Top 5 Lost Films
Cinephiles the world over heave a collective sigh at the startling number of lost films. What exactly are lost films anyway? A film is considered lost if it isn’t known to exist in any studio, public archive or private collection. Roughly between 70-90% of silent era films and almost 50% of sound films dating from 1927-1950 are lost. These films have been lost due to a number of reasons that range from being mislabeled on an inventory to being destroyed in a vault fire. I like to think of these films as presumed lost and that ultimately we will find them again.
It’s impossible to define a definitive Top 5 list of Lost Films. This is my personal list of films that I would love to one day see. What are some of yours?
London After Midnight (1927) MGM, B&W, Silent, 69 minutes
This film is probably one of the most sought after lost films of all time. The Holy Grail, if there ever was one. Tod Browning wrote the original story, titled The Hypnotist and directed the film, starring Lon Chaney, Marceline Day, Conrad Nagel, and Henry B. Walthall. The last known print was destroyed in a vault fire at MGM in 1967. Many people who had seen the film thought it to be one of Chaney and Browning’s lesser films, but the aura that has built up around it since 1967 has become such that if it was ever found there might just be rejoicing in the streets. If you can’t wait for the film to be found, there is a still reconstruction of the film available, made in 2002 by Rick Schmidlin. Lon Chaney films always make me cry, and I’m sure if I ever get the chance to see this one, it will have the same effect.
Convention City (1933) First National Pictures, B&W, Sound, 69 minutes
For a Pre-Code gal like myself this one is so tantalizing it hurts. Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, and Adolphe Menjou star in this rowdy, sexy, drunken party of a film. The film was so saucy that Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration refused to allow it to be re-released in 1936, indicating that no amount of cuts to the film would make it pass the new code. The last known screening was in Namibia in 1942, since then the film has vanished. Luckily, we still have the dialogue script and the key book with over 200 stills, which have sometimes been combined for live readings. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll find Convention City some day soon.
The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) MGM, B&W, Silent, 70 minutes
Billed as, “The Mirthquake of 1927”, and the screen’s first comic pairing of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran. The film centered on two feuding Irish tenement housewives (Dressler and Moran) struggling to control their children. The film touched off a firestorm of protests by Irish-American organizations and the Catholic Church, and was pulled from distribution shortly after its release. It is widely believed that MGM destroyed the original nitrate negatives and recalled prints, leading to its lost film status. A sad end to a film it’s said Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd thought one of the funniest films ever made.
The Great Gatsby (1926) Famous Players-Lasky, B&W, Silent, 80 minutes
The first cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale was released only a year after the book was published. Imagine that! Not that Hollywood has ever really stayed true to any original story, but this one might just be the closest of the four screen versions. We get hints of it from the trailer that’s still available and hopefully you just watched. It’s devilish to think how contemporary Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, Georgia Hale and William Powell were starring in this film. I adore the work of Fitzgerald and the loss of this visual text is heartbreaking for me.
Cleopatra (1917) Fox Film Corporation, B&W, Silent, 125 minutes
Oh, Theda Bara! I wish more of her films were available so we could have an actual critique of The Vamp rather than just shadows of what once was. The original femme fatale made over forty films during her heyday, but the majority of them are now lost, with only six complete films known to exist. A devastating vault fire destroyed almost all of the Fox Film Corp’s silent film catalogue in 1937 and today only fragments of Cleopatra exist. From the many still images available, they show us that Fox spared nothing in bringing this tale of tragic love to the screen, something subsequent productions have diligently adhered to. It certainly looked like a feast for the eyes, quite possibly more spectacular than Cecil B. DeMille’s version and that’s saying something.