Treasure Trove of Silent Films Found in the UK

Mike Grant and his daughter Rachael were working at a recycling center in Sidmouth, Devon in the UK, when something unusual caught their eye. Next to an old tin of paint on an old shelving unit lay two 16mm film reels, discarded as junk along with the shelves and the paint. Upon further inspection, they discovered that these just weren’t any old junk film reels–these were films that dated back to 1909, and one of them was a reel of The Cardboard Lover (1928), a scarce Marion Davies film.

The Cardboard Lover, 1928.

The Cardboard Lover, 1928.

Halfway around the world, I became ecstatic when the story broke. The Cardboard Lover, a rarely seen gem, is one of Marion Davies’ all-time funniest films. It is available at UCLA and the Library of Congress, but the prints in both places are in desperate need of restoration. I have always bemoaned the fact that so few people have had a chance to see this delightful movie. Could this be an opportunity, I thought, for The Cardboard Lover to be restored and returned to its rightful place in the Marion Davies pantheon? As Marion’s current biographer, I could not have been more excited.

Upon further investigation into the discovery, it became clear that only one reel of The Cardboard Lover was found, thereby shattering my dreams of any significant restoration project from the newly found print. This is not to diminish, however, the significance of this find in Devon. In addition to the single reel of The Cardboard Lover, a print of the 1909 French film Jane is Unwilling to Work was found intact, as well as a 1910 Italian movie called Il Guanto.

These types of finds seem to have been increasing in recent years. In 2002, Colleen Moore’s final silent, Why Be Good?, was uncovered in the Cineteca Italiana. The story of how it was uncovered is a blog post unto itself, but suffice it to say that we now have a complete and restored version of Why Be Good?, thanks to the unparalleled knowledge of film aficionado Joe Yranski. The original Vitaphone sound disks, created to go with the film upon its original release, have been looped back into Why Be Good? and we now have the film as it was originally envisioned in 1929.

A clip from Why Be Good?, synced with the Vitaphone sound disks.

In 2008, Argentinian film historian Fernando Peña discovered a near-complete print of Fritz Lang’s epic sic-fi Metropolis (1927) in Argentina’s Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. To add to his legacy among film fans, Peña made another startling find at the Museo del Cine in 2013, when he unearthed a 9.5mm print of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1922).

Buster Keaton in The Blacksmith, a print of which was recently discovered at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires.

Buster Keaton in The Blacksmith, a print of which was recently discovered at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires.

The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films have been lost. It is a saddening idea that as films continue to age and deteriorate, that number is steadily increasing. But as long as people continue to search and discover in unlikely places, we can remain hopeful that some of these movies presumed lost aren’t quite so lost after all.

Research and Apologies for an Extended Absence

Readers, a quick glance at the history of Backlots tells me that I have not updated since June 10, which feels like a terrible sin on my part. I apologize for my absence, and I promise you that I am alive and have not forgotten about my blogging duties.

There is an explanation for my absence. As many of you know, for the past year and a half or so (it will be 2 years in November), I have been working on a large project about Marion Davies. I have kept it quiet on the blog until now, because I needed to gather steam for the project and do it on my own terms. But the time has come, I believe, to let you all know what I have been doing and why my blogging has been relegated to the back burner of late.

This is the first biography of Marion Davies since 1972, and she is the most wonderful subject I could have possibly chosen. Biographers have to live with their subjects day in and day out, and there is no one I would rather live with than Marion Davies. She has been nothing but a joy from the first moment I began my research, and she fascinates and amazes me more every day.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my research and the contacts I have made, and I have a great deal of support from many important people in the community. It feels like the best and most rewarding thing I have done in my life. I’ve toured Hearst Castle, spoken about Marion at festivals and events, and traveled the world to meet significant people in Marion’s life and story. Suffice it to say that I’ve had quite an adventure since November of 2013. In this post, I would like to focus on a few of the key research institutions that I have found useful in my work.

THE MARGARET HERRICK LIBRARY

The library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills has long been a mecca for film lovers. Deceptively small in size, it boasts a collection of hundreds of thousands of archival documents, photos, periodicals, and clippings from the early days of film all the way up to the present day. The Margaret Herrick Library is a public library, anyone from the public may walk in and view material, though special collections are reserved for people working on an actual project. It has nearly every book ever written on any film subject–every film book I have ever wanted has been at the Margaret Herrick–and a large digital photograph gallery accessible inside the library. If you love movies, the Margaret Herrick Library is a true destination.

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Located just steps from the United States Capitol Building, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  is a maze of rooms and departments organized by a complex color-coding system. Regardless of what you need, the Library of Congress has it somewhere in the building. I spent most of my time in the film department and newspaper archive across the hall, but also accessed the radio archive room and theater department. It is a breathtaking operation, and the archivists are some of the most helpful and dedicated people in the business.

THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

I have found some real gems here. The New York Public Library offers researchers not only a magnificently diverse collection of material, but many varied ways to find and access it. The archives with which I have primarily dealt feature both a card catalog and online finding aids, so information is easily obtained and if you uncover a new piece of information, other references to that information can be found without having to leave the library. It is a real monument to archival skill and one of my primary research locations.

UCLA FILM AND TV ARCHIVE

UCLA is renowned for its Film and Television program, so it is perhaps no surprise that its archive is top-notch. Located inside the Powell Library, researchers may view pre-selected films in viewing rooms or cubicles in a small enclave within the library using headphones for any films that may have sound (the majority of my requests have not had sound). They have home movies, rare films, television shows, and a wide assortment of clips and newsreels that are scarce or nonexistent elsewhere. Much of the work I have done at the UCLA Film and TV Archive has been the catalyst for extensive research at the Library of Congress, and it was one of my first research destinations when I began this project in late 2013.

I have been to just about every research library around, but these are especially close to my heart. I predict that the research and writing will take another few years to complete, so thank you for your patience with my blogging and I promise I will try to avoid going for a month without posting again!

See you next time!

BOOK REVIEW: My First Time in Hollywood

The first time Lillian Gish saw Hollywood was after a five day train journey from a blustery New York. She describes Los Angeles as warm and inviting, a city that “smelled like a vast orange grove, and the abundance of roses offered a cheery welcome.”

This was the Hollywood of the early days, before tourist-clogged Hollywood Boulevard, seedy shops and tourist traps kept locals at bay. In these early days, those wishing to make a name for themselves in the budding film industry ventured to an oasis called Hollywood, where orange trees blossomed and the rural landscape was dotted with farmhouses. It is difficult for us to imagine a Hollywood like this, but in My First Time in Hollywood, writer and historian Cari Beauchamp has immortalized the Hollywood of the past by compiling and annotating the words of those who lived it.

Beauchamp, the author of the beautiful Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, has created a portrait of early Hollywood that is at once nostalgic and poignant. These are the people who built the movie business as we know it, their work and commitment setting the stage for the writers, actors, and directors who would come after them. In reading their words about their Hollywood, we see just how much these men and women were responsible for building the town, and also how the Hollywood of this book has largely disappeared due to the exponential growth and explosion of the entertainment industry, causing a web of traffic, corporate buildings, and overpriced houses.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland, 1907.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland today.

The book includes stories from familiar names like Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, as well as lesser-known Hollywood figures such as secretary Valeria Belletti and Evelyn Scott, daughter of Beulah Marie Dix. Many of the stories are from the perspectives of women, a refreshing realization in an industry comprised of a mostly male-dominated Hollywood narrative.

My First Time in Hollywood is an ode to a Hollywood gone by, but also a testament to the lineage of the town, how it came to be, and the characters who made it. It is a wonderful and enlightening read, and a must for anyone interested in Hollywood history. One of my favorite lines from the book comes from Colleen Moore:

“For years I had believed, if not in the Never Land of Peter Pan, in the Never Land of Hollywood. Had believed, had thought lovely, wonderful thoughts, and for all that my Never Land was a continent away, it might as well have been second to the right and then straight on till morning.

Until now. Now at last I had found it. I was right here in it, this place of enchanting make-believe. And I was going to stay here and become a star.

How could I possibly go home?

I was home.”

A young Colleen Moore, shortly after she arrived in Hollywood.

If you would like to purchase the book, here is the link to the Amazon site. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

See you next time, and happy reading!

Highlights From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Another marvelous festival has come to a close, and these five days were certainly ones to remember. With world-class guests such as Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg and some of the greatest silent film accompanists in the business, festival attendees experienced the very best that silent film has to offer.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of my favorite festivals to cover. The films are carefully chosen to provide a beautifully diverse program, with silent films from international markets, newly-restored gems, and hits from other silent film festivals such as Pordenone and Bologna. A survey of the schedule reveals 7 different countries represented in a program of 21 features, and several newly discovered movies that have been buried deep in the archives for decades.

Highlights included a beautiful showing of the Greta Garbo and John Gilbert classic Flesh and the Devil, one of the most stunningly photographed and erotic movies of the silent era. Introduced by Kevin Brownlow and accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, a Swedish silent film orchestra that makes an appearance at the festival every year, I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to witness it on the big screen. This has long been one of my favorite movies to watch, both for the exquisite cinematography and the alluring character of Felicitas, who lives her life her way.

Serge Bromberg presented an uproariously funny selection of Charley Bowers shorts, showcasing the absurd and surreal filmmaking that swept the underground cinematic landscape in the early 1920s. Following World War I, the surrealist movement known as Dadaism began to grow in Europe and extended to the United States, and though Charley Bowers was not Dadaist in the true sense of the word, aspects of the genre can be seen in some of his best work.

Here is one of the funniest movies we saw. Ignore the video’s soundtrack if you can.

And here is some classic Dadaism:

Serge Bromberg presented the movie, and also played the score on the piano. It was a truly impressive program!

One of the most highly anticipated events of the festival was a newly found film that continues to be a work-in-progress in terms of editing. The movie is called Lime Kiln Field Day, a 1913 all-black comedy starring Bert Williams. Williams is often compared to Charlie Chaplin in his physicality and comedic style, and the similarity was evident in the movie. We heard a fascinating presentation beforehand that detailed the painstaking research that went into identifying the actors and directors, and gave the audience a sense of how the movie was made, and how it was found and restored. We saw a movie that was about 90 minutes long, which included multiple takes and outtakes. It will be exciting to see how the project progresses in the coming years, and it was a real treat to see an all-black movie from so early in the history of film.

Perhaps my favorite screening of the festival was another presentation by Serge Bromberg, of a beautiful family drama called Visages d’enfants. It tells the story of a young boy in rural France who experiences the death of his doting mother, and tries to come to terms with his father’s remarriage. Visages d’enfants is a startlingly modern tale, and feels as though it could have been made in the modern day instead of 90 years ago. Jean Forest, whom we also saw a few years ago at the festival in Gribiche, gave an immensely emotive and tender performance as the troubled boy, cementing my inclination to say that he was one of the most talented child actors to come out of the silent era. I would love to see Visages d’enfants released widely on DVD, as I think it has the potential to become a beloved classic.

Visages d’enfants.

The festival went out with a beautiful screening of the 1925 Ben-Hur, presented again by Kevin Brownlow and featuring Carl Davis’ magnificent score. This is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen, and anything less doesn’t do it justice.  I have seen this movie several times, but when I saw it at the Castro on Monday evening, I felt like I had never seen it before. The Technicolor sequences shone, and the score elevated the chariot race to thrilling heights unable to be reached on the small screen. It is moments like watching Ben-Hur at the Castro Theatre when I swell with pride as a Bay Area native, being mere steps away from some of the best festivals and screenings in the world of classic film. Thank you to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for another great year, and I can’t wait for next time!

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is taking place the week of Memorial Day this year, and a fitting film opened the festival this evening. A packed crowd filled the Castro Theatre at the corner of Market and Castro to see All Quiet on the Western Front, a beautiful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic World War I novel and a powerful anti-war epic. The movie stars Lew Ayres and a cast of  dozens of character actors, and is set in a bleak and devastatingly real German World War I trench.

Paul Baumer (Ayres) is a young boy in school in Germany, who is taught the glories of war by his teacher and decides to go into the German army to fight in World War I. Along with his schoolmates, he joins a battalion and is immediately sent to the western front to fight the Allied forces who are quickly advancing. There are gruesome scenes of war, death, and blood, showing the audiences the horrors of war in no uncertain terms. But at the same time, this is a story about brotherhood, friendship, and caring in the most hellacious place on earth.

By 1930, silent film production in the United States had essentially ceased. 1929 saw sound becoming industry standard, and the public began to accept and expect sound film as normal instead of a novelty. For the theaters that could not yet afford the expensive sound equipment that sound film required, many films through 1929 were filmed twice, once as a silent and once as a sound film. This was the case with All Quiet on the Western Front. By 1930 sound was a universal standard and it was unusual to film a movie twice, but the starkness, the power, and the gravity of All Quiet on the Western Front renders it ideal for the silent screen. Words are often superfluous in describing the horrors of war, and are unable to capture the pure terror and trauma experienced by soldiers in active combat. A simple glance, a look in the eyes or a wrinkle of an eyebrow can express more than a whole page of dialogue, and that is exactly what Lew Ayres accomplishes in this movie. There is no unimportant scene, nothing goes to waste in this beautiful, tightly woven, heartwrenching drama.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of the greatest festivals around in terms of programming. Festivalgoers can always count on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to deliver the best that silent film has to offer, and I very much look forward to the entire schedule this year.

See you tomorrow!

The Great Colorization Debate

Tonight, CBS airs newly colorized episodes of “I Love Lucy,” a long-anticipated event that has reignited the debate over whether or not colorization of historical film sources is an acceptable alternative to the black-and-white original. As time removes us further and further from the era from which many of these sources come, the inevitable question must now be considered: how do we interest this new generation of viewers, for whom a night of entertainment often consists of alcohol, smartphones, and an episode of the Kardashians, in entertainment like “I Love Lucy” or My Man Godfrey?

My Man Godfrey (1936), colorized.

The question is a valid one, and colorization of a few episodes of “I Love Lucy” might draw new audience members who may not have otherwise tuned in, but to many it seems like putting a band-aid on the problem. In my generation, there is a distinct lack of interest in educating the public about history. Instead, distributors like to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and all too often this means a previously uninterested one. I applaud efforts to get Generation Y back on track by trying to make black-and-white material appealing. But as a member of Generation Y myself (albeit a bit of an anomaly), the proposed solutions are all too often off-target. Colorizing a movie to appeal to a mass audience might be a quick fix, but in order to capture and retain interest, it is necessary to educate the public about the where, the when, and the why of a black-and-white movie. The color of the film stock isn’t the problem. The lack of historical understanding is.

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The colorized version of The Miracle on 34th Street (1947) airs on television every year, presumably to attract viewers of a younger generation.

With that said, colorization of film stock is nothing new. Starting in the earliest days of film, the public wanted color and experimental hand-tinting of footage occurred often, probably most notably in scenes of The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Le Voyage dans la Lune  (1902).

Le Voyage dans la Lune, diligently hand-colored in the Meliès lab.

One of my favorite hand-colored tints is “Annabelle Serpentine Dance,” from the Edison studio in 1895. It is considered the earliest hand-tinted movie, and shows a young woman dancing in a long flowing skirt, and each time the skirt billows, a new color appears. It is a beautiful idea, beautifully executed by the Edison studio.

The advent of Technicolor in the late 1920s was a wonder, but by no means eradicated the use of black-and-white film. It wasn’t even truly until the 1980s that color film became standard industry-wide standard, but by the 1970s black-and-white film was a novelty and rarely used. The public expected color, and now, 40 years hence, anything black-and-white is considered “old” by the current generation and is therefore expendable. In that sense, colorization serves its purpose, to make the print appear newer, and therefore accentuate the immortality of the material.

But by its very colorization, we are perpetuating the idea that black-and-white is lesser and must be updated in order to be appealing. Is this what we want to be telling this generation? It’s a complex question and a complex situation to work out, a burden that we have inherited due to lack of desire or motivation to inform and educate the public. I would love to hear your input. What is your opinion of colorization? Leave your comments below, and I look forward to hearing from you!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2015!

Hello dear readers, my goodness, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ve been so busy with various projects that I feel that Backlots has been relegated to the back burner. I still owe you the post about my final day at the TCMFF, but I’m here to announce another festival–the San Francisco Silent Film Festival that Backlots has attended for the past several years will return at the end of this month, and I will be there covering all the action!

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This year’s lineup is spectacular. Featuring such films as Flesh and the Devil, All Quiet on the Western Front, Speedy, and their signature smorgasbord of silent films from around the globe, the 2015 festival promises to be one to remember. Join me the last weekend in May as we go to the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco to celebrate the silents once more.

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert smolder in Flesh and the Devil.

If you are in the San Francisco area, you may get the details about this year’s festival by visiting the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website and downloading the full schedule. This festival remains one of my favorites due to its perfect combination of quality films, world-class speakers, and cozy local atmosphere. If you’ve never been before, it’s a true experience.

I will get that final TCM post up shortly, but be sure to check back between May 28 and June 1 for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!