To be a silent movie fan is to live with a mixture of excitement and despair. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of all films from the silent era are lost, either destroyed by Hollywood studios during the transition to talkies or simply lost to the ravages of time. Original negatives and nitrate prints eventually succumb to chemical decomposition, disintegrating into piles of dust. And what has been lost is not limited to Hollywood movies; documentaries, social films, political films, home movies—a vast trove of footage documenting our social history has simply vanished.
The pain of the loss is often compounded by the fact that sometimes a tiny fragment of a film survives, a shred of footage just long enough to hint at the treasures that have disappeared. Sometimes a single reel of a six-reel feature; sometimes a trailer or even just a fragment of a trailer; sometimes still photos, either from the set or from a publicity campaign; and sometimes just a press release or a review, or maybe just an entry in a studio logbook.
But now and then a discovery is made and a film is miraculously found again, having been mislabeled in a studio vault, in the archives of a private collector, or tucked away in some musty basement or in the dark corner of a forgotten storage closet. These are hardly optimal conditions for the storage of such fragile cultural documents; nitrate requires strict climate control in order to ensure its preservation. But sometimes a miracle occurs and a long-forgotten movie survives in remarkable condition.
And so it is with two new DVD releases from Milestone Film and Video: Beyond the Rocks and Electric Edwardians.
Beyond the Rocks is one of the most sought-after of lost silent-era movies, not so much because of its quality as the simple fact that it featured two of the biggest stars of the day: Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. It was rare for two such prominent actors to appear in the same film; the logic at the time was that either one could draw a huge audience, so why waste the money on two astronomical salaries when just one would suffice?
A minute-long fragment survived to taunt historians for nearly eight decades, with hope of its recovery fading with each passing year. And then one day it appeared.
An eccentric Dutch collector passed away in 2000, and among the assorted artifacts he kept in several storage facilities were dozens of rusted film canisters. The films were donated to the Netherlands Film Museum, and there archivists began sorting through the cans to see what they contained. Eventually a reel of Beyond the Rocks was discovered, and, some time later, another reel, until, in 2004, the complete movie was finally pieced together.
The film was restored and released in 2005, making its way from Holland to New York, to Los Angeles, and finally, in November, to the Castro Theater, where it was screened as a special presentation of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. (The festival runs today through Sunday at the Castro and was previewed in this space last Tuesday).
The movie is, for the most part, a light and silly entertainment, a nonsensical Hollywood blockbuster that places its glamorous stars in a series of melodramatic situations in exotic locales. The screenplay is the work of Elinor Glyn, a popular novelist of the day. It was Glyn who wrote the book It and, in a brilliant cross-marketing campaign, proclaimed starlet Clara Bow the embodiment of the sexual allure referred to as “It,” sending both Bow and the ensuing movie into the box office stratosphere.
Though the discovery and restoration of Beyond the Rocks is good news, its significance pales in comparison to the recent discovery of the work of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, released under the title Electric Edwardians.
Mitchell and Kenyon were filmmakers in early 20th century Britain, contracted by traveling showmen to film everyday folks in small towns and cities in anticipation of a fair or circus coming to town. Advertisements would be posted informing the locals that, for just a few pence, they could come to the fair and see themselves and their friends and neighbors on the screen.
To Mitchell and Kenyon, and to their employers, these were throwaway films. They were simply part of a marketing gimmick, a way to lure paying customers. But a few years ago, several drums filled with film canisters were discovered in a basement due for demolition, and in those cans were the original negatives of several dozen Mitchell and Kenyon films.
One commentator on the DVD describes the films as containing “infinite surprises in a finite space.” It is an apt description, for these films are not polished productions, but are simply snapshots of an era, with the camera merely catching a glimpse of the passing parade of everyday life. A fictional character only exists insofar as he is on the screen; he ceases to exist once he moves beyond the frame. But the Mitchell and Kenyon films feature real people; they are not posing for posterity, they are simply going about their lives, and those lives do not end once they pass through and beyond the frame. Watching these films is like cupping your hands in a rushing stream and capturing just a small sample, just a fleeting glimpse, of the life rushing by.
The faces are both mysterious and familiar: workers, athletes, children and adults. We see children who will one day become parents and then grandparents and great-grandparents, who will one day be remembered only as faded, foreign photographs in a dusty, dog-eared album; we see men flooding out of factories; we see merchants sweeping the sidewalk; we see regiments of uniformed young boys marching in parades, boys who, in just a few short years, will likely be sent to the battlefields of the Great War. Thousands of faces pass before us, anonymous lives lived and forgotten. But here in the films of Mitchell and Kenyon they live and breathe; they smile, wave, grimace, and walk on by, some curious, some indifferent, some silly, some sober.
All of these films have their particular charms, from the hundreds of faces pouring out of a factory, to the faces of curious children gaping or grinning at the sight of the camera, to the pensive faces of spectators at a soccer match, to the quaint entertainments of long-forgotten performers. But among the most fascinating films are the ones shot from streetcars, with Mitchell and Kenyon and their camera passing unnoticed through cities and towns, capturing footage of quiet, everyday moments: a man walking alone along the sidewalk; women stopping to chat on a street corner; horse-drawn carriages navigating traffic at an intersection.
Eighty-five minutes worth can be a lot for one sitting, but select one among the several categories of films and give it your full attention. It’s a rewarding time capsule; the flood of images, accompanied by poignant scores by In the Nursery, provide a genuinely moving experience.