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10 Famous Lost Films

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There’s a long list of classic (or at least, significant) movies that might never be seen again: major films starring some of the most popular stars of the silent cinema; Saved from the Titanic (1912), the first drama about the sinking of the Titanic, starring real-life survivor Dorothy Gibson; The Life of General Villa (1914), a legendary Hollywood film starring the Mexican revolutionary as himself; most segments of the classic film serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), starring Pearl White; Alfred Hitchcock's second feature, The Mountain Eagle (1926); and the first movie versions of The Great Gatsby (1926) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). Like up to 80% of movies from the first 30 years of cinema, they are now “lost” films.

Film buffs are thrilled, of course, when a lost film resurfaces. A recent discovery was 30 minutes of lost footage from the great German science-fiction epic Metropolis (1927), which had somehow materialized in Buenos Aires. Even after 80 years, these movies can show up in the most unlikely places. So if you see any of the following, hidden in a warehouse or under the floorboards, please let someone know…

1. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Running over an hour, this Australian film was the world’s first feature film. Directed by Melbourne entrepreneur Charles Tait, it told of the exploits of Ned Kelly, the nation’s most famous outlaw (or “bushranger”), and toured England as “the longest film ever made.” A popular and critical success in its time, it led to a fashion in bushranger movies—until they were banned by various Australian states for making the criminals look good. Sadly, Kelly Gang vanished, along with most of Australia’s film industry, in the first half of the 20th century. Nine minutes of footage were discovered under a bed in a deserted house in 1979, and for years, that was all that existed.

As the centenary approached, however, Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive contacted archives around the world, asking if they might have something to add. The British Film Institute had another incomplete film labeled “Kelly Gang,” but nobody knew what this was. With some detective work, an archivist noticed that one of the scenes was in a photo on the original Kelly Gang promotional poster. The footage was promptly included on a special DVD release. Most of the film, however, still seems to be gone for good.

2. A Daughter of the Gods (1916)

Another film with an Australian connection, this Hollywood movie starred Aussie swimmer and movie star Annette Kellerman (who is mostly forgotten by film buffs today, except as the heroine played by Esther Williams in the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid). It won notoriety for Kellerman’s nude scene (the first by a major film star), which she never lived down.

3. Cleopatra (1917)

The publicity photos from this movie, featuring the alluring Theda Bara in the title role, are so famous that you’d think it still existed. It doesn’t. In fact, almost every movie starring Bara, Hollywood’s first major exotic sex symbol (actually a Cincinnati gal named Theodosia Goodman), is now lost. Fox (now 20th Century Fox), which is now much more diligent about preserving their films, was less careful in the early years.

4. Hollywood (1923)

One of the first Hollywood dramas about Hollywood, this film was adored by the critics of the time… but still somehow went missing. It was a comedy about a girl who goes to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a star, only to find herself unemployed as her loved ones accidentally get movie roles. Like The Player (1992), it attracted cameos from dozens of top Hollywood stars playing themselves—from Charlie Chaplin to Gloria Swanson, and even Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, recently disgraced by a scandal, as an unemployed actor. Director James Cruze was left to find total unknowns to play the leads. Hope Drown, a 20-year-old from Illinois, played he heroine. Though she was very pretty, and (according to critics) gave an excellent performance, she never made another movie. Perhaps she took the film’s cautionary message to heart.

5. Greed – The Directors’ Cut (1924)

Greed, directed by edgy genius Erich von Stroheim, is known as one of the masterpieces of silent film. As there were no DVDs back then, however, we will never have a chance to see the most extreme Director’s Cut in history. While many director’s cuts are considerably lengthier than the release prints, this film was shown only once in its complete, nine-hour version, before MGM Studios ordered it to be edited to a more manageable 100 minutes, described by von Stroheim as “a mutilation of my sincere work.”

We will never know whether the full version was the greatest film ever made, or a load of long, self-indulgent tedium (which, according to at least one early review, is a fair description). Once the editing was complete, the remaining negative was melted down for its silver nitrate. It’s hard to put a film back together from that.

6. Humorisk (or Humor Risk) (1920s)

This was the Marx Brothers’ first film, and their only silent movie, in which (from the few reports that exist) they played quite different characters to the ones we all know. Groucho Marx was so disillusioned with Humorisk that, after one screening, he purchased the film, destroying all prints and negatives. The brothers would not make another movie until the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing The Cocoanuts (1929), based on their popular stage show.

7. London After Midnight (1927)

This detective/horror movie featured the great Lon Chaney in two roles: both the detective and the chief suspect. Chaney’s mastery of character acting and disguise (he applied his own make-up) gave him the sobriquet “Man of a Thousand Faces.” Thanks to surviving studio photos, his chilling performance as a smiling vampire in this film is still a famous image. But though many of his performances survive, some of his most well-regarded films (including The Miracle Man and The Tower of Lies) are missing. The last known copy of London after Midnight was destroyed in a fire in an MGM vault in 1967. In 2008, a horror movie aficionado known as “Sid Terror” caused a lot of excitement by claiming to have spotted another copy, which (he insisted) had since been misplaced somewhere in the UCLA Film Archives. So far, he has not provided any proof.

8. My Man (1928)

Hollywood’s second musical (after the legendary The Jazz Singer), this starred the great Ziegfeld Follies singer-comedienne Fanny Brice (best known to anyone under 90 as the heroine of the biopic Funny Girl, played by Barbra Streisand). Many early Hollywood musicals have also gone missing, including Honky Tonk (1929), one of only three films to star the great Sophie Tucker (only the soundtrack survives); and the epic Rogue Song (1930), with Laurel and Hardy.

9. Convention City (1933)

Though studios were more careful to preserve their films once they started talking, there were a few notable (and notorious) exceptions. Convention City, about the hijinks at a salesman’s convention, was so risqué for its time that Warner Bros’ studio boss Harry Warner ordered every copy to be destroyed in 1943 to get on the good side of the Production Code (especially the powerful chief censor, Will Hays). We know, however, that it was a comedy with an amazing cast (Joan Blondell, Adolphe Menjou, Dick Powell and Mary Astor among them) and a series of witty one-liners laced with pure, unadulterated smut. There are many rumors that this film is in the hands of a private collector, but that seems unlikely.

10. Catch My Soul (1974)

Most lost films are from the early years of cinema, but there are some intriguing exceptions. The “indie” film Catch My Soul was the only feature film directed by the late Patrick McGoohan, the suave Irish-American actor and visionary behind the classic TV series The Prisoner. Filmed in New Mexico, it was rock-opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello. Folk singer Richie Havens, the opening act at Woodstock, played Othello. It opened in New York to low audiences and poor reviews. Vincent Canby in The New York Times said it was “pricelessly funny though seldom meaning to be,” though he added that the songs were pretty good: “Forget the movie and get the soundtrack album.”

According to McGoohan, one of the producers “found God” and recut the movie, adding 15 minutes of religious material. Appalled by the final product, McGoohan tried unsuccessfully to remove his name from the credits. Though it was on the 16mm stocklist the next year, retitled Santa Fe Satan, it now appears only on lost film lists. But come on! McGoohan? Richie Havens? Hippie-style Shakespeare? Unintentional hilarity? Cool soundtrack? Early-70s rock opera? Someone needs to find this!

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]