Hope in the Search of Lost Films by Phil Hall
A Book Review by Irv Slifkin.
Phil Hall did a great service to film fans seeking the forgotten and obscure with his regular column “The Bootleg Files” that ran for years on the FilmThreat.com (regrettably defunct). A film programmer, publicist in indie film, author of six previous books and prolific writer, Hall offers some fascinating, well-researched and often eye-opening cinematic odds and ends with In Search of Lost Films (Bear Manor Media). The book is filled with well-written, meticulously researched chapters on lost silent films, missing movie sequences, pictures mislaid in the transition from silents to sound and more. The book covers the art form from its earliest days to recent times, and pretty much all genres. What makes it a a real treasure, however, is how Hall frames his selections, and traces where each movie belongs within the context of history.
Of course, such poster boys for film preservation and mutilation as London After Midnight (1927), The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) and Greed (1924) are mentioned, but it’s really the lesser known examples that movie fans will savor. For example, Hall discusses the long-lost 1916 silent adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book The Jungle. Exposing the world of Chicago meatpacking business, the book elicited controversy when published and for years to come. In 1915, three directors brought the novel to the screen together and, according to Hall, the film was met with a degree of hullabaloo, including a ban in and around the Windy City where is was set. A bankruptcy by its distributor led Lewis himself to handle the film himself, often to Socialist organizations. But politics and limited, deteriorating prints played a part in the film’s obscurity and eventually its demise.
Of course, every film has its own story, and Hall, in smart, no-nonsense fashion recounts their backgrounds. On Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), the author writes about what actually went into Universal’s decision to cast the already decrepit 61-year old Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster. Lugosi’s thick European accent didn’t work for the part, and it was drastically edited and reshot as sequences centering on other characters were added, heavily reducing Lugosi’s screen time.
Speaking of horror, In Search of Lost Films also delves into the saga of 1915’s Life Without Soul, a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story tamer than Edison’s long-lost-then-found 1910 version of the tale. After years of obscurity, an enterprising distributor got a hold of it with plans for a reissue when Universal let the Boris Karloff-James Whale Frankenstein loose in 1931. The studio put a kebosh on Soul and, despite some positive reviews at the time of its releases, it is now considered lost for the ages.
Hall points out that some very famous and important people have been subject to Hollywood’s errant handling of films that would, years later, have had historical – if not aesthetic – importance. For example, Hall digs into whatever is known of the mysterious silent film of The Marx Brothers from 1926, which the siblings financed themselves and featured them in separate roles as opposed to a team. The details are sketchy, thanks in part to Groucho’s unreliable latter-day recollections, but Hall does a fine job piecing together the various theories about its production and distribution history.
Another silent work from comedy titans with a troubled but intriguing saga is Hat’s Off?, the second silent short Laurel and Hardy made for Hal Roach. In this case, the 1927 precursor to The Music Box (1932) played internationally, so one wonders: Whatever happened to it and was has it been unseen for over six decades? According to Hall, Stan Laurel’s wife likely gave one of the only existing prints to the Los Angeles Fire Department when they were seeking potentially volatile nitrate prints in the 1930s. Reportedly, the comedy team’s 1927 two-reeler Battle of the Century was also handed over to the LAFD, but that has been reassembled with footage that was missing for years. According to the author, Hat’s Off? is the Holy Grail for film comedy enthusiasts.
While a sizable portion of the 199-page book is dedicated to silents or films that were lost or mutilated in the crossover from silents to sound, there are loads of fractured sound features featured, and not just the more famous examples like of The Magnificent Ambersons, Dr. Strangelove (1964) with its pie-throwing sequence or The Wizard of Oz (1939) with its deleted Jitterbug number. Not only were studio-sponsored productions imperiled on different occasions, but so were independent efforts, according to Hall. He cites such examples as Naughty Dallas (1964) from schlockmeister Larry Buchanan, filmed in and around a Texas strip club owned by Jack Ruby, assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Phil Tucker’s filmed-in-Alaska sci-fier Space Jockey (1953).
Even more famous 1960s titles that have gone under the knife such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963, delivered to the studio by filmmaker Stanley Kramer in a four hour and one minute cut!) and Help! (1965, a long sequence with British comic Frankie Howerd and the Beatles was clipped) have their struggles colorfully recounted.
Hall’s pleasing, no-nonsense writing style and thorough research should be commended. Ironically, while the book is packed with information and cinematic subjects worthy of further research, In Search of Lost Films is a visual washout. There are no illustrations, no graphics, no poster art. Hall addresses this decision in his acknowledgements, writing it was done intentionally, that he hopes the book will inspire readers to do their own research and learn more about the missing works featured. One would assume that artwork would pique the attention of readers further, sparking even more interest in exploring the titles Hall spotlights here. And from a marketing angle, photos could only add further incentive to a potential purchaser about to spring $29.95 for a hardcover version the tome and even $19.95 for the paperback.
In the end, however, the book’s strength is Hall’s sense of hopefulness that one day these discarded films may be retrieved. He does an admirable job answering questions, filling in the blanks of film history. This is what makes In Search of Lost Films inspiring even when dealing with such a confounding subject.
Irv Slifkin has written for Movie Fanfare, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter. He’s the author of Videohound’s Groovy Movies (Visible Ink Press, 2004) and Filmadelphia (Middle Atlantic Press, 2006), and has taught film and journalism at Temple University and film and media studies at Rowan University. He is the Programming Director of the Reel East Film Festival (reeleastfilm.org).