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Friday, September 9, 2016

Review: In Search of Lost Films -- by Phil Hall



Review by Steve D. Stones

In his recent book, In Search of Lost Films (published by Bear Manor Media), author Phil Hall gives an interesting analysis for why so many important films have been lost over time. Two reasons, with regard to the silent era, have to do with the easy destruction of nitrate (nitrocellulose) film catching fire and the fact that the artists who made these early films may have seen them simply as a disposable commodity to make money, with no desire to want to preserve the films as works of art for future audiences. 

As Hall points out, sculptures, paintings and manuscripts are usually the work of an individual artist. Films, however, are a collaborative process involving many individuals. This makes it all the more puzzling as to why great effort was not taken to preserve these old films. No art medium is permanent, unfortunately. Even in our internet, digital age, images are subject to being lost forever over time. 

The book contains sections on not only lost films, but also lost film careers and lost scenes from well known films.  Actress Theodosia Goodman, later known as Theda Bara, dreamed of being a big star on Broadway, but it never happened. Fox Studios cast her in her first role in The Stain in 1914. She disappeared for a short time, then starred in A Fool There Was (1915) where her name was marketed at Theda Bara. With this film, Bara established a strong sex appeal, and perhaps became cinema's first female "sex symbol." Today, only five of Bara's films have survived. 

Although many films of Lon Chaney are still with us today, Hall discusses Chaney's most sought after film - London After Midnight (1927) which was directed by Tod Browning and is considered lost. Some critics and film historians have suggested that the film may have been confusing, boring, and did not appeal to silent era audiences. Nevertheless, London After Midnight is considered one of the most sought after films in cinema history. What remained of the film is thought to have been burned in a fire in Vault #7 at MGM studios in 1967. 

Of particular interest to me was Hall's mention of two lost Phil Tucker films - Space Jockey (1953) and Pachucco (1956). In the world of "bad" cult movies, Tucker is best know for his delightful anti-masterpiece - Robot Monster (1953). Tucker states that Space Jockey was his worst film, but fans like myself would still love to see the film, but likely never will. Space Jockey was made prior to Robot Monster. Elmer Bernstein, a respected composer in Hollywood, and composer of the Robot Monster score, is said to have composed the music for Space Jockey. 

Ed Wood's gritty porn film Necromania (1971) is also mentioned in the book. Necromania was thought to have been lost, until a print was discovered at a yard sale in 1992. 

Speaking of Wood, some internet buzz in recent years has suggested that Wood may have had something to do with the gay porn film Him (1974), also discussed in Hall's book. The Medved brothers' 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards mentions that Him is "the most unerotic concept in pornography." The Medveds mention Ed D. Louie as the director of Him, which may be a screen pseudonym for Ed Wood. This has never been confirmed. 

My view is - Why would Ed Wood make a gay porn film in the first place? He may have made heterosexual porn films, and he may have liked to dress in women's clothing, but that does not give any reasoning for him to journey into the gay porn genre. It's safe to say that Wood had nothing to do with the film - Him. 

Chapter six of Hall's book discusses sequences missing or taken out of known films, such as Greed (1925), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), and Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). 
Test audiences viewing Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man laughed at Bela Lugosi's spoken dialogue as the monster. His Hungarian accent will forever be associated with Dracula (1931), which may be one of many reasons why the test audience did not like Lugosi's sequences of spoken dialogue. Lugosi's talking sequences were removed from the film, trimming its length down considerably.

Stanley Kubrick's Cold War parody - Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had a scene cut from the film in the War Room. The scene is said to be a Mack Sennett style, slapstick comedy sequence in which dignitaries at the war room table throw cream filled pies at each other. Studio executives were skeptical of the scene, and requested that it be shot in one take. Kubrick later eliminated the pie fight scene from the film. 

Hall ends the book on a positive note in saying there is always great hope that lost films of great cinematic and artistic significance will be rediscovered somewhere, whether it's in someone's basement, a lost Hollywood vault, or perhaps at a yard sale. Rediscovering old, lost films is a very fluid situation, as Hall points out, but there is always hope that more and more films will be discovered in the future. 

In the meantime, we can only hope that a print of London After Midnight will show up one day. I'm still waiting for a print of Andy Milligan's lost film - The Naked Witch (1967) to turn up.  Happy reading! 

1 comment:

Doug Gibson said...

For me, the film I want found is "Heart Trouble" starring Harry Langdon. Doug Gibson