“We get sent these rusty cans, but they’re put on the shelf because there are so many coming in,” says Bryony Dixon, curator of silent films at the British Film Institute (BFI). “Things can sit around for ages – the discovery happens when you open the can.”
Her comments follow the unearthing by a Dutch film archive of a silent masterpiece written and directed by George Pearson – a man, according to Dixon, “who was trying to push the boundaries of British cinema in the early 1920s just as Hitchcock did in the later 20s”. The 1923 feature Love, Life and Laughter had been on the BFI’s list of 75 ‘Most Wanted’ films. It stars the popular silent screen actress Betty Balfour – said to be the British answer to Mary Pickford.
Only one other complete film by Pearson survives, and the BFI have said this find is “particularly significant”. The film’s discovery is extremely unusual. “About 80 per cent of all the silent films are gone, they just don’t exist,” Dixon told the Today programme. “They were melted down, burnt, recycled for their silver content – so it’s very rare that you find an intact feature film.”
A study published in December 2013 said that most of the feature-length Hollywood movies made during the golden age of silent film have been lost forever. Yet the US Library of Congress plans to contact foreign preservation groups in the hope missing titles can be tracked down.
Which other great films could yet be found? Here are six missing masterpieces.
The Mountain Eagle
Number one on the BFI’s Most Wanted list, this 1927 silent melodrama was the second movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and its prints were lost during his lifetime. In François Truffaut's book Hitchcock/Truffaut, the Psycho director described the film as "awful" and said he was "not sorry there are no known prints". Yet in Hitchcock's Notebooks by Dan Auiler, one contemporary writer was reported as saying The Mountain Eagle was far superior to Hitchcock’s first film The Lodger.
This 1928 semi-biographical drama was nominated for five Oscars, including best actor and best director. (It won best writing credit.) The only silent film nominated for Best Picture that year, it was the last ever to receive that nomination until The Artist won in 2012. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch – the sophisticated director of comedies of manners like Trouble in Paradise – it depicts the life of the Russian Tsar Paul I. Only small fragments of the film remain, and it is one of the most critically praised lost movies ever.
London After Midnight
Seen – alongside The Mountain Eagle – as the ‘holy grail’ of film collectors, the 1927 silent mystery London After Midnight was released two months after the first talkie feature, The Jazz Singer. It was director Tod Browning’s first vampire film, preceding his movie Dracula with Bela Lugosi by four years. The original print was destroyed in a 1967 fire at MGM, and despite claims of sightings and a hoax YouTube video, the movie has never been found. Yet with releases in at least 11 countries, there’s still a chance it could turn up in a vault.
The Life of General Villa
The story behind this lost gem is so famous it spawned its own movie: yet some have questioned whether claims about the film are true. The Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa signed a contract with an American newsreel company in 1914, supposedly requiring him to fight battles according to the studio’s direction in a silent biographical action drama mixing staged scenes and live footage. There is no proof that he agreed to cease fighting at night so that the cameramen could get the best lighting, but the rebel did wear a comic opera general’s uniform while his soldiers staged re-enactments. Only short unedited segments of the movie are known to exist.
This 1923 silent comedy – following a hopeful actress travelling to California with dreams of becoming a star – was one of the first Hollywood movies about Hollywood. While its lead actors were unknown, the film featured an array of famous cameos, including Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Cecil B DeMille and Douglas Fairbanks. Posters have been found, but no footage.
Greed (director’s cut)
This could qualify as the most extreme director’s cut of all time: Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 adaptation of Frank Norris’s frontier novel McTeague stretched to nine hours, and MGM refused to release it. It was hacked down to 140 minutes for a version that von Stroheim disowned, and that inspired a fistfight with Louis B Mayer. In the late 1990s, a controversial restoration edited still photos and archival materials together with surviving footage to produce a four-hour version. While it is often voted one of the greatest films of all time, the lost footage might not match its mythical status – according to the critic Roger Ebert: “The original version of Greed is perhaps a masterpiece more lamented than missed; there is a point after which an audience will simply not sit still.”
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