Quest for film
A few months back, a front-page article in the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section about film preservation and restoration noted that the days of “garage finds” are fast coming to a close.
“Garage finds” is a common term used for the unexpected discovery of old film reels containing rare or unseen film footage. It is through these serendipitous discoveries that some films have enjoyed full (or fuller) restorations or reconstructions.
Having toured the UNCSA School of Filmmaking’s Moving Image Archives and talked extensively with senior curator David Spencer, I’ve seen some of those garage finds in person – dented, rusty film canisters that contain rare film prints. In 2012, I wrote a YES! Weekly cover story about exactly that subject.
The UNCSA Moving Image Archives is easily in the top 10 film collections in the entire United States, and it has benefited from garage finds over the years. When Vinegar Syndrome released last year a special-edition DVD/Blu-ray of the 1973 film Catch My Soul, a rock opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello and the only feature film directed by actor Patrick McGoohan, some of the elements were provided by the Moving Image Archives.
Author Phil Hall, whose books include The History of Independent Cinema and The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, has now written In Search of Lost Films, a self-explanatory examination of films lost, films found (or portions thereof), and even a few myths that continue to fascinate – and sometimes frustrate – film completists.
Published by BearManor Media, the 206-page book ($19.95 retail in paperback, $29.95 retail in hardcover) is written in a clear, concise and informative fashion. Some of the “mysteries” he addresses are fairly common knowledge among cineastes, such as the climactic pie-fight in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) which was excised shortly before release – some say because of the JFK assassination, others because the scene simply didn’t work.
There’s the matter of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in which all references to the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) able to speak but blind were deleted, thereby rendering the performance awkward and clumsy.
Fans have long craved to see the missing footage in both films, but evidently it’s lost … or, perhaps, mouldering away somewhere in a garage or warehouse or barn.
But there are the more obscure curiosities, such as Orson Welles’ Moby Dick – Rehearsed (1955), an attempt to produce Herman Melville’s classic sea-faring tale on a bare stage, as performed by a traveling theatrical troupe. Welles staged the play in London then attempted to produce it as a film. Knowing that John Huston was preparing his own big-budget screen adaptation – in which, ironically, Welles would play Father Mapple – Welles attempted to sell it to television.
The cast included such future luminaries as McGoogan, Christopher Lee and Joan Plowright, with Welles playing Captain Ahab, but it’s not certain whether the film was even finished, much less if any footage remains – or if there was any footage to begin with.
Even Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the most acclaimed director of the twentieth century, has a lost film in his name. In 1926, with Austrian financing, he directed The Mountain Eagle, a melodrama set in rural Kentucky (!). The film, which Hitchcock later called “awful,” was released in the United States in 1927. Since then, except for a few photographs, no more has ever been heard – or seen – of The Mountain Eagle.
In some cases, such as the supposed “spider pit footage” from the original King Kong (1933), Hall is able to dispel the myth that it was ever meant to be in the finished film. As it turns out, it was silent test footage designed to assure RKO executives that the filmmakers could handle such an elaborate, effect-laden production.
Of course, some mysteries remain, and Hall delves as far into them as possible, only to admit there is no conclusive evidence, only hints and rumors. There’s always the chance that missing footage or even an entire missing film could still be discovered somewhere, but film fans will just have to wait and hope.
It might have been nice had Hall included some photos in the book. Some, of course, would have been impossible to find, but a still from The Mountain Eagle or even from the King Kong test footage (images from which can easily be found on-line) would have been welcome, intriguing, and would have enhanced interest somewhat. Nevertheless, In Search of Lost Films is an easy, breezy, sometimes thought-provoking read – a must for film buffs.
For more information about In Search of Lost Films and other BearManor publications, visit the official website: bearmanormedia.com.