness of their words, the monument is unveiled to reveal the Little Tramp asleep in the arms of one of the monument’s statues. What follows is a hilarious scene, with an apologetic Tramp getting himself near impaled on the sword of one of the statues, followed by a perplexed and angry crowd holding onto their wrath when the National Anthem is played. The Tramp tries to be upstanding, even in his ridiculous position but cannot contain himself, as he soon uses the features of the monument in a farcical display before making his getaway.

The Little Tramp goes from one situation to another, when the pace of the film shifts to perhaps one of cinema’s most touching and beautiful moments. Crossing the street, with a deft stop-short and duck from a traffic cop, the Tramp nonchalantly steps through a car and out onto the sidewalk. This hilarious moment becomes something more when he encounters a beautiful flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on the street, who has been ignored by well-to-do passers-by. In the process of selling a flower, the Tramp discovers she is blind and gives her the only money he has to purchase the flower. However, his earlier exiting from the car and the owner of the vehicle returning leaves the flower girl thinking that the kind purchaser of her flower is a rich man. Here, Chaplin’s craft is at its’ most superb by using sound without using sound as a plot device which sets the tone of the whole story and sets up the ending. For all the Tramp’s mischievousness, his truly kind heart is revealed when he sees her mistaking him for the man who re-enters his car and tips away, not wanting to ruin the moment for the flower girl. But he is taken by her and sits quietly nearby, just to be near her.

Later that evening, the Tramp saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) who is attempting to commit suicide. In the midst of tragedy, Chaplin uses the moment for brilliant dark humour when the rock the millionaire uses to drown himself, ends up tied around the Tramp’s neck. Drunk and despondent, the millionaire invites the Tramp to his home where they drink champagne and he even gives the Tramp money after a night on the town. As they drive, the Tramp sees the girl selling flowers on her corner and stops not only to purchase all her flowers but also gives her a ride home in the millionaire’s car. Thus, the blind girl’s misguidance that her kind benefactor is a millionaire is further perpetuated.

But the Tramp’s rich new found friend sours when the millionaire sobers up and refuses to acknowledge him, having him thrown out of the house. But later the millionaire, drunk again, sees the Tramp on the street and again invites him home.

The Tramp seeks the flower girl and finds the humble home where she lives with her grandmother (Florence Lee). He discovers that the girl is very ill and unable to sell flowers, which the grandmother takes up instead. The Tramp, determined to help her, becomes a street-sweeper to help pay the rent and buy groceries. He becomes that determined to help that the Tramp even takes part in a boxing match, desperate for money after losing his job. A comedy of errors sees the Tramp face a serious fighter and not the intended opponent. The fight is hilarity unconfined and one of comedy’s most famous boxing scenes. But as all comedy peeled back, it reveals deeper tragedy, when the Tramp is badly beaten and the prize money is not forthcoming.

A third meeting with the again-inebriated millionaire will prove a mix of fortunes. The Tramp tells the story of the blind girl and how an operation will save her and her sight. Moved by the story, the millionaire gives the Tramp a great deal of money but again fate steps in to blacken the moment, when two burglars break in and attack the millionaire. By the time the police arrive, the burglars have fled and the Tramp is blamed for the robbery when the millionaire, affected by the attack and his alcohol intake, cannot remember giving money to the Tramp.

Knowing he is doomed, the Tramp evades the police and manages to get the money to the girl before he is captured. In a heart-rending scene, he explains to the flower girl that he will be going away for some time. The police finally arrest him and he is taken to prison.

Much focus has been made on the famous ending and it would be remiss of me not to honor it by mentioning it. I have refrained from over-cooking what has become cinema folklore and has been discussed at great length elsewhere. After his release, the Tramp returns to the flower girl’s corner to find she is not there. What follows can be best summed up by watching the very scene itself, and consider the words of Chaplin himself, whilst viewing it:

“I’ve had that once or twice, he said, …in City Lights just the last scene … I’m not acting …. Almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking … It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

Chaplin’s genius crafts the film in its’ entirety, employing subtle touches to bring the close to a personal and emotional ending. The construction of the film flows into this perfect finale, and our love and admiration for the Little Tramp is perhaps never greater – as we see him willing to suffer and risk all, so that she can be saved and find happiness. For all the love he has for her, the Tramp is even willing to risk losing her. Chaplin leaves us breathless as we anticipate the finale, drawing us into the tragic comedy of the Tramp’s journey.

It was a unique film, up to that point, in terms of Chaplin’s methodology in creating it. From its’ inception in early 1928 (from which a number of scenarios were considered) till its’ final release in January 1931, Chaplin found himself on an odyssey. According to David Robinson’s biography, Chaplin described the process of constructing a film as like being in a labyrinth and trying to find a way out. Nothing could be truer in this statement regarding the approach to City Lights. It was also a film where the incredible workload taken on by Chaplin meant a severely diminished social life, with his focus on writing, production, directing, editing and starring in the film. Amazingly, Chaplin would also write the musical score as well, to the astonishment of the industry.

When conceiving the story in 1928, sound had made its’ appearance with Warner Bros. release of The Jazz Singer (1927) and the first all-talking film Lights Of New York (1928). The challenge to have the Tramp speak was enormous but whilst the idea was a novel one, Chaplin was concerned at a number of levels – how would the Tramp speak and sound, would the character lose his universal appeal by talking and how would the Tramp act once the language of pantomime was abandoned. More to the point, whole audiences worldwide would be alienated once the Tramp spoke in English. Additionally, sound techniques were still primitive and not particularly successful and the perfectionist in Chaplin would not have tolerated such shortcomings. In the end, Chaplin refused to have the Tramp talk and the film would remain silent, save for a few moments where sound is brilliantly employed to drive the story.

Pre-production would continue through most of 1928, punctuated by personal tragedy, when on August 28th his mother Hannah died. The tragedy of his mother’s life, the difficulty he had with his mother’s mental illness combined with his own tragic, Dickensian upbringing, is well-known history for Chaplin fans. He was deeply affected by her death and pre-production halted for some weeks. Psychiatrist Stephen Weismann in his 2008 book ‘Chaplin: A Life” believes that Chaplin certainly transferred his mother onto the blind girl in City Lights, with the drunken millionaire representing his absent father. It is a theory that certainly holds water, with the Tramp still accepting the drunken millionaire’s invitations despite being rejected and the desperate desire to save the Flower Girl, easily reflecting Chaplin’s own childhood parental fantasies and hopes for happiness.

By the time of the film’s completion in late 1930, silent films had literally disappeared and were considered passé. Yet despite Chaplin’s initial nervousness, City Lights would be an incredible financial and critical success. The critics raved. Irene Thirer in her Daily News review said:

‘City Lights is excruciatingly funny and terribly, terribly sad. It makes you chuckle hysterically. You have the greatest time imaginable, and yet, occasionally you find little hurty lumps in your throat’.

Critics are still raving about it today. Dave Kehr in the Chicago Reader has called it, ‘a beautiful example of Chaplin’s ability to turn narrative fragments into emotional wholes’.  Dan Jardine is Slant Magazine accurately describes it as, ‘the work of a master craftsman in full control of his craft’. Mark Bourne from Film.com perhaps put it best:

‘That final scene. Last week, CNN asked — in “The Screening Room’s Top 10 Romantic Moments” — whether this was the most touching film moment of all time. Could be. Either way, if it doesn’t move you, you’re beyond human reach’.

Watch the film and tell me that your heart doesn’t break before it’s put back together again.

This article is part of the 2018 Charlie Chaplin Blogathon and hosted by Christina Wehrner at https://christinawehner.wordpress.com and ‘Little Bits Of Classics’ https://littlebitsofclassics.wordpress.com. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2018/04/14/the-charlie-chaplin-blogathon-has-arrived/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.