101 Minus Two
By coincidence, I happened to watch a new DVD of a very quirky, long-out-of-print film noir called Blast of Silence only a day or two before reading Brian Mills’ collection, 101 Forgotten Films, which devotes several pages to the movie, and which was probably sent to the bindery just before news of its Criterion re-release had reached the author.
Mills is a movie lover who, like a penniless kid with his nose pressed against the steamy windows of a wonderful restaurant, aches for the unobtainable. So he no doubt would be delighted that his list of forgotten films has just ticked down from 101 to 100 with the release of Blast of Silence, and would be, I suspect, even happier to see his new book become instantly obsolete with the re-release of every movie on his list.
Unfortunately for all of us, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. 101 Forgotten Films is a fascinating exercise in frustration, especially for those movie lovers who assume, in the age of the DVD and digitization, that any film is available if one searches hard enough.
Consider some of Mills’ comments concerning the availability of the lost and forgotten movies of just one director, John Ford—who, as Mills puts it, is “(p)robably recognised in the industry as having directed more great films than any other director in living memory”, including “the greatest Western of them all, The Searchers”. Mills informs us that Air Mail, Ford’s early film about barnstorming pilots that “for its time was amazingly innovative ... seems unlikely to be seen again”. How about Ford’s interesting-sounding melodrama Pilgrimage? Our noses will, it would appear, remain pressed against the window forever, because “(n)o known prints of this film have survived.”
Talk about a blast of silence: Is there any phrase more dispiriting to a film lover than “no known prints have survived”?
The Plough and the Stars, starring one of the most luminous and magnetic actresses in movie history, Barbara Stanwyck? “The film was once available on video but seems to have faded away.” The Rising of the Moon, a collection of three short films about Ireland, narrated by Tyrone Power? “It will take more than a kiss of the blarney stone to get this released”. 7 Women, about missionaries trapped in war-torn China by a Mongol warlord? This one, at least, “has a chance of being released for its curiosity value”.
And, remember, these are just the films of one director! Also fallen into the celluloid void, according to Mills, are the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd (this one isn’t just lost, it’s “unbelievably lost”,) and movies directed by Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph, and Satyajit Ray.
For movie lovers, the melancholia occasioned by this long list of impossible temptations will only be deepened by the realization that Mills’ list is a highly personal one and, it would seem, only a very partial one.
For example, I have in my library another book, much larger than this one, called Forgotten Films to Remember. Its author, John Springer, lists many hundreds of forgotten films, accompanied, unlike the pocket-sized 101 Forgotten Films, by large and enticing production stills.
The good news is that Forgotten Films to Remember was published in 1980, before the video revolution, and many of the most-interesting films therein have since come out on DVD—thank you, Criterion and Kino—so the fact that Mills’ book is much smaller is actually a good sign.
And it could be getting smaller still. Just as I was composing this review, I discovered that Fox Films has managed to find the supposedly forever-lost Pilgrimage, which they released over a year ago on DVD in a two-pack with yet another Ford film, Born Reckless.
This news, while making me question somewhat the veracity of Mills’ other dire judgments, is nonetheless encouraging: Even as Mills’ book continues to shrink—it now should be titled 99 and Possibly Even Fewer Forgotten Films—he and I and film lovers everywhere will be grateful that, at the same time, the ranks of rescued and restored films continues to grow.
And, to be fair, it is the work of Mills and his cinephile colleagues that is making this happen. Instantly obsolete title and all, 101 Forgotten Films is an engrossing and valuable collection.