As an art form, silent film lasted for a mere 40 years, c.1895-1935. It’s well known that the great majority of films from the silent era are now lost, whether due to destruction (either deliberate, as by many studios, or accidental, as the famous Fox fire of 1937), deterioration, or simple indifference and neglect. Survival percentages vary by country; Imperial Russia fares quite well, with about a sixth of the total production surviving1, whereas it is estimated that less that 5% of Japanese silent film production is extant2; in Australia, less than 10%.3 India has one of the worst film survival rates of all countries; of the 1700 silent films made in India, only 5 or 6 survive complete, with another 10 or 12 in fragments.4
As for the US, in 2013 a detailed study on American feature films was undertaken by David Pierce (also known for founding the indispensable Media History Digital Library, and his work on the recent publication The Dawn of Technicolor with James Layton of Eastman House). Pierce found that only 14% of production survived in the complete, original version, with a further 11% titles surviving complete, but only in foreign release cuts or sub-35mm formats; a further 5% were incomplete, with the rest (~70%) completely lost.5 Note that the report only examines feature films (four reels or more) made after 1912; the figures don’t account for pre-1912 production, non-fiction films, local film-making, etc, so the true survival figure of American films in the silent period will be lower.
There’s the rub of being silent film fan; a large part of the medium we love is lost to time. It’s amazing what survives, and celebrating these films, many of them forgotten and obscure even in silent film circles, is why I write this blog. But for today, here are ten lost films that I’d dearly love to see.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Paramount, US 1928)
I am a huge fan of Anita Loos’ 1925 comic novel about sweet, blithe blonde gold-digger Lorelei Lee and her wisecracking brunette best friend Dorothy. The 1953 film version with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is deservedly acclaimed, but I’d love to see this contemporary adaptation. Anita Loos adapted her novel for the screen, and the period advertisements captured the wit of her writing; consider this advert from Motion Picture News, written in the voice of Lorelei:
Note Loos herself (and her husband John Emerson) at the bottom left. In fact, to my eyes, Taylor looks strikingly like Loos in this other advert from Exhibitor’s Herald of 04 February 1928:
The 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes seems to have been popular and well-reviewed. I’m not very familiar with either Ruth Taylor and Alice White; I wish I could see how they interpreted the roles of the leads.
Side note: Anita Loos also wrote several volumes of memoirs about her Hollywood years and friends, all of which are noted for a very, er, creative approach to the truth, but entertaining reads nonetheless.
Ключи счастья | The Keys to Happiness (Thiemann & Reinhardt, RU 1913)
Based on the extremely popular multi-volume novel of the same name by Anastasya Verbitskaya, The Keys to Happiness was the first major blockbuster of the Russian screen. Keys was a melodrama centred on the life and loves of a modern young woman, the ‘keys’ of the title being the precepts of Nietzsche. At the website TinHouse, Irina Reyn describes the plot of Keys thus:
The novel depicts the coming-of-age of one Manya Yeltsova, a budding dancer and free spirit. Saddled with a mad mother and an impoverished upbrining, Manya grows up to be a tempestuous young woman who realizes that marriage, for turn-of-the-century women at least, is a pretty raw deal. After Yan, her first anarchist love, dies while saving a child from drowning, Manya, like any good potboiler heroine, finds herself torn between her passion for two men: Steinbach, the wealthy Jewish businessman, and Nelidov, a conservative nobleman. Breathlessly, Manya alternates between them, unable to resist carnal temptation when she is in their presence. She is honest with each one about sleeping with the other, and when one disappoints her, his rival tends to be waiting in the wings. “Men…don’t marry women like you,” Nelidov remarks, but he proposes to her anyway. Manya rejects his offer of marriage (she is to be a famous dancer, after all, not a subjugated wife!) but suggests they consider a future in the bedroom, inviting Nelidov, instead, for a secret rendezvous: “We’ll forget about conventions and be like gods!” No wonder the book and the movie were blockbuster hits in prerevolutionary Russia.
The main character of Manya was played by Olga Preobrazhenskaya (who, incidentally, would become Russia’s first female director three years later with her work on the film Барышня – крестьянка | Miss Peasant, 1916).
Apart from sounding incredibly entertaining, Keys had a huge impact on the Russian film industry. As Denise J. Youngblood writes in The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918, prior to this, film programmes made up of multiple shorts reigned in Russian theatres (the success of the 1h40-long 1911 production Оборона Севастополя | The Defense of Sevastopol was an outlier in this regard). Keys definitively proved that audiences would watch long Russian-made movies, and it forced a change in viewing patterns in that theatres began to advertise specific showtimes for the first time. Youngblood also notes the effectiveness of Thiemann & Reinhardt’s advertising campaign, which was characterized by simplicity and boldness, relying on the public’s familiarity with Verbitskaya’s name.
Thiemann’s goal of putting Russian cinema on a par with European filmmaking was realized; The Keys to Happiness was critically praised as well as a smash hit with audiences. The film was released in two parts, the second released three weeks after the first, and each setting box office records. Indeed Keys was still available for booking in April 1914, six months after its initial release, which was very unusual at the time.
Twenty-seven prints of the film were produced, a very high number in that era of Russian cinema. Unfortunately, only a fragment of the film survives.
As for Verbitskaya’s novel, an abridged English translation of Keys to Happiness was published in 1999; it’s on my to-read list.
The Cheat (Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, US 1923)
This Pola Negri vehicle was a remake of the stylish 1915 film starring Sessue Hayakawa and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with the main female character now renamed from Edith Hardy to Carmelita De Córdoba. French actor Charles de Rochefort plays the Hayakawa role, as ‘Rao-Singh’ aka Claude Mace, a criminal masquerading as an Indian prince. Edith/Carmelita’s dull husband is renamed from Richard ‘Dick’ Hardy to the less porn-esque Dudley Drake.
The advertisements were all about Pola. From Exhibitors Herald of September 1923:
And a beautiful illustration making up the left-hand side of a two-page advert that ran in Motion Picture News on 07 July 1923:
The copy on the other half of the above advert is telling in regard to Pola Negri’s star persona in America at the time. It proclaims,
“The Cheat” has a happy ending. Pola Negri plays (for the first time in her career) a sympathetic role, a character that audiences will take to their hearts. Her temptations and struggles, her little weaknesses, and in the end her strength of character based on real, honest love, will hold audiences in a spell of enchantment. (emphasis in original)
Translation: Pola isn’t just a femme fatale; she can act a honourable women too! Also, her beauty is even greater when used for good:
And then the really marvelous beauty of Pola Negri at last – in this sympathetic character – finds its own. […] (Incidentally, the gowns worn by Miss Negri, at least a dozen of them, will absolutely draw thousands of women by word of mouth advertising).
I find the parenthetical “Incidentally …” really amusing for some reason. Pola’s twelve dresses deserved more!
And yes, Pola does indeed get branded in this movie version. A pictorial representation:
He’s no Sessue Hayakawa, that’s for sure. If only we could splice these two films together to have Pola opposite Hayakawa! That movie would have been fantastic.
火烧红莲寺 | The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (Mingxing Film Company, CN 1928-1931)
A 27-hour story released in 16 (or 19, or 13? Sources differ) installments over four years, Red Lotus Temple is one of the longest films ever produced. It was an adventure serial which sparked a craze for martial arts films. An article at the Chinese Mirror talks about the character of the “Girl in Red”, played by Hu Die (胡蝶), indomitable and soaring on her trapeze; according to Dianying, she appeared in ten installments of Red Lotus Temple, beginning with the third. Hu, sometimes credited as ‘Butterfly Wu’, was one of the biggest stars at Mingxing during the silent era. The article also mentions how cinematographer Dong Keyi (董克毅) was influenced by American films in staging the action scenes.
Red Lotus Temple may be lost to time, but at least two of pioneer director Zhang Shichuan (张石川)’s other films are extant: 掷果缘 | Romance of a Fruit Peddler aka 劳工之爱情 | Labourer’s Love (CN 1922), the earliest complete surviving Chinese film, and 脂粉市场 | Cosmetics for Market (CN 1933), again featuring Hu Die, available on DVD here.
Cleopatra (Fox Film Company, US 1917)
An obvious pick, but I had to include it – the costumes are just so iconic and lavish. Cleopatra was a major blockbuster: an expensive production and a big box-office success. A small fragment of the film survives at Eastman House, although this has confusingly been refuted by their staff too.
Here’s a great advert of Theda as the Sphinx from the 3 November 1917 edition of The Moving Picture World:
Mumbai Biladi | Wild Cat of Bombay (Imperial Film, IN 1927)
Sulochana (सुलोचना; née Ruby Myers) was the Queen of the Screen in the silent era of Indian film, featured often in newspapers, film magazines, and adverts. There is a very interesting article by Priti Ramamurthy in the anthology The Modern Girl Around the World about the female silent stars of India, many of whom, like Sulochana, were biracial/Eurasian. Ramamurthy writes that Sulochana was every bit the glamorous movie star:
She drove around in a white Bentley (and later the slinkiest of Chevrolets) and earned the princely sum of five thousand rupees per month – more than the British colonial governor general of Bombay. [..] Adoring fans lined the streets for hours to get a glimpse of her; they showered her with gifts and pursued her with offers of marriage.
During the prime of her career (1925-1937), Sulochana made fifty-two movies; she successfully transitioned into sound films, and started her own production company in the mid-1930s. Of this impressive corpus, Wildcat of Bombay is one that sounds particularly interesting: Sulochana played eight different roles, including a medical student, mysterious benevolent criminal, policeman, and European blonde.
In her article, Ramamurthy provides a very interesting overview of Sulochana’s star image, analysing how her persona and films embodied many aspects of the Modern Girl (independent, fashionable, metropolitan), and how her appearance blended and/or switched between Western and Indian styles. None of her silent films have survived; I am unsure about her sound films, but the implication from Ramamurthy ‘s article is that her superstar-era work is not extant.
War Brides (Herbert Brenon Film Corporation, US 1916)
Alla Nazimova was a true original: Russian artiste, legendary party-thrower, Hollywood’s first power lesbian (well, bisexual, but it is mostly her associations with women that she is most remembered for). In the early twenties, she used her clout to make a brilliantly weird avant-garde version of Salomé (1923), a massive failure at the time that is now her most well-known work. (The ‘lightbulb’ Salomé wig was recently rediscovered; read about that here).
Nazimova’s film career started in 1916 with drama War Brides, directed by Herbert Brenon (Absinthe, A Daughter of the Gods, The Spanish Dancer, Peter Pan, etc). Nazimova was a popular theatre actress, first in Russia at Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, and then on Broadway in America after her emigration in 1905. War Brides was the film adaptation of one of her stage successes.
True to the title, the plot concerns the sacrifices of women during wartime vis-à-vis marriage and child-rearing; however, it sounds markedly feminist for the time, appropriate for an actress famous for her interpretations of Ibsen. (Indeed, Nazimova produced and starred in an adaptation of A Doll’s House in 1922; regrettably lost). From the AFI catalogue entry:
When the government decides that unmarried women should be compelled to marry departing soldiers to provide a fresh supply of manpower in future years, Joan [Nazimova] becomes an activist against the edict and is sent to jail. During the king’s visit to her town, Joan escapes from prison and leads a contingent of women to meet the king, vowing that she shall not bear her child unless the king promises an end to war. The king tells the women that there will always be war, and Joan forthwith shoots herself. The women raise her body on their hands and continue their struggle.
Here’s an advert from Moving Picture World of 21 October 1916:
Side note: Richard Barthelmess appeared in War Brides in a minor role.
Hinemoa (Edward Anderson, NZ 1914)
Hinemoa is generally considered the first feature film produced in New Zealand, that is, produced by locals; Gaston Méliès famously shot several films there in the 1910s, including a 1913 film also called Hinemoa. It was based on the well-known Māori legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, and billed as “The first big dramatic work filmed and acted in the land of the Moa.”
Hera Tawhai starred as Hinemoa, with her husband Rua playing Tutanekai; the rest of the cast was drawn from Reverend F.A. Bennett’s Māori choir. Director George Tarr wowed Rudall Hayward (the most important figure in NZ silent film history), who declared that he wanted to show it “the same terms as I’m paying for Antony and Cleopatra“. The film reportedly did big business. It seems like it had a relatively long distribution history; an item in the Bay of Plenty Times of 13 April 1917 speaks of it being screened the next afternoon and evening. The writer indicates that Hinemoa was tinted, something I haven’t seen mentioned before elsewhere. “The photography is excellent and the film is coloured throughout.” The evening performance was to feature orchestral accompaniment: “A big house should result.”
The Great Gatsby (Famous Players-Lasky, US 1926)
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has been in my head since I read Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby a few months ago (reviewed here). The 1926 film adaptation was also directed by Herbert Brenon, with Warner Baxter in the title role; other notable cast members include Lois Wilson (The Show Off) as Daisy Buchanan, Georgia Hale as Myrtle Wilson, and William Powell as George Wilson (!)
A brief review in Photoplay in February 1927 stated that Brenon had captured the feeling of the story. According to this review, Lois Wilson was the standout performer: she “runs away with the film as the jazzy Daisy Buchanan who flashes cocktails and silken you-know-she-wears-’ems” – ha!
The trailer of the film survives and has been released in the box-set More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931, available from the NFPF. It plays off the iconic ‘floating eyes’ cover art of the first edition:
(No naked ladies, though).
For the Spanish speakers in the audience, here is a full-page review in the Mensajero Paramount (Paramount Messenger) of March 1927. The film was released in Spanish as La Ajena felicidad (The Happiness of Others), rather than El Gran Gatsby.
La Falena | The Moth (Cines, IT 1916)
The following irresistible plot synopsis is posted on Wikipedia:
Thea (Lyda Borelli) is a sculptor who is diagnosed with phthisis [tuberculosis] before she marries Filippo (Andrea Habay). After abandoning him, her health begins to decline. She organises a final party, inviting along her estranged husband. He fails to show, as he’s now married to another woman. Thea appears naked in front of her guests, before she kills herself.
Outrageous! My appreciation for Lyda Borelli is well-documented, and this sounds like great fun. Unfortunately, only a fragment survives.
What are some of your coveted lost films, readers?
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Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908-1919 | Testimoni silenziosi: film russi 1908-1919. Ed. Yuri Tsivian, et al. Pordenone, Italy / London, UK: Edizioni Image Library / BFI, 1989; p.16.
95-99% loss is a commonly cited figure. In A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001), Richie states that ninety percent of all Japanese films made before 1945 are no longer extant (p.12).
Australia’s ‘Lost’ Films. National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, Australia .
Singh Dungarpur, Shivendra. “Indian Cinema – A Vanishing Legacy.” Journal of Film Preservation 91 (October 2014): 27. I had previously stated here that no Indian silent feature film survived in full (even the Franz Osten co-productions), per the publication Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934. (Ed. Suresh Chabria. Pordenone, Italy / New Delhi, India: The Silent Film Festival / National Film Archive of India, 1994). Singh Dungarpar presumably has access to more up-to-date information.
The Survival of the American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929. Council on Library and Information Resources / Library of Congress, 2013. Commissioned for and sponsored by the National Film Preservation Board.