A recent study by the Library of Congress revealed that 70 percent of the 11,000 silent films produced in America have been lost forever due to time and neglect. But we shouldn't completely give up hope that some of the films won't be recovered. A number of films and even television shows once thought lost have been rediscovered, quite unexpectedly, in many unusual ways. Here are some of the more surprising finds.
1. Found on eBay: Charlie Chaplin in Zepped
In 2009, an English inventor bought a can of film for $5 on eBay, containing a 1916 Charlie Chaplin film. Not only was the film “lost,” but nobody was even aware of its existence. Though filmed in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin in Zepped supported Britain’s World War I effort. It would be auctioned in 2011 for £100,000 ($164,070)—just before another copy of the same film was discovered at a charity shop, in a box with many other odds and ends.
2. Found in milk churns: The Mitchell & Kenyon Collection
Filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon roamed the British Isles between 1900 and 1913, filming people in their everyday lives, news footage, and slapstick comedy that might have influenced Chaplin. Their films were missing until 1994, when two workmen, at the site of an old toyshop, found three large milk churns containing hundreds of small spools of film. How the films found their way into milk churns was unknown, and it was lucky that the highly flammable nitrate film had survived so long, in such conditions, without exploding. The discovery, however, was a buzz for historians.
3. Found in the wrong place, with the wrong title: The Sentimental Bloke
Considered by many buffs to be Australia’s greatest silent movie, The Sentimental Bloke (1919) was based on a popular poem. For decades, it was assumed that no high-quality copy existed—until an Australian archivist found it, by chance, in a U.S. archive. If it had been archived, why didn’t anyone know about it? Well, it had been relabeled “The Sentimental Blonde.” The slang word “bloke” (man) is common in Britain and Australia, but not in the U.S., so the librarian assumed that it was a misprint and helpfully “corrected” it.
4. Left for safekeeping: Outside the Law
In the 1920s, a man who worked for Universal Pictures, delivering films around the country, left some films for safekeeping with friends in Crystal, Minnesota. He never returned for the films, and the family forgot about them for over a generation, leaving them in the barn. The films might still be there today, if a later resident had not heard film historian Bob DeFlores interviewed on radio, talking about lost films. After she called in, DeFlores discovered that the one of the films was Outside the Law (1920), a lost crime film starring Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning.
5. Found in a dead man’s collection: The White Shadow
Many lost films and TV shows are jealously guarded by private collectors—and sometimes, these collectors don’t know the treasure they’re sitting on. The private collection of a New Zealand cinema projectionist was left in an archive after his death in 1989. It was not until 2011 that an American archivist was sent to investigate—and she found that the collection was far more exciting that its owner had thought. A reel labeled “Twin Sisters” was actually half of The White Shadow, a lost 1924 film whose assistant director (and writer, set designer, and editor) was a multitalented 24-year-old named Alfred Hitchcock, who would make his directing debut the next year. “Unidentified American Film,” meanwhile, was found to be part of Upstream (1927), an important John Ford comedy.
6. Found in an asylum: Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Many “lost” films have been discovered in attics, sheds, barns, flea markets, even one in a film can that was being used as a football by a bunch of schoolboys! However, few places were more unusual than a French asylum in the 1990s, where many silent films were stacked in a closet. This included the lost film Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), starring former All-American footballer Big Jim Pierce as Tarzan.
7. Rescued on the way to the junkyard: The Flying Doctor
In Australia, a project called the “Last Film Search” was started in the 1960s, tracking down early films before they were destroyed in the hot Australian summers. As Aussies heard about this project, some of them made daring rescues. In one case, workmen clearing a building site in Sydney opened a structure that (unknown to them) was an old vault of a demolished film studio. The vault was full of films (naturally), which were loaded into a truck to be (uh oh) taken to a local junkyard. On the way, however, they were noticed by an office worker, who chased them in his car. Like a dashing movie hero, he stopped them in the nick of time. The films were saved—most notably a lost 1936 film called The Flying Doctor.
8. Finally uncovered by the star: The Honeymooners
For decades, fans of the classic sitcom The Honeymooners could watch only 39 episodes, shot on 35mm film during the 1955-56 season. These were shown in endless reruns. However, dozens of episodes (recorded live on kinescope film between 1951 and 1957) had been hoarded by the star of the series, Jackie Gleason. Eventually, Gleason released the “Lost Honeymooners” to the public, and this newly discovered treasure trove began airing on Showtime in 1985. The reason that Gleason finally revealed these episodes? “I’m sick of watching those other Honeymooners.”
9. Found in the star’s garage: Richard Burton’s Hamlet
This filmed record of a very popular Broadway production in 1964, starring Burton and directed by Peter O’Toole, was thought not so much “lost” as destroyed. By contractual agreement, all prints were to be destroyed after the film’s (somewhat less than successful) cinema run. As with the play itself, the idea was that you had to be there. However, a print was unexpectedly discovered in Burton’s garage following his death in 1984.
10. Found in the censors’ vaults: the nastiest moments from Doctor Who!
Of the classic Doctor Who episodes, 97 are missing, thanks to film and videotape being erased or junked. That sounds terrible, until you consider that, back in 1983, a total of 134 episodes were missing. Since then, several episodes have been retrieved—partly by the BBC (which has been searching to fill in the gaps in their archives) and partly by the show’s fans. One of the more unusual retrievals was in 1996, when fans noticed that the Australian Archives had several scenes on 16mm film, excised from the show for Australian broadcast. The censors had deemed these scenes—most of which last only a few seconds—to be too violent, too scary or too disturbing for children. It is ironic that, since that discovery, the censored moments of some episodes, the ones too terrible to show, are the only ones that survive!