|Rare still from The Immortal Alamo, published in Cyclopedia of Motion-Picture Work (1914).|
Usually the movie stills featured in Lost Film Photos are of much higher quality, but then again, the films featured are not usually quite as old as this one. When The Immortal Alamo was made in 1911, there were still some folks alive who actually remembered the Alamo. Produced by Gaston Méliès for the American branch of Star Films, the one-reeler featured Francis Ford in one of his earliest roles, as well as one hundred cadets from the Peacock Military Academy. Shot on location in Texas, the film boasts of its historical accuracy, but existing magazine pictures show that while some of the scenes look to be shot outdoors, others are in front of painted backdrops. The storyline, centered around a romance, is also a work of fiction. The film, if found, could still be an interesting history lesson, even if only a lesson in how early filmmakers treated historical subjects. No prints, however, are known to exist. Keep in mind that many lost films from this era have left no ephemera behind, so we're lucky to have these stills at all. You can see more of them and read a novelization of The Immortal Alamo in The Motion Picture News.
Monday, November 7, 2016
Monday, May 30, 2016
In this now-lost MGM film, Polly Moran and Marie Dressler play neighboring Irish-American housewives who feud across the alley that divides their tenement apartments. To complicate matters, their children have fallen in love, and when Mrs. Callahan's daughter ends up pregnant, Mrs. Murphy's son disappears. Based on a novel of the same name by Kathleen Norris, the film was not well received by many Irish-Americans, who objected to a string of stereotypical elements in the film, including the fact that the families live in bug-infested apartments, drink heavily, and have rowdy fights to the extent that even a St. Patrick's Day picnic leads to several arrests. Polly Moran and Academy Award-winning Dressler would be teamed for more films afterwards, but Dressler's death in 1934 resulted in few subsequent roles for Moran. Most sites report that no parts of The Callahans and the Murphys exist, but the Library of Congress lists a very small fragment among its holdings. It is rumored that MGM may have destroyed the negative following its withdrawal from circulation due to the Irish backlash.
Friday, August 28, 2015
|Louise Brooks as one half of a pair of twins in Now We're in the Air.|
Almost half of Louise Brooks’ silent films are lost—a fact that is often overlooked due to the existence of two of her strongest films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Among the lost films is Now We're in the Air, a 1927 comedy with Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton. Brooks made four films in 1927—including Rolled Stockings—none of which survive. What makes the loss of this one particularly hard to swallow is the fact that Brooks played two roles: twin sisters Grisette and Griselle. Raised apart in France and Germany, the sisters have different allegiances in the World War I flick. While reviews were tepid, most anyone would agree that the only thing better than Louse Brooks would be two of her.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Lost films are fascinating by their very nature, and the fragments of stories that they’ve left behind are haunting. One of the reasons I’m drawn to lost horror films in particular is the loss of so many firsts: the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, for example, and film’s first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first film appearance of Dracula, the first Phantom of the Opera, and the first mummy film are also lost.One of the early horror films whose loss I most lament is 1913’s The Werewolf, and not just because it was the first werewolf film ever made, but because the werewolf is a woman. Let that sink in for a moment: the first movie werewolf was a woman. It’s a fact that few people are aware of, thanks to the fact that the film has been lost for almost a hundred years (like the vast majority of silent films).
Gordon played ingenue roles in almost fifty silent-era films, most of which are lost, but you can still see her today in a small role as a housekeeper in Another Thin Man (1939). She’s fifty years old by then, and she may have seemed like housekeeper material to studio execs, but she was still quite the glamourpuss in real life, and the photograph of her walking her pet cheetah on a downtown London street often makes the rounds on the internet. Few who post it seem to know that the photograph is of Phyllis Gordon, and that she was once a silent movie actress. Even fewer know that she originated the character of the movie werewolf.
|Phyllis Gordon walking her pet cheetah in 1939.|
In 1913, she was 24 years old and at the height of her acting career when Bison Films cast her in The Werewolf. Gordon plays Watuma, a Native American woman who shapeshifts into a wolf to fight off invading white settlers in the two-reel movie. What we know about the film comes mainly from brief reviews and synopses in silent film magazines, such as this one from Universal Weekly:
“The play opens in pioneer days. Kee-On-Ee, an Indian maiden is married to Ezra Vance, a trail blazer. When her child is five years old, Kee-On-Ee is driven back to her tribe by Ezra’s brother, who scorns all squaws. Ezra is killed by an old enemy and Kee-On-Ee, thinking his failure to return to her to be indifference, brings up her child, Watuma, to hate all white men.
When the child is grown, Clifford and a party of prospectors appear. Kee-On-Ee, now a hag, sees her way to be revenged. She sends her daughter to Clifford’s camp and he is driven nigh mad by her beauty. Clifford finds her in the arms of a young Indian. She taunts him. Enraged beyond control, Clifford shoots the buck. He flees to the mission. Watuma leads the enraged Indians against the Friars. When one of them raises a cross, Watuma slowly dissolves into a slinking wolf.
A hundred years later, Clifford, now reincarnated in the form of Jack Ford, a miner, receives a visit from his sweetheart, Margaret. Hunting with her he comes upon a wolf which he is unable to shoot. The wolf dissolves into the woman of old, and there appears before his puzzled eyes the scene where he slew the Brave. The “Wolf-woman” would caress him, but he throws her off. She returns again as the wolf and kills his sweetheart. Clifford’s punishment for the deed of past life is made complete at the death of the one he loved.”
It would be almost twenty more years before a film featured a female monster that anyone still really remembers—The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s worth noting that Bison Films was a brand of Universal Studios, which means that Phyllis Gordon was not only the first film werewolf, but may technically have played the first Universal Monster.
What makes the loss of this film even more poignant to me is how much its existence, if it had stuck around, could have changed the very idea of film werewolves. The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London established the rules of werewolf movies for decades to come, but how would those rules have been different if The Werewolf had stuck around? Would werewolves be thought of as female monsters? Would the long-established trope of male-as-monster and female-as-victim be inverted?
We might know the answers to these questions if Universal hadn’t destroyed its silent film collection in 1948. While many silent films were lost to fire, just as many were lost due to intentional destruction, as studios thought they were too worthless to store. Perhaps Watuma should have set her werewolf sights on thoughtless studio executives as well.
I’ll be expanding on the story of film’s first werewolf in my upcoming book on lost horror films, along with many other stories of long-lost films. Subscribe to Film Dirt (several options on the right), and/or follow on Facebook for more forgotten film stories.
This post was written as part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. You can read the rest of the entries by clicking the image below.
Monday, July 27, 2015
|In Ladies of the Mob, Clara Bow proved she was more than just a sex symbol. The film is now lost.|
Clara Bow wasn’t thrilled with her role in Wings, declaring that she was just “the whipped cream on top of the pie.” Not long after appearing in the first Academy Award-winning picture, though, she took on some much meatier roles. She starred in four films in 1928, all of which are lost, including Ladies of the Mob. Many who saw it claimed that it was her best performance as an actress. The darkish drama opens with Bow’s character, Yvonne, attending the execution of her gangster father, then turns into a romantic thriller as she tries to get the crook she loves to go straight. Some lovely stills and posters remain, but Bow’s supposed performance-of-a-lifetime remains frustratingly missing.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Look closely at the logo for the Mostly Lost Festival, and you’ll notice something unusual about the movie theater it depicts: the audience is talking, pointing, and plugged in to a variety of computer devices. It’s a perfect depiction of what goes on at the annual film event, where the use of cellphones is not only allowed—it’s encouraged. If you talk, you’d better do it loudly enough for everyone to hear. In fact, you might be handed a microphone just to ensure that no one misses your commentary.
|The movie is starting: please power up your devices.|
What’s happening isn’t an affront to theater courtesy. It’s an effort to label and correctly archive silent and early sound films whose identities have been lost to time. When a film archive ends up with an unlabeled (or poorly labeled, or incorrectly labeled) cannister of film, putting a name to it is not always as simple as just watching it to see what it is. The film may be missing identifying parts, such as the credits. It might be a random reel from the middle of a film. It might only be a fragment of a film—a few minutes out of what was once a feature. Particularly old films from small studios in the early teens might not feature any easily recognizable performers. For these reasons and more, film archives often end up with films that are a complete mystery.
The Library of Congress came up with a way to help identify these unknown reels, by showing them to an audience of film scholars, other archivists, and early film fans, who gather at the library’s Packard Campus in Culpeper, VA once a year to lend a hand at the Mostly Lost Festival. This summer was the fourth time they’ve held the event, and after attending last year on a whim, I knew I had to go back (and I’ll likely be hanging around for as many years as they choose to do it).
Each day of the three-day event includes several film-identification sessions, held in the lovely, Art Deco-style theater at the Packard Campus. To keep things lively, the silent films are accompanied on piano by an alternating roster of pros—Ben Model, Andrew Simpson and Philip Carli —who provide a live improvised soundtrack for films that they are seeing for the first time. It’s not unusual for the pianists themselves to shout out possible identifications for the film as they play.
|How things work at Mostly Lost. (Photo: Ben Model)|
If it sounds like it would be annoying watching a film while folks are yelling all around you, you should know that it’s quite the opposite. It’s surprisingly entertaining to observe the level of knowledge some of the attendees have about the most obscure things. Steve Massa, a silent film expert and veritable treasure trove of obscure film knowledge, is quick to identify some of the most obscure faces ever seen on film, right down to the extras—including toddlers. His knowledge doesn’t stop with humans, and it’s not uncommon to hear Massa shout out the name of a dog, horse, or chimp that he recognizes (even giving the names of the parents of a chimp in one of the films). Those animal IDs are incredibly useful: name the monkey, and you’ve pinpointed the studio, which is a huge step toward naming the film.
Specialist film knowledge isn’t required, which is why audience members are encouraged to yell out anything they know, no matter how seemingly useless. Makes of cars can be helpful in determining the year of a film, and the same goes for ladies’ fashions. If you happen to know that gigantic ostrich-feather hats went out in the teens, you’d better speak up. Locations are important, too, and some films have been identified because someone recognized the historical view of their own hometown or a far-flung travel destination.Title cards or signs that are written in a foreign language are often translated on the fly by anyone familiar with the words. Once a few elements are figured out, it's a matter of connecting the dots by accessing references like the IMDB or historical newspaper and magazine archives.
|Looking for clues in old films. Perhaps the license plate number is one? (Photo: Glenn Andreiev)|
But here’s the coolest thing about Mostly Lost: it works! Many of the films end up being identified, and some of them turn out to be films that were thought to be long lost. It’s no wonder other archives have started to contribute their own unidentified films to be screened at the festival. This year’s roster included, in addition to the LOC’s films, items from the George Eastman House, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, EYE Film Instituut Nederland in Amsterdam, Cinémathèque Française, Royal Belgian Filmarchive, Gosfilmofond, Wissenschaftliche Filmarchivarin in Berlin, Lobster Film Archive, and the Newsfilm Library at the University of South Carolina.
As if it’s not enough to get to view some exceptionally obscure films in such entertaining circumstances, Mostly Lost breaks things up with lectures on relevant topics, and each evening presents a film showing just for kicks (and by that I mean that you can just relax and watch it—we already know what it is). This year was particularly exciting, as the newly-found and newly-restored 1916 Sherlock Holmes was screened. Other evenings featured restored Chaplin shorts, a recently-preserved episode of King of the Kongo, and two Norma Talmadge features. Not exactly stuff you’ll see at your local cinema, at least not where I live.
|Publicity still from Sherlock Holmes, rediscovered and restored by the Cinémathèque Française.|
If you’re interested in helping to identify films, Rachel Parker of the LOC posts stills from the remaining unidentified films on Flickr. Visit the Nitrate Film Interest Group page to peruse them, and comment if you have any relevant information. Just like when you attend the festival, any information is helpful.
As for me, as I continue work on my book on lost horror films, I’m thrilled to be a part of something that aims to ensure that the legacy of silent film endures, and to connect with others who want the same.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
|Theda Bara as the gypsy seductress in 1915's Carmen.|
Thursday, August 21, 2014
One of the things that pains me most when it comes to lost horror films is the loss of so many firsts. Gone, possibly forever, are the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, the first depiction of Stoker’s Dracula, the first film werewolf, the first mummy—and the list goes on and on. And what makes the loss even more of a tragedy is when there are not even surviving posters or photographs for the production. It’s almost as if the film never existed at all.
That’s the case with the first film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Its loss is especially ironic, considering that theater is, by its nature, an ephemeral medium, and yet we have more artifacts around from the first stage version of the story than we do for the first movie.
|Cabinet card of Richard Mansfield in his dual stage role.|
|Handbill for Mansfield at the Lyceum.|
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel had become a hit when it was transferred to stage by English actor Richard Mansfield. His transformation into the gruesome Mr. Hyde was thought so convincing that some theater-goers deemed it a little too convincing. At least one spooked audience member wrote to the police in 1888, suggesting that Mansfield might be Jack the Ripper. No one took the idea seriously, but the show closed early anyhow. “There is quite enough to make us shudder out of doors,” wrote one reporter.
Mansfield took his performance on the road, and he continued to play the dual role to great acclaim until his death in 1907. While Mansfield’s performance may have been the most famous stage version, it was by no means the only one: stage versions of Stevenson’s novel were being performed by companies all over the world. One of the better-known productions around the time of Mansfield’s death was that of the Thomas R. Sullivan Company, who had been touring with the show since 1897, with a script by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish.
It was this company that Colonel William Selig, of the Polyscope Film Company, saw perform Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in Chicago, and he was taken with the idea of recreating the show on film. Selig used the theatrical company cast in what would become the first filmed version of the famous story, condensing its four acts into a one-reeler. Otis Turner, who would go on to direct the first silent film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, directed.
|Selig's Chicago studio, before moving west.|
|Hobart Bosworth, film's first Jekyll, on a 1916 cigarette card.|
Being signed by Selig was a life-changer for Hobart Bosworth, the stage actor playing Dr. Jekyll and his evil counterpart. His stage career was pretty much at an end, as tuberculosis was robbing him of his voice, though he was still in good physical condition. Silent film turned out to be the perfect medium for him, and he went on to star in dozens of films, taking rest breaks to keep his tuberculosis in remission. (He lived to be 76.) Co-star Betty Harte also caught the film bug. After signing on to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, she went to make 107 more silent films in her career.
While the stage play was drastically condensed, the film left the most dramatic elements intact. Like just about every adaptation of the novel, it veered from Stevenson’s story—which doesn’t reveal that Jekyll & Hyde are the same man until the end. The film, like the stage plays, revealed the truth right away, allowing Bosworth to writhe and contort himself into the horrible Hyde. In subsequent scenes, Hyde attacked a girl named Alice, then murdered her father. The film concluded with Hyde, fearing the gallows, taking a poison that ends the life of both identities.
An interesting aspect of the film as described by those who saw it was that it began and ended with the raising of a stage curtain. Though filmed, it was made clear to the audience that they would be watching an adaptation of the famous play. Critics enjoyed it, and one said of Bosworth’s performance that “the change is displayed with a dramatic ability almost beyond comprehension.” (Bosworth was lucky that, unlike Mansfield, he wasn’t rumored to be a serial killer.)
Out of the hundreds of films made by Selig Polyscope, only a handful survive. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is not one of them. Just as there were dozens of stage productions of the story, though, more film versions soon followed. In fact, Jekyll & Hyde is one of the most filmed novels, ever. Over the next few years, it would be filmed about a dozen times (including a lost version by F.W. Murnau). The total number of film versions today is closer to 125.
The oldest surviving version is a 1912 Thanhouser film directed by Lucius Henderson and starring James Cruze. Not the first Jekyll & Hyde by a long shot, but at least we have it.
You can also placate yourself with the transformation scene from a lot of people’s favorite version: the 1931 Mamoulian-directed Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde with Frederic Marsh.
Is this 1908 film in your secret vault? And if not, do you have a favorite version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde?
Thursday, August 14, 2014
Absinthe was among the first films of its kind, depicting the horrific hallucinations and criminal repercussions of addiction to the alcoholic liquid nicknamed “the green fairy.” Released in January of 1914, the film's scare tactics may have worked. Absinthe was banned in August of the same year in France (it had already been banned in the States in 1912).
|Ads from Moving Picture World.|
It didn't seem to matter to the public that the tales of absinthe's psychoactive properties were false (it's no more hallucinatory than any alcoholic beverage). Temperance societies (and winemakers, who didn't like the competition) circulated stories of the evils of absinthe, claiming it led to insanity and violent crime.
They ran with the story of Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer who murdered his family after consuming absinthe, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had been drinking wine and liquor all day, topped off with a mere two ounces of absinthe. It was an alcohol-fueled rage that led to the murder, and not an absinthe-induced hallucination, but the stories persisted.
|French anti-absinthe poster.|
A 1906 petition calling for the ban of absinthe outlined its perceived evils and echoed the beliefs of much of the public:
It was into this climate that the Independent Moving Pictures Co. (now under the umbrella of Universal) released Absinthe. From what we can glean from newspapers and film magazines, the four-reel film centers on a French artist, Jean Dumas, who is introduced to absinthe by his mistress (he is French, after all). Dumas becomes addicted to the drink, and becomes a full-on absinthe fiend, joining an Apache gang and committing robberies to fuel his need. He strangles his own wife to death in the course of one of the robberies, and ultimately ends up as a ruin, mocked even by dirty street urchins.
|Still of Baggot in a hallucination scene. (Illustrated Films Monthly)|
|Production still from Absinthe.|
King Baggot played the absinthe fiend, and he was at the height of his career. Said to be the first individually-publicized leading man, Baggot was fresh from his stint in the Brenon-helmed 1913 film of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde when he was cast as the lead in Absinthe, which Herbert Brenon wrote as well as directed. Leah Baird was cast as his wife. Baird began her film career playing opposite Jean, the Vitagraph Dog (a subject for a future post, perhaps?) and ultimately turned to screenwriting, but in 1914, she was a well-liked leading lady.
|Baird and Baggot on collectible stamps.|
Brenon hauled the whole cast to Paris in a bid for authenticity, and Baggot was said to have spent his time among the lowlifes and absinthe addicts to study their habits. The result was a film that the audiences of the time took as absolute truth—just short of a documentary in its depiction of the evils of absinthe.
Absinthe received rave reviews, and was so successful that it was revived again in 1916, and newspaper ads show that it continued to play in some theaters for at least two more years.
While Absinthe is lost (there are no known reels in existence), its legacy lingers in the form of shows and films that sensationalize whatever is deemed to be the cause of violence and social ills—and not just drugs and alcohol, but video games, the Internet, or fast food. There's always something to blame.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
This is the third and final article reprinted from Book Dirt. Look for new content beginning this Thursday. Please consider subscribing and/or following on Facebook (see sidebar) to help launch this new blog effort.
Like Frankenstein and Misery, the 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was inspired by a dream of the author’s. Mark Twain was on the lecture circuit with Louisiana writer George Washington Cable, who gave him a copy of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. The two authors, both of whom were known for writing in dialects, made a joke of the archaic language and began speaking in it, calling each other “Sir Mark” and “Sir George.” Around this time, Twain’s notebooks make reference to a dream about being a knight, and all the inconveniences it caused.
|Posters for the lost 1921 film version of A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.|
The first film adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was released by Fox in 1921, and it made use of the dream device. While the original novel’s action begins with Hank Morgan waking up in Medieval Camelot after he’s hit on the head with a crowbar, the silent film version takes a more meta approach. The titular Yankee, renamed Martin Cavendish for the film, has been reading Twain’s novel when he ends up struck by the spear of a suit of armor. He ends up dreaming of the book’s setting, just as Twain dreamed of Le Morte d-Arthur. The film’s credits list an actor as playing the part of Mark Twain, but as only three reels of the film survive (2, 4, and 7 are at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), it’s uncertain what purpose he served.
|A postcard for the film gives a glimpse of the motorcycle-riding knights. (Click to view larger.)|
Still pictures, reviews, and the viewable parts of the film give us some idea of what the movie is like. Perhaps the most intriguing --and amusing-- aspect of the silent film version of the story is that it’s updated to the 1920s. The main character of the original book impresses the people of the Middle Ages with things like gunpowder and a lightning rod, while Martin Cavendish introduces them to the Jazz Age. Movie stills in a French photo-novelization of the film depict armored knights with hip-flasks of bootleg booze riding around on motorcycles. The Photoplay review suggests that the film was full of contemporary slang, not to mention references to Tin Lizzies and the Volstead Act.
|Harry Myers with Chaplin in City Lights.|
Harry Myers starred in the lead role, and was no doubt suited to the comedic aspects of the film. Ten years later, he’d be Chaplin’s co-star in City Lights, as the drunken millionaire who spends a night on the town with the Tramp. The romantic lead was Pauline Starke, who worked her way up from being an extra in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Starke starred in a another partially-lost film based on a famous book, 1924’s Dante’s Inferno, in which she and other actresses appeared fully nude. (Before the Hays Code of 1930, film producers pushed all limits. Unfortunately for anyone with prurient or even academic interests, a low percentage of the racier films have survived.)
|Pauline Starke in a promo pose, and on the cover of a movie mag in 1927.|
Wikipedia suggests that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first time travel film, but I’d have to disagree. Because the story takes place in a dream, no one has actually traveled in time. Even if you allow that the events in the film are time travel, then you’d have to agree that the supernaturally-inspired trips to the past in A Christmas Carol are as well, and that story had at least six film adaptations prior to 1921.
Unless you can get the MoMA to arrange a screening for you of the existing three reels, the silent version of Connecticut Yankee will probably elude you. We’ll have to make do with film posters and reports from those who either saw the film in the ‘20s or have seen the extant reels. Ironically, though Mark Twain died eleven years before the film was made, we have existing footage of Twain himself, shot by Thomas Edison at the author’s home in Connecticut. The fact that a movie is gone despite being made years later (and widely distributed and shown across the world) shows the astounding randomness of film survival. If I could time travel, perhaps I’d spend my time in the past ensuring that old films were archived safely.
MARK TWAIN FOOTAGE FILMED BY THOMAS EDISON, 1909