“Over eighty percent of silent films are lost. I’ve always considered a lost film as a narrative with no known final resting place — doomed to wander the landscape of film history, sad, miserable and unable to project itself to the people who might love it.” Only Canadian director Guy Maddin can make a filmmaker’s frustrating, unrealized dream project sound like a beautiful, but haunting, reverie. His Spiritismes project at the Centre Pompidou in Paris runs until March 12 and invites visitors to behold the creation of a new film. During séances (yes, communion with the dead) Maddin and a group of actors (including greats like Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, and many more) will become “possessed by the wandering spirits … to bring their movies back to life.” Maddin will be composing one film a day based on the supernatural experiences. If you’re crying, because Paris is far away and no one loves you enough to send you there, take heed of this live streaming website — broadcasting from 11 AM to 9 PM (6 AM to 3 PM ET).
We wanted to examine a few famous films that have been lost to the studio fires, oceans, and mismanaged hands of the past. Click through to see what gems we’ve uncovered. We promise the ectoplasm will be minimal.
Freaks director Tod Browning cast “the man of a thousand faces” Lon Chaney in the role of an inspector and a strange, vampiric man in London after Midnight. The last known print of the 1927 film was destroyed in a fire in an MGM vault in 1967. Turner Classic Movies commissioned a restoration in 2002, which produced a “sketch” of the film using still photos and the original script, running under an hour long. Browning loosely remade the movie years later as Mark of the Vampire starring Bela Lugosi in Chaney’s role — which does fill in some of the gaps of the 2002 reconstruction. Still, Chaney’s grotesque transformation — thanks to his skilled use of makeup (the actor usually created his own looks for his films) — is unforgettable in pictures, making us wonder just how amazing he’d be to watch in action.
The story behind Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed is the stuff of Hollywood legends. Turner also attempted to reconstruct this tale of wealth, corruption, and obsession in 1999 using hundreds of production stills, a new score, the original script — all running around four hours long. The original film, however, ran nearly 10 hours. Although Von Stroheim thought his meticulously detailed and authentic translation of the 1899 novel McTeague by Frank Norris was his masterpiece, it would never be seen in its original form again. MGM wasn’t satisfied with Von Stroheim’s edits (he trimmed it down to four hours in length), seized control of the project, and tragically cut it to bits. Some cinephiles argue that the extra hours lost don’t detract from the essential part of the story, but all moviegoers can agree that Von Stroheim’s unrelenting realism is stunning to behold.
Orson Welles claimed that 1942 romantic drama The Magnificent Ambersons was a finer film than his opus, Citizen Kane. We’ll never truly know if he was right, however, because the director’s hour-worth of excised scenes were said to be dumped in the ocean while Welles was working on another project in Brazil. If you’re familiar with Welles history with studio RKO, then you’ll know there’s no love lost there. Even if the footage didn’t grow cement shoes and take a dive, it’s radically different than the finished product Welles was aiming for, and it’s somewhere out there (maybe). The negatives containing the cut footage were apparently destroyed, Welles was supposedly sent a cut in South America, and no one’s heard of it since. This isn’t the only lost Welles project. See: The Other Side of the Wind .
Theda Bara exotically adorned as Queen of the Nile is a memorable image that has been around since the days of early cinema, but her film Cleopatra was never that lucky. The 1917 silent feature saw a costly production, required thousands of crewmembers to help craft it, and is famous for being too “obscene” — thanks in part to Bara’s revealing costumes. Sadly, only seconds of footage survives today, due to several fires destroying the last two known prints. We can only assume how dazzling Bara was to watch and imagine the awesome spectacle of one of Hollywood’s earliest big budget epics.
Only a trailer remains of the first film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring 20’s tale, The Great Gatsby. Director Herbert Brenon actually looked to the 1926 stage play version of the story for his movie. We only catch a glimpse of the lavish parties the film supposedly boasted in the surviving footage, but at least the googly eyes animation is entertaining and charmingly old-timey to look at.
The second film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein is the first feature version of the modern Prometheus story. Names are changed and the setting is modern, but the doctor who creates a soulless creature still appears in the 1915 movie. Apparently the film’s producers went out of business and the prints vanished along with them.
Victor Sjöström’s The Divine Woman starred Greta Garbo in her early Hollywood career as a Parisian girl trying to make it big as an actress. The story is loosely modeled on the life of the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. The only surviving footage of the 1928 film is a nine-minute reel that was uncovered in Moscow in the ’90s. In it, Garbo is featured with one of her character’s two lovers Lucien, a soldier who goes AWOL to be with her.
Swashbuckling silent film star Douglas Fairbanks wrote, produced, and starred in a 1919 western The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. The “King of Hollywood” played a self-absorbed New York socialite who heads to Texas to humble himself and mend his ways, but gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and small town corruption. Fairbanks was Tinseltown’s most popular actor at the time and would soon go on to form his own film studio, United Artists. The actor seemed out of place in westerns and more at home on the big screen in the city. This film was one of the last westerns he made before taking up a sword for good. We’ll never see it, though, as no known copy exists.