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.

London After Midnight (1927): The Movie and The Myth

by Paul Batters

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Around mid-February this year, a rumour did the rounds on social media and film-sites that a certain lost classic film had indeed been found. Or to be more correct, the headline was click-bait and the generally short article which followed was a rumour about a rumour that a certain lost classic film had been found. Nothing substantiated and the same oft-repeated story that is recycled every so often spoke about a print in Spain (or was it Cuba?) or a private collector in possession of a print who just before releasing it, decides against it and thus the story leaves a haze of smoke (excuse the poor joke) before we all move on.

There are a number of lost films which gather the excitement of film fans and in some cases the excitement is warranted. A good example is the recently restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which is considered almost fully restored after a damaged print of Lang’s complete film was found in an Argentinian museum. But versions of the film had been around previously and it was not a totally lost film. A film like Erich von Stroheim’s 1922 epic Greed has become legendary for its’ missing footage which reportedly runs into hours and the final MGM cut was not in line with von Stroheim’s vision. Again, rumours of missing footage surface from time to time – all proving false. There are countless other films, particularly from the silent era, which are considered lost and perhaps, sadly, always will be.

So when the rumour arose earlier this year that Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) had emerged, the ardour of fans was cautioned by the usual disappointment that follows. Like Greed and a number of other lost films, London After Midnight has been dubbed the ‘holy Grail’ of lost films – a term almost clichéd, as I have the distinct feeling that if it is ever discovered, the initial excitement of film fans will soon become muted.

London After Midnight was destroyed, along with hundreds of other films, in the MGM vault fire of 1967. Ironically, MGM was perhaps the only studio that worked to preserve its’ films, using contemporary technology to protect the original nitrates as well as convert them to safer film. Many of the other studios tragically allowed their film stock to crumble and even disposed of them. At any rate, London After Midnight was only one film among many that were destroyed.

This article will not endeavour to outline the plot in detail and nor review the ‘restoration’, which is a 45 minute collection of stills and promotional images. Nevertheless, the film is perhaps more correctly defined as a thriller/mystery, going by contemporary reviews. Lon Chaney Snr plays Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, who is investigating a death that five years earlier had been designated a suicide. The house in which the victim died has new tenants who are spooked by two eerie and frightening figures, having the appearance of a vampire and his undead companion, Luna (Edna Tichenor). But as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that the spooky goings-on are all part of an elaborate plan to uncover the truth behind the death and the ‘vampire’ is actually Inspector Burke in disguise and Luna is an actress from the theatre. In the end, hypnosis is used to discover the killer by inducing him to re-enact the crime.

If you’re confused by the storyline, you’re not alone and some film historians are even more confused as to why the film is so highly sought after. Yet the news that London After Midnight was lost saw its’ legendary status take root in the imagination of film historians and movie buffs.

So why has it received such legendary status?

The film’s destruction occurred at a time when there had been a resurgence of interest in classic films, with quite a number of films being shown on television for the first time in years. Additionally, classic horror films had regained their popularity, assisted in great part by fanzines and popular monster movie magazines such as ‘Famous Monsters Of Filmland’. The great Lon Chaney Snr was in some ways a star all over again and his ability to play a variety of roles was certainly a point of interest; in this case particularly featuring Chaney in a dual role.

The incredibly striking images of Chaney as a vampire which appeared in such magazines, naturally stirred horror films fans to want to see the legendary Chaney in that very film. Indeed, the make-up used by Chaney is haunting and creepy, and certainly matches his efforts from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). The rows of sharp teeth, fixed in a permanent smile of death coupled with a pair of dead, drooping eyes staring at the audience, still evokes emotions of dread, terror and repulsion. Stooping and leering at Edna Tichenor in beaver hat, evening dress and bat-winged cape all still remain powerful images for horror film fans and even moreso because they are all we have due to the status of the film as lost.

Along with horror film magazines, the many horror film books also published over the years by authors such as Alan Frank have also discussed the film, further adding to its’ legendary status. With Chaney’s deserved reputation as a legend of film, and his place in horror film history assured, his only film role as a vampire would certainly be fascinating both to horror film buffs and students of classic film. After all, it would be one of the first films after Nosferatu (1922) to depict a vampire in such an explicitly terrifying way (notwithstanding the fact that Chaney is playing someone disguised as a vampire).

Furthermore, those who saw the film upon its’ release have all passed on and any contemporary accounts of the film are left to the reviews from critics. But negative criticisms have tended to be drowned out or muted as the generation that made those critiques and/or originally viewed the film are long since dead. All that is left is the legend and the myth. Added to this is the fact that the generations holding a torch for the film grew up believing in the legend and have thus carried those impressions into the present.

And of course, the primary reason for seeing it would be the star of the film – Lon Chaney Snr. By the time the film was made, he was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and indeed a name known the world over. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that his stardom was due to his abilities with make-up in creating startling characters. On the contrary, the pathos and emotion of the characters Chaney portrayed on the screen transcended make-up and his screen presence is as potent today as it was during the silent era.

So why would the film disappoint?

By all reports, London After Midnight was a decent earner for MGM in 1927 but it was not a tearaway success and critics at the time were not particularly kind to the film. Soister and Nicolella in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 (2012) point out that critics saw the story lines as ‘nonsensical’ and Variety did not rate the film highly, calling Chaney ‘just fair’ in the role, adding that it was ‘not much of a drawing card’. The New York Times was lukewarm in its’ appraisal, also calling the storyline ‘incoherent’ and it didn’t seem impressed by Chaney’s ‘uncanny disguise’.

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Film historians such as William K. Everson have shown greater control and offered critical discussion when discussing the film and make the point that it’s reputation had been blown all out of proportion, particularly by horror film publications geared towards mass consumption by the kiddie and teen markets. As a result, London After Midnight is a film that is perhaps more enigmatic than it deserves to be, if we go by contemporary critics. Our own childhood memories of films are sometimes turned sour upon viewing them as adults and the magic seems to have departed. A viewing of London After Midnight could very well have a similar effect.

Additionally, the film is often mentioned in the same breath as The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and Paul Leni’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) because of their prosaic endings, as pointed out by Olaf Brill in Expressionism in the Cinema. American audiences at the time would simply not accept supernatural films, in the same way that European audiences did. Whilst much is made about Browning’s ‘cheat ending’, in context audiences at the time may not have been so disappointed. When comparing to the Browning remake of 1935’s Mark Of The Vampire with Bela Lugosi, audiences had made that jump into accepting the supernatural primarily because of the Universal horror cycle of the early 1930s –and ironically it was Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula which started it all. It makes sense that a 1935 audience would have felt ‘cheated’ but what does that mean for today’s audience viewing London After Midnight, after decades of conditioning to accept otherwise and then some?

The existing and remaining stills are certainly thrilling and capture our imagination and it is only natural that we want to see more. But what are we seeing? Are we imposing our own predisposed notions upon those stills, fuelled by our long-held desire to see a lost classic? They are images that promise much but can they deliver?

Perhaps most damning of all, according to Jon Mirsalis, is the claim from Everson and fellow film historian David Bradley that they viewed the film in the early 1950s and it was inferior to its’ 1935 remake Mark Of The Vampire. Mirsalis also adds that:

‘the eerie Cedric Gibbons-Arnold Gillespie sets, and Chaney’s stunning vampire make-up, make for intriguing still photographs, but these scenes account for only a small portion of the film, the rest of the footage being devoted to Polly Moran’s comic relief, and talkie passages between detective Chaney and Walthall…’

Such a claim does not inspire confidence!

As much as other classic film fans, I would still be thrilled and terribly excited to see a re-discovered London After Midnight. The prospect of seeing those famous stills come to life after decades of being captivated by them would be too enticing to ignore. But I fear that if it is re-discovered, for all the brilliance of Lon Chaney Snr, it will not be the classic that we are anticipating.

 

This article is a part of the 2018 Lon Chaney Snr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/05/05/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-one/ and Silver Screenings – https://silverscreenings.org/2018/05/06/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-two/. Please click on the links for other great articles on the legendary Lon Chaney Snr. 

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.