Friday, September 30, 2016

An interview with In Search of Lost Films author Phil Hall

Interview by Doug Gibson

Recently, we reviewed Phil Hall's fascinating new book from BearManor Media, "In Search of Lost Films." You can read our review here. Phil's book provides us all hope that our fondest and most-hoped-for lost films may surface, whether in dusty foreign archives, the end shelf of a private collection, or even at a yard sale.

Today, he answers several questions related to his work, providing readers more insight into the search for lost films. You can buy Phil's book here and here. On with the interview!
            If someone with unlimited resources was looking for a typical lost film of the 20s or early 30s, one that was fairly widely distributed, where are the best locations to search

             Hall: If we are talking about American films, the best places would be foreign archives. A lopsided majority of recovered American films turned up in Europe and many have emerged in Australia, most likely because the distributors for those films didn’t bother to recover the prints from their overseas releases. If you are talking about Asian films, the same answer would apply: Indian and Chinese films that disappeared in their respective countries have turned up in archives and collections with a significant Asian expatriate population.

1    Why was silent film so disregarded by film companies so quickly? Did sound film make it seem obsolete quickly?

           Hall: The popularity of sound films was fast and furious, catching many film companies off-guard. Indeed, “The Jazz Singer” and the early talkies were initially seen as novelties by the Hollywood studios and many film critics. But audiences were the ones that ultimately decided what they wanted to see and once dialogue and synchronized music was incorporated into films there was no turning back.

          In retrospect, this was curious because so many early talkies were not very good, while many silent films from the 1927-1929 period represented the apex of screen art. But obsolescence did not occur over immediately: many small town U.S. cinemas were not able to afford a rewiring for sound until the early 1930s, so there were still venues for silent movies. Silent production continued in Russia, Japan, China and other nations well into the mid-1930s, while many independent and avant-garde U.S. productions remained silent well into the 1940s

Why were motion picture companies so lax for so many decades at preserving their products? I refer mainly to allowing nitrate film to store inefficiently and corrupt, and allowing these old films’ prints to be stored in the same location?

Hall: Because they never saw films as anything more than a disposable commodity. Prior to the advent of television, once a film ran its course in release there was no place for it to go, unless it was a mega-hit that could be re-released every few years. Plus, storage was expensive (especially off-site in warehouses). Unfortunately, the film companies lacked contemporary prescience in realizing the cultural, historic and commercial value of the older films.

1    In your opinion, what are five “lost” films that you think are likely to be found?

Hall: That’s hard to say, because films that were considered to be irretrievably lost, such as Orson Welles’ footage for “Too Much Johnson,” have miraculously turned up in the least likely places. I would like to imagine that Welles’ footage for his unfinished “Moby Dick Rehearsed” is still out there (it was last seen in the late 1960s), and I would hope that the Kubrick preserved the deleted pie fight climax from “Dr. Strangelove.” Otherwise, I would wager that three long-lost silent comedies – Harry Langdon’s “Heart Trouble,” Laurel and Hardy’s “Hats Off” and the first Marx Brothers film “Humor Risk” are resting in the dusty corner of a private collection or a foreign archive.

1    Why is so much excess footage, edited out of features, not preserved? I refer to "The Wizard of Oz," "Greed," "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman," etc. It amazes me that a director like Stroheim would not have saved his first cut of "Greed," for example.
                Hall: There was no perceived commercial value for deleted sequences – the whole notion of including deleted sequences as part of a film’s release only occurred when home video came into the forefront. Plus, as stated earlier, storage of film is expensive, and storage of footage that was cut from a release was not considered practical. With “Greed,” von Stroheim had no control of the footage that he shot – that was an MGM production, and he actually reneged on his original contract by going far over the original budget. I am surprised the film was ever completed, let alone released. 

1    There are a lot of grindhouse films that are lost, particularly Andy Milligan films. Where’s the best places to look to discover these non-nitrate lost films.

             Hall: Those are most likely in private American collections – very few theatrical prints were made from those releases, and the lucky people that snagged the prints after their releases were over probably put them away and forgot about them.

      What are three key things you learned from researching this book?

            Hall: First, I have the most patient publisher on Earth: the book was delivered a year late because of the extraordinary level of research and fact-checking required. Second, I never truly realized the depth and scope of lost films until I started doing research on the subject. And, third, many people are unaware that so many films are lost, and I honored to be able to introduce them to this issue.

1    Finally, what advice do you give to the average person on find a location to stumble across a lost film? Where should they?

     Hall: Lost films have  turned up in the strangest places – garbage bins, garden sheds, basements, and even in archives and museums under the wrong label. If you are in the U.S. and find a rare print, get in touch with a reputable archive, such as the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art or the George Eastman House, to ensure that the film is properly stored and can receive the appropriate restorative care.

       Although you mention in the book that the Medved brothers wrote about the gay porn film, "Him," why do you think they did?

     Hall“Him” was included in “The Golden Turkey Awards” in the chapter on bad porn concepts. I don’t know if the Medveds actually saw “Him” or read about it from a trade journal review. I assume they didn’t see the film – I can’t imagine Michael Medved in a gay porn venue. When the book came out in 1979, the film was not considered lost. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that people started to realize that no print of “Him” was in circulation or available from any adult film sources, and it was only then that it was declared a lost film. Of course, had it not been for the Medveds, we would never have known it existed in the first place.

    Thanks very much for your time, Phil. 

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