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.

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4 responses to “Treasure Trove of Silent Films Found in the UK

  1. George Parsons

    Years ago, I read an article in THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE about an early silent Anita Loos scripted film, considered lost, found in the basement of a theatre in The Yukon. I wrote to dear Anita sharing the news! She was unaware of this find; she sent me an overflowing grateful note spiced with unbelievable awe and appreciation. George Thomas Parsons III 1709 Ball Avenue -East End Historic District- Galveston Island, Texas 77550 parfoy1@hotmail.com Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2015 06:21:10 +0000 To: parfoy1@hotmail.com

  2. Wow, what a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing!

  3. There’s also the amazing 2009 discovery in New Zealand of more than 75 American silent films then considered lost. One of them was a tinted nitrate copy of a 1927 John Ford film called “Upstream.” It is apparently the first Ford film in which we can see the influence of the great expressionist director F. W. Murnau on Ford’s work.

  4. That’s right, I’ll have to add that one into my post! Thanks for the reminder.

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