by Allan Fish
This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work “The White Shadow” will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. The film preservation theme of course is at the center of this cinematic lament. We can certainly hope for a miracle. Be sure to donate!]
In discussions regarding film preservation, what often gets lost in the mélée is at what cost our slowly awakening ourselves to the problem has come. Lost films are a source of anguish to film connoisseurs and historians. A read through the timelines on this site’s right menus will showcase just what treasures have been lost to us. The degree of loss varies, of course. In most cases the entire film is lost. In others it’s only a portion that’s lost, in a few we have snippets surviving, from the 10 seconds or so of the Theda Bara Cleopatra (1917) to the one or two scenes of The Way of All Flesh (1927) – with the only lost Academy Award winning performance, by Emil Jannings – to films whose trailers survive and whose films do not. The documentary Fragments (2011), financed by TCM, showcased many of these lost films and what footage we have of them. In the spirit of that programme, I present a personal choice of 25 lost films most mourned by this writer. I leave aside the legendary lost cuts of Foolish Wives (1921), Greed (1924), The River (1929), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and the original six hour Cleopatra (1962) as we at least have them in butchered versions through to their conclusions. These 25 were not so fortunate.
25. The Ghost Train (1931, Walter Forde, UK)
Walter Forde’s original version of Arnold Ridley’s comedy thriller actually does partially survive, at least the first four reels. But only the soundtrack survives for the last half. Its reputation was as one of the key British comedies of the early thirties.
24. The Street of Sin (1928, Mauritz Stiller, USA)
Mauritz Stiller’s best Hollywood film, buried by studio executives, featuring Fay Wray and Emil Jannings (was any other actor so damaged by lost films?).
23. Europa (1931, Francsizka & Stefan Themerson, Poland)
One of the most feted avant garde pieces of the early thirties and probably the best film of the Themersons.
22. The Patriot (1928, Ernst Lubitsch, USA)
While The Way of All Flesh does mean a lost academy award winning performance, Jannings gave one of his most towering performances in the following year’s The Patriot. The curse of both he and Lubitsch in the silent era strikes again.
21. The Queen of Sheba (1921, J.Gordon Edwards, USA)
Along the same lines as Cleopatra but this time with Betty Blythe in the non-existent costumes rather than Theda Bara.
20. The Little Damozel (1933, Herbert Wilcox, UK)
Anna Neagle has two important lost films from the 1930s. Peg ‘o Old Drury (1935), which just missed the cut and this early musical, treasured in folklore as the one in which she wore that Doris Zinkeisen dress (see below, scanned from her autobiography).
19. The Sea Gull (1926, Charles Chaplin, Josef Von Sternberg, US)
A take on Chekhov with Edna Purviance that Chaplin and Von Sternberg both so hated it was never released. Chaplin eventually burnt it. Even pictures were impossible to find, hence I offer just a picture of Purviance from a press book on the film.
18. Bangaku no issho (1933, Sadao Yamanaka, Japan)
No director’s career has been more blighted by film loss than sadao Yamanaka, the majority of whose masterworks of the 1930s were destroyed by American bombing raids on Tokyo in WWII. This was said to be the best of them. There are not even any stills, the picture below is of the great man, taken from us too soon at 29, and leaving only 3 of 13 films surviving.
17. The Divine Woman (1928, Victor Sjöstrom, USA)
The lost masterpiece – aside from fragments - in which the divine Garbo worked for the first time with Victor Sjöstrom. A loss and a half.
16. The Dragnet (1928, Josef Von Sternberg, USA)
The missing link in Von Sternberg’s late silent slew of masterworks, a seminal cop film sadly no longer with us.
15. Ladies of the Mob (1928, William A.Wellman, USA)
Not only supposedly a seminal Wellman silent but also seminal role for Clara Bow. Reviews of the time were unanimous in their praise.
14. Dear Octopus (1943, Harold French, UK)
Maybe not as cinematically vital as some of those below it on the list, but the most recent and, thus, surely the most careless loss. Great performances from Margaret Lockwood, Celia Johnson et al supposedly wait for us.
13. Vignt ans Après (1922, Henri Diamant-Berger, France)
The sequel to Diamant-Berger’s magnificent Les Trois Mousquetaires (1921), with largely the same cast and just about as highly regarded at the time. Dumas fans like myself have long been in mourning.
12. The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927, Alexander Korda, USA)
Korda’s de Millean style take on the legendary beauty, told from a wit rather than a historical perspective. Around 1-2 reels survive. But the rest?
11. Cleopatra (1917, J.Gordon Edwards, USA)
Sadly most of Theda Bara’s vamp classics of the 1910s don’t survive, but this was the biggest loss by far. Someone, somewhere, MUST have it.
10. London After Midnight (1927, Tod Browning, USA)
Despite a still reconstruction of sorts released to DVD, this Tod Browning chiller still regularly tops Most wanted lists. Actually at the time it wasn’t seen as anything special other than for Chaney’s performance, but we’d love the chance to see for ourselves.
9. Bezhin Meadow (1937, Sergei M.Eisenstein, USSR)
The missing Eisenstein masterpiece, only a stills restoration survives. The master print was burnt by the Stalinist authorities.
8. The Devil’s Passkey (1920), Erich Von Stroheim, USA)
Often forgotten completely in retrospectives of the butchered career of Erich Von Stroheim, his second film doesn’t survive at all.
7. Kiss Me Again (1925, Ernst Lubitsch, USA)
Despite the attention of Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and The Marriage Circle (1924), much of Ernst Lubitsch’s silent work in Hollywood remains hard to see. Forbidden Paradise (1924) and So This is Paris (1926) only survive in 16mm third rate prints, but this masterpiece from 1925, with Marie provost and a young Clara Bow, doesn’t survive at all.
6. Convention City (1933, Archie Mayo, USA)
The most infamous of lost pre-code films, though unreleasable after the code and burnt by Warners in the 1940s. A classic was undoubtedly sent up in smoke.
5. Thérèse Raquin (1928, Jacques Feyder, France)
Regarded as pretty much Feyder’s masterpiece by most French film scholars of the age. A solid 1953 remake by Marcel Carné does survive, but it paled beside the original. As Georges Sadoul wrote, “all copies of this version have apparently disappeared. As far as one can recollect, it seems to have been one of the best films of the late silent period.”
4. Lost in the Dark (1914, Nino Martaglio, Italy)
Probably the one film in this list you have almost certainly never heard of and one with the most tragically prophetic title. Even writing in the 1950s, Georges Sadoul observed “it now seems to be lost forever, but this unknown masterpiece played a decisive role in the gestation of neo-realism.”
3. Human Wreckage (1923, Thomas Harper Ince, USA)
Thomas Ince’s legendary drug addict drama, regarded as a magnificent folly at the time, but still one of tinseltown’s biggest what ifs.
2. The Honeymoon (1928, Erich Von Str0heim, USA)
The second part of The Wedding March (1928), only surviving in stills. It only ever showed in Europe and the last prints of it were destroyed during World War II. We can dream, but don’t hold your breath…
1. 4 Devils (1928, Friedrich W.Murnau, USA)
It seems impossible to think that at the time this was seen as a better film than Sunrise (1927) but so this circus drama was. Sadly, it’s the most high profile and mourned casualty of them all. Silent star Mary Duncan apparently had the final known print, but it was lost.