10 Famous Lost Films
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!
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