Ninety percent of American films made before 1929 are considered lost. And that’s just from the infancy of the medium. That doesn’t mean they’ll never be seen. Movies that have been misplaced or simply forgotten turn up now and then, sometimes in the oddest places. The almost-complete version of “Metropolis” popped up in an Argentine archive. Orson Welles’ “Too Much Johnson,” a short made a few years before “Citizen Kane,” wound up sitting in an Italian warehouse. A Technicolor Three Stooges film, “Hello Pop!,” was discovered in a garden shed in Sydney, Australia. That’s still a pittance compared to the films that are currently AWOL — and not just from America or from Hollywood.
This is the subject of “In Search of Lost Films,” a new book by film critic and writer Phil Hall. His seventh tome, it provides a wealth of information on films high and low, from Hollywood to abroad. He includes speculation about the 1921 Marx Brothers short, “Humor Risk,” which some say was suppressed by the Marxes themselves and others say is simply missing. He tries to get to the bottom of the work of ’50s trash auteur Phil Tucker, he of “Robot Monster” infamy, whose filmography includes one, maybe two significant gaps. He even includes major films missing major sections, including Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" and an extra hour of Stanley Kramer’s already elephantine super-comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Tell me about why you chose this subject.
There hasn’t been any new books about lost films for a while. The last truly great book on the subject, I think, was Frank Thompson’s “Lost Films,” which was in 1996. Since that time two or three films he cited in his book have been rediscovered. In the past few years there’s been news of films being found. It was a good time to get a new book out on the subject, bringing in the updated news that’s happened.
Being a lover of old movies means you inevitably suffer the heartbreak of learning about all the films you physically can’t see because they’re currently lost, perhaps forever.
One of the stumbling blocks in writing about old movies is there are so many creative artists, both directors and actors, who have holes in their work. You can’t truly appreciate the full canon when you have films missing. It can be Hitchcock, whose film “The Mountain Eagle” is gone, or somebody like Oscar Micheaux. Almost all of his silent and sound work is gone.
The range of films you focus on is wide. You don’t just focus on the most famous type of lost films: the silent film.
One thing I’ve always found strange with any focus on lost films is that almost all of the focus is on the silent era. Maybe they’ll throw in “Convention City” or “The Rogue Song.” But there’s a lot of sound films that are lost as well. And not just full films. There’s the four-hour version of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” or the pie fight that was supposed to be the ending of “Dr. Strangelove.” These are sections of classics that would have changed the texture of the films dramatically. And we have no way of accessing them.
And you’re focusing on non-Hollywood films, low-budget films, historical documents. One thing of which there’s not enough knowledge is films from overseas.
I was in touch with South Africa’s national film archives. They gave me a whole run-down of films from the silent and sound eras, which were missing. I had to go through a variety of sources to go through Asian, Australian, New Zealand, Indian films, because I’m admittedly not an expert on those parts of film history, just to see what was lost. You go country-by-country and so much is missing. It’s really astonishing. No one’s stopped and realized that so much of the global cinematic heritage is gone. Most of Korea’s early films are gone, most of Japan’s pre-World War II films are gone. Everything made in Indonesia prior to 1950 doesn’t exist. Even as late as the ’60s and ’70s, when the Khmer Rouge came into Cambodia, that country had a vibrant film industry. And the Khmer Rouge destroyed almost everything.