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17 Amazing Stories of Lost and Found Films

Exciting news for silent comedy fans, movie buffs, and people who generally like things that are awesome: film historian Fernando Pena has discovered an alternate version of the classic Buster Keaton short The Blacksmith, featuring numerous never-before-seen gags and a new ending. The film, buried in a large purchase of European prints from eBay, is the kind of discovery that makes movie lovers’ hearts dance; there are so many great old films either lost entirely or no longer in their original form that these kind of finds in archives, collections, and odd spots make the impossible (the original cuts of Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, say) seem possible. Here’s a few more exciting moments of cinematic archaeology.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece, one of the greatest of all silent films, was subjected to cuts by the Catholic church and government censors before it could be released in 1928, over Dreyer’s strenuous objections. When his original negative was destroyed in a studio fire, the director had to patch together a new version using alternate takes, and over the years that followed, even that version was subjected to alterations and battery. But in 1981, a nearly pristine copy of the film was discovered in, of all places, a janitor’s closet at the Dikemark Sykhaus mental institution in Oslo, Norway. The film cans were sent to the Norwegian Film Institute, but no one there bothered to examine them for three years. It was only then that they realized they had a copy of Dreyer’s original cut, before the state-imposed edits. No one knows how the hell it ended up in an Oslo mental institution, but whatever the reason, the print discovered there rescued the filmmaker’s original vision.

Metropolis

Like Passion, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece had long been considered a lost cause for full restoration. Originally running 153 minutes, it was cut by Lang’s studio to 115 minutes, and for subsequent re-releases to a mere 91 minutes. The original cut vanished. But then the film began to reassemble: first additional scenes were discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2005, and then, three years later, an uncut version was discovered at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. The print found there was shabby and beat up, and a couple of sequences were damaged beyond repair. But the rest of the film was carefully restored and re-released, to tremendous acclaim, in 2010. The film now runs just five minutes shy of its original premiere cut.

The White Shadow

This summer, the “Hitchcock 9,” the British Film Institute’s restorations of nine early and under-seen Hitchcock silent films, is making its way across the country. But one of his other silents also recently made news: The White Shadow, which he wrote but did not direct (it was his second writing credit). He was also editor, production designer, and assistant director for the 1924 effort, which was considered a lot film before three reels of it turned up in 2011 “among some unidentified American nitrate prints” donated in 1989 to the New Zealand Film Archive.

Upstream

The New Zealand Film Archive strikes again! The reason for so many of these discoveries in international archives is fairly simple: they were shipped to foreign countries for theatrical release with the understanding that they would be destroyed afterwards, since return shipping wasn’t considered worth the trouble and expense. But they often went to private collectors or film archives instead; that’s what appears to have happened with the group of 75 lost films in the New Zealand archive that the National Film Preservation Foundation identified in 2010. The big catch of the bunch was Upstream, one of the countless missing silent films from the great John Ford; only 15% of his silent output survived. Other films in the discovery included an early Mabel Normand comedy and a Clara Bow feature.

The Chaplin Outtakes

One of the reasons that ever unearthing those original cuts of Greed or Ambersons or Sunset Blvd. seems like such a long shot is that studios simply didn’t keep the stuff they chopped out of movies; back when they were considered disposable entertainment rather than an art form, no one could imagine anyone would ever care about the scenes that didn’t make it, nor did they know they’d one day be able to monetize that stuff as special features on DVDs. But Charles Chaplin was a rare filmmaker who kept all of his footage; because he worked out his films on camera rather than in a script, he would develop ideas, gags, and stories with the camera running, resulting in a kind of filmed notebook. Since he owned all that footage, no one had any idea it existed until documentarians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill were working on their wonderful silent film chronicle Hollywood. While making that film, they discovered that colorful (yeah, let’s go with that) silent film collector Raymond Rohauer had, in his possession, a treasure trove of outtakes from Chaplin’s years at the Mutual Film Studio. After months of effort, they managed to get the material from Rohauer — discovering in the meantime even more material in the possession of Chaplin’s widow, Oona. Combined, the collections formed their excellent documentary series Unknown Chaplin, a rare and valuable look at the working methods of a true master.

“The Cook” / “A Reckless Romeo”

Though his popularity in his heyday was commensurate with Chaplin’s, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is largely forgotten today — aside from the scandal that brought a premature end to his film career, when he was accused (and tried and convicted by yellow journalists) of the rape and murder of a young starlet. Though he was acquitted of the crime — with an apology from the jury — the damage had been done: his reputation was in ruins, and all of his films had been pulled from circulation. Two of those short comedies, 1917’s “A Reckless Romeo” and 1918’s “The Cook” (both co-starring Arbuckle’s discovery and protégé, Buster Keaton), were considered lost for decades — until they both turned up, in an unmarked canister, in 1998 at the Norwegian Film Institute. They were subsequently restored and released on DVD.

“Little Red Riding Hood”

Produced in 1922 as part of the “Laugh-O-Grams” series, this short film was the first cartoon by a young Kansas City animator named Walt Disney. But it didn’t make any noise when it was released — the studio went bankrupt the following year — and by the time Disney became a household name, the film had vanished. It appeared on the AFI’s 1980 list of “10 Most Wanted Films for Archival Preservation,” and that was that. But later that decade, a British film historian and collector named David Wyatt found “Little Red Riding Hood,” as well as a later Laugh-O-Gram adaptation of Cinderella, at a sale of 16mm prints at a London library. He bought the film for two pounds (about $3) — but didn’t fully realize what he had until a writer preparing a book on Disney’s silent films contacted him. Over the following years, all seven of the original shorts have been reassembled from various archives and collections, filling in this vital piece of animation history.

Dracula (Spanish Version)

In the early days of talking pictures, before the advent of dubbing and subtitling, studios would turn out foreign-language versions of their films — using standing sets, and sometimes the same stars (reading phonetically from chalkboards), shooting during off hours or after the completion of principle photography. A few survive as interesting curios, but by far the most fascinating example is the Spanish-language version of Dracula, directed by George Melford. Shot during nights simultaneous with the Tod Browning, English-language version, the “graveyard shift” element of the production and the crew’s conscious attempts to top their counterpart with moodier and more atmospheric lighting and compositions resulted in what many today consider to be the superior film. But it was quickly forgotten and subsequently lost after its original release, only to be rediscovered in the 1970s. One reel of the original negative was too damaged to save; the current version uses a substitute reel from a print discovered at the Cinemateca de Cuba in 1989.

Richard III / Hamlet

The 1912 version of Richard III is not only the oldest surviving American feature film; it is also considered the earliest feature-length film adaptation of a Shakespeare play. But the film was considered lost for decades, as early as 1922, only to reappear in 1996 as part of the private collection of a Portland projectionist named William Buffum. Buffum donated the print to the AFI; it was restored and released in 2001 on DVD.

A very different Shakespeare adaptation was released in 1964, when a Broadway staging of the play starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud (using a then-innovative, modern-dress “rehearsal” setting) was recorded on videotape and released to movie theaters by Warner Brothers. Those who showed it were contractually required to destroy their prints after the short run — and it was presumed that they had. But over 20 years later, a single print was discovered in Burton’s garage after his death, and his widow allowed it to be released on home video.

Wake in Fright / Miami Connection

Ted Kotcheff’s sweaty, atmospheric, and rather harrowing Australian film was well received and financially successful (everywhere but in its home country) when it was released in 1971, so it’s all the more peculiar that it became an all-but-lost film so quickly. But it was long unavailable for DVD, VHS, or television due to the poor quality of the few remaining prints. The film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, spent years trying to find an acceptable copy — and after a decade, he finally tracked down the original negative in 2004, in a shipping container, marked for destruction. The film was restored from those materials, and re-released last year by Drafthouse Films.

Drafthouse is also responsible for the rescue of the long-forgotten Miami Connection, a low-budget and decidedly low-quality action/exploitation movie originally released only in central Florida in 1988. Over a decade later, a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse found a 16mm print on eBay and bought it for $50, sight unseen. He put on the first reel during a compilation night at the Drafthouse, and the audience went wild; it quickly became an Austin cult sensation, and was later given a splashy nationwide re-release by their distribution arm.

Final Curtain / Necromania / The Young Marrieds

And speaking of filmmakers who are so bad they’re good, Ed Wood certainly hoped his films would be treasured and beloved for years to come, though he probably wouldn’t have guessed why. But after his discovery by bad movie aficionados in the 1970s, via such “classics” as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, his lesser-known works became objects of interest. Final Curtain, for example, was a long-lost Wood television pilot that was never picked up; it was rediscovered by the great-nephew of one of Wood’s frequent collaborators just two years ago, and played at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival. Necromania dates to 1971, from Wood’s unfortunate late-career turn to the world of pornography, and (like many ‘70s porn films) was presumed lost until a copy of its R-rated cut turned up at a yard sale in 1992, and a full unedited version appeared in 2001. The Young Marrieds, made later that same year, was Wood’s last (known) film; it too had disappeared, but a 16mm print appeared in 2004 in Vancouver.

Shadows

John Cassavetes’ first film as a director, released in 1959, is widely recognized as the starter pistol for the American independent film movement; mostly improvised, shot with handheld cameras on the streets, and in the apartments of New York, it dealt with controversial, personal subject matter in a raw and unvarnished manner. It was a surprise success, but it was actually the director’s second stab at the material — he’d shot and apparently completed one pass in 1957, which few people saw and even fewer appreciated (though some who saw both versions, notably the Village Voice’s Jonas Mekas, far preferred his original). Cassavetes himself presumed the earlier version was lost, since he had edited his only print into the final cut. But Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney spent years looking for the mysterious Shadows 1 — and finally tracked it down via the daughter of a New York junk dealer, who had picked it up at a subway “lost and found” sale. That version still hasn’t been released, however, due to ongoing disputes about its ownership between Carney and Cassavetes’ widow Gena Rowlands.

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