Top 5 Lost Films

Posted by Christina Stewart June 18, 2013 17 Comments 20221 views

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?

What lost film do you most long to see? Tell us in the comments!

London After Midnight (1927) MGM, B&W, Silent, 69 minutes

Still image from "London After Midnight"

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

Still image from "Convention City"
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

Still image from "The Callahans and the Murphys"
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

[youtube]http://youtu.be/c_3bob4nPdM[/youtube]

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

Still image from "Cleopatra"
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.

What lost film do you most long to see? Tell us in the comments!

About Christina Stewart

A film archivist by day and a film buff by night. What more needs to be said?

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There are 17 Comments

  1. Jon Mullich
    - June 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    Some lost films I’d love to turn up are “The Way of All Flesh” (1927), which contains the only Academy Award winning performance (by Emil Jannings) no longer known to exist and Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Patriot”, which also stars Jannings, only one reel of which is known to exist in the Portuguese Film Archives. A lost movie I’s love to see is “Humor Risk” (1921), the only silent film made by the Marx Brothers. That’s not likely to show up anywhere since the brothers (who backed it themselves) thought the final product was so bad that they destroyed the negative.

    • Christina Stewart
      - June 18, 2013
        -   Reply

      Jon, what a great list! Jannings is another actor, much like Chaney, that always seems to affect me on a deep personal level. I’d also love to see his successor to “The Way of All Flesh” – “Street of Sin” (1928) were he plays Basher Bill with Fay Wray and Olga Baclanova of “Freaks” (1932) fame.

    • Laura Grande
      - July 11, 2013
        -   Reply

      Oh, that’s interesting!! I didn’t know that about “The Way of the Flesh” and Emil Jannings performance being lost.

  2. Brandy Dean
    - June 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    I like to believe that “lost” films are merely temporarily misplaced and will be found again, most likely in New Zealand.

    However, I think Cleopatra is better off lost because if it were to be found we would also realize Theda Bara wasn’t nearly as interesting as her actress as her PR would have you believe.

    • Jon Mullich
      - June 18, 2013
        -   Reply

      That’s probably true of a lot of “lost” films, Brandy. “A Woman of Paris”‘s reputation was a lot higher when it was believed to be lost. Even so, I’d love to see “London After Midnight.”

    • Laura Grande
      - July 11, 2013
        -   Reply

      Lets hope! For the longest time “The Passion of Joan of Arc” only existed in pieces and not as the director originally intended. Now, we have a lovely, fully restored version to watch via Criterion. We can only hope!

      I’d love to see “London After Midnight.”

  3. - June 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    I wish “Now You See Me” was lost.

    • Brandy Dean
      - June 18, 2013
        -   Reply

      I think we all know which movie I *wish* was lost. If it existed. Which it does not.

  4. Christina Stewart
    - June 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    There are soooo many lost films. Unfortunately we will never see a great many of them, but like Brandy, I hold out the hope that we will continue to find them in the far corners of the world. The fact that once a film ended its distribution run, usually in these far corners like New Zealand, the studios didn’t want to pay for its shipping back to the US, especially when it’s money making days were considered over. This explains why we are finding these films in these locations today, thank heavens.

  5. - June 18, 2013
      -   Reply

    L&H Hat’s Off is on my list plus the first colour feature Wanderers of the Wasteland. Way of all Flesh & of course, the lost Garbo silent. Now I’m going to weep on some film reels.

  6. - August 1, 2013
      -   Reply

    My list would include the three lost John Wayne films in which he has principle roles: WORDS AND MUSIC, THE OREGON TRAIL, and ADVENTURE’S END.

    • Christina Stewart
      - August 3, 2013
        -   Reply

      Hey Jim – thanks for your John Wayne list, but you might be in luck with his “Adventure’s End” (1937). TCM has shown it a couple of times within the last few years, but it’s extremely hard to find a copy of. “Words and Music” (1929) on the other hand was more than likely lost in the huge Fox Films vault fire in 1937. I’m holding out hope that “The Oregon Trail” (1936) will see the light of day soon, as Warner Bros. starts working their way through the Republic Pictures library.

  7. - August 14, 2013
      -   Reply

    1. F.W. Murnau: 4 Devils
    2. Eisenstein: Bezhin Meadow

  8. George Pappas
    - September 16, 2013
      -   Reply

    Not lost so much as destroyed, I wish we could find a copy of The Magnificent Ambersons as Welles intended it.

    The Way of All Flesh was otherwise the first that came to my mind.

    I had assumed The Valiant was list before TCM premiered it two years ago. I did not like it, but I am glad I got to see for myself.

  9. Marc
    - January 26, 2014
      -   Reply

    Another lost film that intrigues me is the original Gold Diggers movie of 1929. The movie was remade as the classic Gold Diggers of 1933 with a new score, but the original with Tiptoe thru the Tulips among other songs ,looks very exciting.
    The movie was a huge hit and was reissued so its lost status is bizarre . It’s almost like us losing,say ,Avatar. The last 6 minutes in black and white exist. (The original film was in early color).So we have a tantalizing piece of film history but just a piece.

  10. Ed Lorusso
    - February 18, 2014
      -   Reply

    I’d like to find MADAME SANS-GENE starring Gloria Swanson and the first feature filmed in Maine, THE RIDER OF THE KING LOG.

  11. Nolan
    - November 20, 2014
      -   Reply

    I would enjoy seeing Cleopatra, but I personally would flip head over heels to see Madame Du Barry from 1917 pop up

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