By Milos Stehlik
A scene from the 1928 French silent film The Cardboard Lover.
South of Lyon, France, archeologists now discovered a buried Roman city, complete with beautiful mosaics – a “mini-Pompeii.”
At about the same time, Mike Grant, a factory worker from Chard, Somerset and his daughter Rachel were at a recycling center in Devon, England, when they noticed two 16mm reels of film next to can of paint sitting behind an old cupboard. In the cupboard, they discovered 10 more films. Mr. Grant approached the staff and asked to buy these contents, and was shocked when all they asked for was 10 pounds.
Mike Grant and his daughter, Rachel.
After Mike and Rachel took the finds home, they began their research. The collection included an Italian film, Il Guanto, from 1910, a French film called Jane Is Unwilling to Work, and just one reel of a French feature from 1928, The Cardboard Lover. Rachel and her mother Marina dug deeper, and discovered that the only other copy of The Cardboard Lover was in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but that copy was badly damaged. The other films included features and shorts, ranging from 1909 to 1913, with films from France, Italy, India and the U.K. The family plans to donate the treasure they found to the British Film Institute.
One of the world’s great film archivists and historians is Paolo Cherchi-Usai. He is now the director of one of this country’s best archives, Eastman House in Rochester, New York – the city made famous by Kodak, which was built on technology allowing us to capture images for much of the 20th century. Before he moved to Rochester, the Italian-born, world-travelled Paolo had been the head of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australia. Just before he moved there, I asked him why he would take a job so far away, and in what seemed like provincial backwaters. He said he’d heard that there was a pristine copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent feature The Lodger someplace in Australia, and he was determined to hunt it down.
From the French film Jane Is Unwilling to Work.
The beginnings of cinema are an astonishing story. In the roughly 35 years which cover the silent film era, from the early inventions of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, silent film exploded in invention, popularity and astounding accomplishments which, some historians argue, has never been really duplicated in the sound era. A dramatic silent film like Sunrise, with Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, made in 1927, is still considered by many to be the greatest American film of all time. Silent cinema created horror (the first Dracula film, Murnau’s Nosferatu), science fiction (Lang’s Metropolis), animation (Felix the Cat, features like The Adventures of Prince Achmed), the experimental film (Un Chien Andalou), historical epic (Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments), and documentary (Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North).
Italy was represented by the 1910 silent Il Guanto.
Silent films were never, in fact, silent – there was always music accompaniment. They were often not black-and-white. From the earliest days, films were hand-tinted with dyes. Color film, was, in fact, invented in 1899, with new processes like Technicolor introduced in the early 1930s.
All this leads one to agree with the great British film historian Kevin Brownlow, the author of the seminal history of silent film, The Parades Gone By (a truly fun read), in which he wrote that everything there was to be discovered in film already happened during the silent era.
This unidentified film was among those found by the Grants.
Here, then, is the tragedy: 75% of silent cinema is lost forever. Films were made on the visually brilliant nitrate film stock, which offered an amazing luminescence never duplicated by celluloid, let alone by today’s digital technology. The one problem: nitrate disintegrated if not properly stored under very cool conditions, and it was highly flammable. This led to very stringent regulations regarding fire-walling of the projection booths from which film was projected. Although a malfunctioning arc light and not film were responsible, Chicago was the site of the great theatre disaster of the Iroquois Theatre in 1903.
Another scene from the one reel of The Cardboard Lover, a French feature from 1928,
The stories of films lost and found – which, as the recent find in Devon illustrate – are sometimes so colorful as to challenge the imagination. One of the greatest of all films of the silent era is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Featuring an indelible performance by Rene Falconetti as Joan whose face Dreyer often films unadorned and in close-up, the sheer emotional power of the film has never been duplicated, even in later Joan of Arc versions like that of Ingrid Bergman in Otto Preminger’s version. For years, though, Dreyer’s film could only be seen in very poor 16mm copies – copies of graying, scratched copies. Then, a miracle. A pristine copy of Passion of Joan of Arc was found in an attic of a mental institution in Denmark. The institution sometimes organized screenings of films for its patients, and, obviously, someone had forgotten to send the print of the film back to the distributor.
Rene Falconetti in Thodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc.
Co-incidentally, the Woman’s Board of the Art Institute of Chicago is organizing an outdoor screening of Passion of Joan of Arc on August 25 at 8 p.m., with a new musical score by a Chicago rock band which commands an international following, and which is named, appropriately, Joan of Arc.
Editor’s Note: Milos Stehlik founded Facets in 1975, developing it into the nation’s leading media arts and education organization. With Milos as spokesperson, Facets attracts film buffs to its theater, library and festivals from around the world. The Facets International Children’s Film Festival has served over 525,000 children and received 32 Oscar nominations for its participating young filmmakers since it began in 1983. Traveling to film festivals around the world in search of the very best they offer, Stehlik is also in classrooms across Chicago talking about how lives can be transformed by the power of films.