Friday, October 24, 2014

Lost Movies Found Again

I don't know if I mentioned this before, but I love movies. Silent movies, sound movies, horror films, musicals and so on. I live in a town that has one of the few remaining 20's style movie palaces, and I have a floor to ceiling shelf full of VHS tapes and DVDs. I am especially excited when a long lost film is found, or when once lost scenes are restored to a film. Watching the restored silent Napoleon in the aforementioned movie palace was one of the greatest cinema thrills of my life.  Restored prints of such films as A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia are among my prized purchases.

So recently I was excited to learn about the rediscovery of two great moments on film. One is the recovery of a great moment in sports history,  while the other captures a legendary actor in his most famous role.

The first film footage was located by the Library of Congress and shows the seventh game of the 1924 World Series. This Series was special. It featured the New York Giants (yes kids, Giants baseball used to be in New York, just like the football team) against the worst team in the history of everything, the Washington Senators (yes kids, the DC team wasn't always the Nationals). It used to be said of the Senators that they were "First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the American League." But for many year the Senators had one great player, legendary fastballer Walter Johnson.  Johnson managed to win over 400 games while pitching for the Bad News Bears of  professional baseball..  But in 1924 the stars aligned in some unique way and Washington, and Walter Johnson, got a chance at the World Series.

Johnson failed to win either start, but gamely came on in relief when the last game went into extra innings, and was thus the winning picture when the Senators pulled things out in the 12th inning. Walter Johnson was not only one of the greatest pitchers of all time, but one of the classiest people ever to play the game, and for anyone who wasn't a Giant's fan, it was a matter of great satisfaction that he finally got the World Series win.

And now we have film of it.

The other news is , for silent film fans, even more exciting.  One of the joys of film (and audio recordings) is that they allow is to experience the great performers of the past.  Long gone, they still live on film and record.  I discovered this for myself while doing research in college on the actor Edwin Booth.  Booth died in 1893, but several cylinder recordings were made, and I got the chance to hear him read a speech from "Othello". It brought him to life in a way no mere photo could do.

Recently it was announced that the 1916 silent film Sherlock Holmes has been found in France. Along with London after Midnight, the original cut of Greed, and a few others, this film, which starred actor William Gillette, has long been sought by film fans.  Gillette was the stage Holmes of his time, and set many of the Sherlockian conventions we see to this day.  Conan Doyle himself approved of the production, so it's also a good chance to see how the Author felt his character should be portrayed. Moreover this was the only film Gillette ever made, so much like those audio recordings of Edwin Booth, it will bring a performer to life again.

Soon we will have more than a few audio recordings and stills, as seen here. Exhibitions of the film will begin next year.

Film gets lost in many ways.  The originals were on highly flammable nitrate stock, and whole warehouses of classics have been lost that way.  Sometimes people didn't realize the importance of what they were watching at the time (there is no complete recording of the first Super Bowl, for instance. No one knew yet that it was the Super Bowl.) Occasionally a film executive so hates a film that he makes sure that the film or at least what was left after they hacked it up, was destroyed. (Legend has it that the complete print of the original Wicker Man is in a landfill or under a highway somewhere in England.) Early films were melted down for their silver content and early video tapes were often reused, leaving early TV shows, especially, incomplete. (Ask any Doctor Who fan.) But every once in a while film turns up in a closet, under a bed, mislabeled on a shelf.

I can't tell you how excited I get when something like this happens. Every time one of these films or audio recordings are found I feel like we are made part of a tiny miracle. It's a reminder too, that we have a chance to pass on so many treasures of the past to future generations,  but only if we take care of them.

Photo by Pintanscue / CC BY 

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