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In Search of Lost Films

In Search of Lost Films

by Phil Hall

Bear Manor Media

All art is transient, and film surprisingly so. Nitrate film stock, indifference, and fire all work to reduce the number of films preserved from the early days of cinema. The typical movie viewer today is only vaguely aware that films go back a century—if it’s not being advertised it doesn’t really exist. But author Hall takes a longer look. He’s one of those dedicated students of the missing blocks in our cultural heritage and offers strong opinions about the relative merits of D. W. Griffith vs. Alfred Hitchcock and the relative acting skills of Theda Bara vs. Zeppo Marx, and he knows the details of blacks making and distributing films in the racist 1920s. Hall’s style is light and never lecturing. You sense his awe in how we arrived here today and share his grief in what is lost and unlikely to ever be found. After a few chapters on the history of film and the early practitioners, he gets down to his real mission: an annotated list of the most important films listed as “missing in attic.”

There are multiple lists like this. The American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, and film historian Frank Thompson all offer competing lists, and as Hall admits: “all these lists are arbitrary to some extent.” His list has quirks; he pines for a missing Marx Brothers film that even Groucho said sucked. But then he points up the lost 1926 Great Gatsby filmed at the height of the flapper era and Theda Bara’s semi-erotic Salome. Another intriguing subject is the 1913 version of Upton Sinclair’s disturbing The Jungle. To date, no one else has attempted to re-film that messy story. Then there are the unexpected successes: Ed Wood’s Necromania turned up at a yard sale in 1992. Hall looks at missing scenes from known movies—most notably there is a copy of a too-stoned-to-use section of the Beatles Help! and a slew of Jack Nicholson bits from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. And then there is the endless and poorly documented list of race films. You can’t keep everything, but this is our culture and our heritage, good or bad.

Hall discusses the success stories on films that were found, some at yard sales or eBay, others in a huge cache found in a paved-over swimming pool in the Yukon. Hall’s style is chatty and anecdotal, and I could see hanging with him in a bar and talking movies until they kicked us out. This is a great little companion for the film lover or Hollywood historian.

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