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.
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).
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.