‘In Search of Lost Films’ Leaves One Imagining the Possibilities

Film critic Phil Hall searches out the stories behind the deletion of films that could be as important as those that were saved.

What makes a piece of lost art great art? Nothing, really. The pursuit of novel fragments or a misplaced painting is more about what might have been than what really is. The unearthing of several new Raymond Carver short stories in the late ’90s didn’t give us any new masterpieces in the late writer’s impressive oeuvre of hick chic. The John Lennon demos unearthed to give The Beatles a little lift in the ’90s with the Anthology series were not the second coming of “Imagine”.

Most people knew that long before reading or hearing either. What those who seek out these works that have slipped into the dark corners of time really want is to fill a gap. They’re often pop culture archeologists who want to find the missing connection between one entry in an artist’s work and another. Or, they’re enthusiasts who can’t bear the thought of an important part of history slipping away.

Phil Hall travels the land of the lost in his latest volume, poking around the silent and sound eras to discover film titles that many of us have never heard of or wondered about, but now have and will, thanks to his deft research skills and deeply passionate writing. In Search of Lost Films isn’t exhaustive in its endeavors, but it is a fine primer.

Hall opens the text with a brief historical discussion, outlining the cruel twists of fate that deny films and their makers entry into the hallowed halls of immortality. When films proliferated in the early part of the 20th century, they were often seen as a temporary source of entertainment. Prints of pictures were shipped all over the country, shown in a variety of theaters. and returned to film companies almost invariably in poor shape. These early pictures were either sold off to parties who felt they could find use for the reels or were outright destroyed. We view this as a tragedy of history now, though at the time it was merely an industry practice.

Others were lost due to the highly flammable nature of early film stock itself. With nitrate fires not uncommon well into the ’20s, some pictures went, very literally, up in smoke. (Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film, Cinema Paradiso, addresses the flammable nature of old films). Along with some of those early pictures lost also went some of the early stars from our cultural memory. Hall provides brief but illuminating overviews of some early stars of the silver screen, but also indicates that, in many cases, we’ve lost significant portions of the historical record.

Though she had a strong reputation during the era of silent films, the actress Theda Bara is little more than a name and a figure in a series of photos today. Lon Cheney has long been considered a master of horror films but, Hall writes, very little of the work Cheney did in more than 160 films was in pictures that might be considered horror-centric. What those half dozen films spotlight is the actor’s magnificent knack for pantomime (he was raised by deaf parents) and a gift for makeup effects. What’s really lost, it seems, is a full sense of Cheney’s range.

We learn of other actors whose careers were shortchanged by the disappearance of key works. Oscar Micheaux, Hall writes, may not have been the most gifted African-American filmmaker or even the first, but his works are a matter of important historical record and no doubt wielded some influence on would-be auteurs in the audience.

In addition to the actors and the filmmakers are the films themselves and Hall undertakes the task of listing ten lost pictures of the silent era. The often cautious author acknowledges that a different scribe might arrive at a radically different list in each case, but his lists and the details that accompany them are highly readable. The story of One Hundred Years of Mormonism, for example, is a problem-plagued 1913 movie intended to rehabilitate the name of Mormonism at a time when the religion was under scrutiny and even attack from outsiders. (Not even a budget of $50k could guarantee its entry into immortality.) Though it’s unlikely that the whole picture will ever be recovered, Hall’s history and description make the reader wish that it would reappear if for no other reason than such a recovery would allow us to appreciate the church’s struggles.

Similarly, a 1926 version of The Great Gatsby might have given us hope that someone could deliver a proper adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Hall’s research into the matter might lead the reader to believe that, like many other attempts, it was also a failure. The mysterious case of 1927’s Hats Off with Laurel and Hardy leaves a gap in the career of these two accidental partners; Alfred Hitchcock’s ill-fated and ill-conceived 1926 picture The Mountain Eagle could, if pried from the wrinkles of time, demonstrate the director’s early genius.

It’s good fun to read about several pictures from the sound era, including Orson Welles’ Moby Dick-Rehearsed (1955) and the gay porn feature Him. Released in 1974, the latter film had an admittedly limited audience and difficult-to-trace lifespan, though it did receive at least one mainstream review and some play in the Harry and Michael Medved book The Golden Turkey Awards. There was even talk for some time that Him’s existence was a hoax, but details have come to light suggesting that not only was this slice of gay porn (with Jesus!) really real, but it was also one of several pictures from the era that portrayed the Son of Man in a most controversial light.

From there Hall moves on to missing sequences and, arguably, into the territory that a general audience will best receive. He discusses segments excised for one reason or another from The Wizard of Oz (which may have added to the picture’s already disturbing qualities), Dr. Strangelove and even the Beatles’ vehicle Help!. Because those works are a greater part of the collective culture it’s at times easier to imagine the possibilities. That said, there’s a tantalizing quality to the wholly lost works that form the bulk of Hall’s discussion. Imagining either the artistic heights or amateurish nadirs of a director’s work can be as fun as flipping through the pages of In Search of Lost Films.

Whether any of the films discussed here will find their way to the screen again remains to be seen. Hall hints that several titles described in these pages may exist in private collections, with the current owners waiting for copyrights to expire so that the works can be seen anew. Whether that happens or not, the reader still has plenty to contemplate, discuss and research in the years to come.

RATING 7 / 10