Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: In Search of Lost Films

Even if you only have a passing familiarity with this blog (and I certainly wouldn’t blame you for wanting to keep your distance), you’re no doubt aware that I have had a lifelong love affair with silent cinema.  It began when I was a mere sprat, and our local public television station would entertain me with the Paul Killiam versions of such classics as The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Gold Rush (1925), and The General (1927)—among many others.  Growing up in Ravenswood, WV, my next-door neighbor and I would scour each edition of TV Guide and try to find the oldest movie airing on our local stations that week.  One time, we saw that The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was scheduled for a New Year’s Eve airing (this station traditionally ran horror movies to ring in the new year) and we were anxious to see it despite the fact it was going to be on at 4am.  We arranged for a sleepover, and though we tried our darndest our constitutions were not strong enough to stay awake for the presentation.  (As such, I didn’t see Phantom until many years later.)

The history of silent film preservation is a troubling one.  In 2013, The Library of Congress issued a report that estimated 75 percent of the feature films made in the U.S. during the silent era are now lost to future generations of classic movie lovers.  This depressing news doesn’t even take into consideration the number of vanished short films made at that same time, nor does it address the number of sound movies that have also disappeared.  It can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the gaps in foreign cinema, either.  So when news is reported that a previously lost movie has resurfaced (often in the unlikeliest of places) or I get a heads-up that donations are being requested to bring silent movies to DVD (as in the case of two recent campaigns to make the Marion Davies features When Knighthood Was in Flower [1922] and The Bride’s Play [1922} accessible to home video fans), it brings a smile to my usually stone-faced countenance (something I suspect I inherited from my days of watching Buster Keaton).

That face was the recipient of another ear-to-ear grin when I received an e-mail from Clint Weiler (at CWPR) offering me the opportunity to review a book written by journalist/film critic Phil Hall about the subject of film preservation, In Search of Lost Films.  In Search has just been published by BearManor Media (full disclosure: BMM’s Ben Ohmart and I have been chums for many years), a first-rate history on the subject of just how these cinematic treasures—silent and sound, U.S. and foreign—have turned to dust in what Hall himself describes in one chapter as “the roots of a cultural tragedy.”  Hall, a contributing editor for Film Threat magazine and author of other BearManor releases including The History of Independent Cinema and The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, hits one out of the park with this enjoyable read; at the risk of resorting to cliché, In Search is a real page-turner, one of those books in which you’d be willing to knock someone down just to get to the next chapter.

Phil discusses his subject over a number of fascinating chapters; he provides a history of early movie making in the first section, and how those pioneers weren’t motivated by art but by the pursuit of the almighty dollah (which goes a long way toward explaining why so many of these movies no longer exist—preservation was a move made in hindsight).  “Lost Films, Lost Careers” highlights how the likes of Theda Bara and Lon Chaney (you can imagine my delight that mirthmakers like Lloyd Hamilton and Raymond Griffith are also included) have had their silver screen legacies suffer due to the absence of many of their works.  There are also sections devoted to lists of now-lost and culturally significant silent films (The Great Gatsby, Hats Off) and sound presentations (The Rogue Song, Convention City), with Hall providing extensive background on the production history (when available) of these members of the cinematic “disappeared.”

“In Search of Missing Sequences and Segments” concentrates on indisputable classics (The Wizard of Oz, The Magnificent Ambersons) that were cut down from their original versions…and the extant footage no longer exists.  The last chapter, “The Age of Recovery and Rediscovery,” contains a list of films thankfully revived from their MIA state; I chuckled audibly when I read that John Cassavetes’ original version of Shadows (1959), his debut feature, was discovered in the Lost and Found Department of the New York City subway system.

Naturally, I was a ready-made audience for this book, and I particularly enjoyed how many of the lists of missing silent/sound films don’t duplicate the ones tallied in Frank Thompson’s excellent Lost Films (Thompson steered clear of lost “talkies” in his tome as well).  There are also wonderful quotes from some of the folks I’m proud to share Facebook with—film history experts like Ron Hutchinson, Jim Neibaur, Ben Model (his Accidentally Preserved series gets a nice mention), and Steve Massa (whose book Lame Brains & Maniacs is going to be the next one I tackle, I swear—I have the Kindle edition, so there’s no excuses).  Any classic movie fan who’s ever wiped away a tear—knowing that there are so many wonderful films that have since departed for that Great Movie Palace in the Sky—needs to purchase a copy of In Search of Lost Films…and keep it on hand for reference, to make certain we do what we can to keep another parade from going by.


Greg Daniel said...

For those interested in Lost Movies and mystery fiction, I just wanted to recommend Loren Estleman's Valentino series of short stories and novels. Valentino is a "film detective" working in the Film Archives Dept at UCLA -- great fun for fans of old/lost films.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Greg suggested we visit our local library:

For those interested in Lost Movies and mystery fiction, I just wanted to recommend Loren Estleman's Valentino series of short stories and novels. Valentino is a "film detective" working in the Film Archives Dept at UCLA -- great fun for fans of old/lost films.

Thanks for the heads-up, Greg -- sounds like it's worth investigating (apologies for the pun).