Film legends begin in all sorts of ways. For silent film icon Louise Brooks, known for playing flappers and femme fatales, her career began in a somewhat unlikely fashion – as a moll, the companion to a criminal. It was an uncredited bit part in the evocatively titled The Street of Forgotten Men.
The 1925 film was once thought lost. For decades it sat unnoticed in a New Jersey warehouse until it was acquired by the Library of Congress around 1970. The years, however, had not been kind to the old film. Before it could be preserved, nitrate deterioration consumed one of its seven reels, leaving the story incomplete but not hard to follow.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced the completion of a major restoration of The Street of Forgotten Men, which will make its world premiere during the festival’s upcoming event in May. Although scenes from the lost reel include the deaths of two significant characters, and a filmic bridge has been reconstructed that highlights the missing material.
Robert Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival led the team which worked on the restoration. “I was first drawn to the film through Louise Brooks. Many of the earlier films in which she appeared are lost. It was understood that The Street of Forgotten Men, the first film in which she appeared, was among the casualties. It was through a conversation I learned that a relatively complete copy was preserved at the Library of Congress. Upon examination, it turns out that most of the film had survived, with the exception of the second reel (out of seven) that had been lost entirely due to chemical decomposition of the nitrate film stock.”
Over the last decade, Byrne has restored a number of silent films, including the surviving fragment of another Brooks picture, Now We’re in the Air (1927), which he came across in the Czech Republic. Late last year, Byrne became involved in the preservation of a rare Irish film, which made news around the world. In short, Byrne is involved with the preservation of the “Gault Collection”, a group of short films shot in Ireland in 1925. They are very rare, in that little film was shot in that country in the early ’20s. This is basically travel and ethnographic footage, showing daily life. The Gault collection will be discussed and one of the shorts shown during the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“The biggest challenge was what to do about the missing second reel. We decided to build a bridging section comprised of stills and text that would continue the narrative and carry the audience over the gap. We were fortunate that the New York Public Library holds a copy of the script which told us what was missing. We lifted text and dialogue directly from the script and incorporated it into the bridge. We also carried out a worldwide search for still images and production photographs. We received contributions from a wide variety of sources, archives, libraries, and private collections, and combined with the text were able to build an image and text montage that hopefully keeps viewers in the film.”
The Street of Forgotten Men was restored by Byrne and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with the participation for the Library of Congress. Byrne was assisted by Jennifer Miko, who did work on image restoration. Funding was provided by the noted film poster collector Ira Resnick.
Byrne added, “While reviewing the material I was very happy to see that it is an excellent film, a realization that lent extra impetus to the project. It would have been one thing to restore a lousy film that just happened to have a brief appearance by Louise Brooks, it is quite another to restore a film that is quite interesting and enjoyable in its own right.”
Although a melodrama, The Street of Forgotten Men tells the almost outré story of a gang of “professional beggars” whose headquarters are known as a “cripple factory”. The gang members pretend to be blind, or bind their arms and legs so as to appear disfigured in hopes of soliciting sympathy and coins from those who pass them on the streets. Critics of the time compared the film to the works of contemporary director Lon Chaney, describing it as “strange and startling” and “a drama of places and of people you have never seen before.”
Few films from the silent era contain any great degree of harsh realism or pointed critique (Charlie Chaplin’s films are a notable exception). When they do, such aspects of their story are usually softened through the use of comedy, romance, or a melodramatic subplot. That’s the case with The Street of Forgotten Men. The film was based on a short story by George Kibbe Turner (1869-1952), a once well-known muckraking journalist who often wrote about vice, corruption, and criminal behavior in America’s big cities. Though both Turner’s story and the film adaption pull back the curtain on what was considered actual illicit behavior, their reveal is softened before the cameras.
Turner’s story was published in Liberty magazine in February 1925 and quickly turned into a film which opened in July of that same year. Both are a gauzy look back at the Bowery circa 1900. To get things right, the studio hired a “mendicant officer” and 20-year veteran of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charity to serve as an advisor for scenes shot inside the dingy headquarters of the gang.
Over the years, a handful of films have been set in New York’s Bowery. However, few if any of them looked at the lives of the down and out, even in a dramatic form. A more realistic approach from around the time can be found in excerpts from a Depression-era documentary short seen on YouTube, “Street of Forgotten Men”.
During the silent era, the film’s director, Herbert Brenon, was considered the equal of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. Although widely accomplished in the 1910s, Brenon hit his stride in the ’20s. The Street of Forgotten Men was released just a year after Brenon’s adaption of Peter Pan, one of the most popular films of its time. It was followed by the original Beau Geste (1926), which won the Photoplay Medal of Honor, one of the industry’s first awards recognizing the best picture of the year. Brenon made two more significant pictures in 1926, Dancing Mothers, with Clara Bow, and The Great Gatsby, the first adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era-defining novel of the Jazz Age. His Sorrell and Son (1927) earned a Best Director nomination at the first Academy Awards. Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), starring Lon Chaney, was another hit.
The Street of Forgotten Men stars Percy Marmont, a major star during the silent era; he earned rave reviews and comparisons to Lon Chaney for his depiction of Easy Money Charlie, the leader of the gang. The film co-stars Mary Brian, a popular ingénue who played Wendy Darling in Brenon’s Peter Pan. Her love interest is Neil Hamilton, a leading man who appeared in numerous films over the years, but is best known today as Commissioner Gordon in the ’60s television show, Batman. John Harrington, a noted stage actor of the time, plays Bridgeport White Eye, the criminal with whom Brooks’ moll associates.
Typically, uncredited bit parts rarely draw the attention of critics or reviewers. That was the case with Brooks’ debut – except for one passing reference. An anonymous critic for the Los Angeles Times took notice of the new actress, writing, “And there was a little rowdy, obviously attached to the ‘blind’ man, who did some vital work during her few short scenes. She was not listed.”
Almost a century later, Byrne thinks “Viewers can look forward to a very enjoyable film with the added kick of spotting Louise Brooks in a small role in the sixth reel. I don’t want to pitch the film just for Brooks, the film itself is a first-rate drama. It was very successful and well received when it was first released in 1925.”
The Street of Forgotten Men is one of a number of newly restored films being presented at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs 5 through 11 May. The festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, will include more than two dozen live-cinema programs, each with live musical accompaniment. Among the many other restorations featured this year are Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), Lupu Pick’s Sylvester (1923), Below the Surface (1921) with Hobart Bosworth, The Primrose Path (1925) with Clara Bow, and The Kid Reporter (1924) with Baby Peggy.