By Thomas Gladysz.

An act of cinematic and cultural archeology. I just kept on digging to find out what I could find out.”

Film International contributor Thomas Gladysz has published a fifth book, The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond (PandorasBox Press). He describes it as a “deep dive into the history of one film – its literary source, its making, its critical reception, and its surprising, little-known legacy.” What follows is an excerpt from the book, namely Gladysz’s introduction, followed by a post script written especially for Film International.

Like other film buffs, I want to see every film featuring my favorite star. In my case, my favorite is Louise Brooks, the silent era actress with the distinct bob best known for playing Lulu in Pandora’s Box.

I first came across the actress in the early 1990s, while browsing the shelves of a video rental shop. During one visit, I noticed Pandora’s Box in the classics section; I was not familiar with the film, but its packaging drew my attention and I thought I would check it out. I watched the movie that evening . . . and was awestruck. I was spellbound. I had never seen any actress, any star, or anyone, like Louise Brooks.

After that, I was determined to see each of her films. Soon, I tracked down the other film Brooks made under G.W. Pabst’s direction, Diary of a Lost Girl. And again, I was wowed. I also found Prix de Beauté, the movie she made in France, and A Girl in Every Port, an earlier American film which supposedly inspired Pabst to cast Brooks as Lulu. Those were the few films then available on home video.

Over the next few years, and through a slow trickle of classic and budget releases (some on VHS, some on laser disc, some on DVD), I managed to find It’s the Old Army Game, The Show Off, Love Em and Leave Em, Beggars of Life and The Canary Murder Case, as well as each of the actress’ talkies from the 1930s.

Altogether, there are 24 films in Brooks’ somewhat slight filmography. At the time, six were considered lost. A couple survived incomplete, and a few others were rarely if ever shown in theaters or on television. Altogether, I had little hope of seeing a third of the actress’ films, and instead had to content myself with merely reading about them. Such was the fate of many film buffs at the time.

Since first “discovering” the actress, I have found a great deal of pleasure in researching Brooks’ film career, looking up articles in whatever vintage newspapers or magazines I could access. For a number of years, I made weekly trips to the San Francisco Public Library, where I would scroll through rolls and rolls of microfilm. I also put through hundreds of interlibrary loan (ILL) requests, systematically attempting to track down every possible review, article, and reference. I found Brooks’ career, as well as the silent film era, endlessly fascinating. Research was my personal means of time travel.

Over time, my interest spread to Brooks’ co-stars and contemporaries, to the films of the early sound era, and to the broader history of the period, the Jazz Age. I was a silent film buff – but also think of myself as an independent researcher & film historian (admittedly an amateur film historian). My interest in Brooks has continued for more than a quarter of a century.

One of the films in Brooks’ filmography that had long eluded me was The Street of Forgotten Men (1925). The actress made her screen debut in this otherwise little-known film, playing a moll in an uncredited bit part. As one of Brooks’ silent films, it has never received much attention, except for the fact that it marked the actress’ first screen appearance. In other quarters, The Street of Forgotten Men is known as one of a number of movies directed by Herbert Brenon, the once acclaimed director who made the still revived Peter Pan (1924), Beau Geste (1926), Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) and other early classics.

The Street of Forgotten Men was once considered a lost film. (Kenneth Tynan described it as so in his 1979 profile of Brooks in the New Yorker.) It was also a film I had read about and researched but had never seen – until 2006, when I had the chance to spend a day at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. At the time, the library held the only surviving print of The Street of Forgotten Men, albeit an incomplete one. During my visit, I arranged to see what remained. For my screening, I was escorted to a quiet back-room. There, I sat in a cubicle with a little hand-crank projector and ran the film for an audience of one – me. It was an unusual, intimate, and thrilling experience. As projectionist, I could start and stop the film whenever I wished. And I did just that, taking notes on most every scene, not knowing if I would ever see the film again. Despite Brooks’ brief appearance, I found the film fascinating. Years later, I still hold that opinion.

There is much to recommend about The Street of Forgotten Men, which was both a popular and critical success at the time of its release. The film is based on a story by a noted writer of the time; it was made by a significant director, shot by a great cinematographer, and features a fine cast which includes a future screen legend at the very beginning of her career. Altogether, there are many points of interest.

The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond is a deep dive into the history of one film – its literary source, its making, its critical reception, and its surprising, little-known legacy. It is the primary intention of this book to show how one film might be exemplary of filmmaking and film culture during the silent era.

However, there is more to this story…. One of John Donne’s famous poems begins “No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. To me, what Donne’s verse says about humanity is what I believe about significant works of art, including films. Everything is connected in some way, in that nothing is created in a vacuum. I have kept Donne’s lines in mind while writing this book. If anything, this book achieves one thing – it places The Street of Forgotten Men in the rich cinematic and cultural context of its time. Does such a context elevate this particular film as a work of art, or as a cinematic achievement? Not necessarily. But then, that was not my goal.

Described as “strange” and ‘startling,’ the film centers on a gang of criminals, fraudulent beggars who pretend to be blind or have missing arms or legs in order to panhandle money from unaware passers-by. The film was considered realistic, a bit provocative, and was compared to earlier works of Lon Chaney.”

I had long thought of writing a book about The Street of Forgotten Men, and have been unknowingly gathering material for years, if not decades – since, years ago, putting through all those ILL requests at the SFPL for the many NYC newspapers. The film’s 2022 restoration – and the fact that published material from 1925 has come into the public domain gave me the incentive to complete this project. With the film’s restoration, it should begin to make its way into the stream of available films. I hope this book prompts the interest of film buffs and film scholars alike, and acts as a companion work for those who have the opportunity to see the film.

I also wrote this book for another reason, because it is a book I would like to read about this or any film. Does it matter that The Street of Forgotten Men is a lesser film in the larger scheme of things, or in the history of film? No. Because, no film is an island.

* * *

Despite my longtime interest in Louise Brooks (and the impetus it gave me to write The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond), the actress is only a “minor character” in my new book. In the film itself, Brooks was a bit player, one of a number of uncredited actors who appear in the crowded barroom scenes. She was cast only after filming had begun, and plays the part of a moll, the female companion to a rather nasty criminal who pretends to be blind. And though she has a line (in the form of an intertitle), Brooks appears on screen for only a couple of minutes.

Despite her bit part and the fact she vamps through much of her time on screen, Brooks still made an impression, and even received something of a “review.” As I reveal in my book, an anonymous Los Angeles Times critic ended their write-up of the film by spotlighting the work of an unknown actor. It was the only publication to do so. The Times wrote, “And there was a little rowdy, obviously attached to the ‘blind’ man, who did some vital work during her few short scenes. She was not listed.”

Louise Brooks (standing left) in her sole scene in The Street of Forgotten Men.

My new book is really about the silent film era, as seen through the prism of a single film. It begs the question – how much can be found out about just one film? As it turns out, quite a lot – even if that film is nearly 100 years old. The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond runs 380 pages and includes everything but the kitchen sink.

When it was released in the summer of 1925, The Street of Forgotten Men was described as “strange” and “startling”. It centers on a gang of criminals, fraudulent beggars who pretend to be blind or have missing arms or legs in order to panhandle money from unaware passers-by. The film was considered realistic, a bit provocative, and was compared to earlier works of Lon Chaney. In fact, a number of newspaper critics likened Percy Marmont, the star of The Street of Forgotten Men, to Chaney in his ability to contort his body (and soul) in depicting his character, a hunched, ragged, one-armed beggar. His rival in the film, another beggar who pretends to be blind, was played by the now forgotten actor John Harrington; he was once described by a newspaper critic as “Chaneyesque”.

The Street of Forgotten Men was directed by Herbert Brenon, who is best known today for having directed the original versions of Peter Pan (1924), Beau Geste (1926), and The Great Gatsby (1926). The film was shot by Harold Rosson, one of the greatest of cinematographers whose credits include Gone with the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain and a dozen other recognized classics. And, it features a stellar cast (Marmont, Mary Brian, and Neil Hamilton – the latter was Police Commissioner Gordon in the old Batman TV series) which includes a future screen legend at the beginning of her career (Brooks).

In the course of my research, I managed to dig-up all manner of things, from pre-production notes on the characters penned by the person who adapted the short story the film was based on to the scenario, newspaper reports from the set, production stills, censorship records, a French fictionalization, and even a notice of the film’s last known public screening – at, of all places, a Y.M.C.A. in Shanghai, China in 1931 – six years after the film’s release and more than a few years into the sound era! Before DVDs and streaming, films sometimes had long, gnarly exhibition histories. I thoroughly survey that as well.

Exhibition practices – the where, when, and how films were shown, proved fascinating. One unusual screening I came across was the time the film was paired with Stereoscopik Luna-cy, one of the first 3D films. I wonder if the exhibitor thought both pictures were somehow strange and would make a good double-bill? I also found that The Street of Forgotten Men was shown in a handful of venues besides movie theaters – everywhere from churches to school auditoriums as well as boats. Yes, that’s right, boats at sea! One article I came across mentioned the fact that the United States Navy bought a print of the film to show sailors aboard naval vessels! I suppose that is today’s equivalent of showing a film aboard a cruise ship or airplane. During the silent era, films continued to play in theaters as long as there was demand. The Street of Forgotten Men remained in circulation in the United States for more than 3 years. And as already noted, it played abroad even longer.

Director Herbert Brenon inspects the bandaged arm of “Easy Money Charlie” (Percy Marmont), as actors Riley Hatch and John Harrington look on.

My book tells the story of the film in rich, historical detail. As The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond shows, this forgotten gem is exemplary of film making & film culture in the mid-1920s. Along with excerpts from numerous magazine and newspaper articles, there are dozens of images including rare production stills, location shots and promotional illustrations; my new book also features all manner of historical documents including the short story on which the film was based, the Paramount press sheet, newspaper advertisements from the United States and elsewhere around the world, as well as lobby cards, posters, and more.

My book includes multiple accounts of the making of the film – suggesting what it was like on the set of a silent film. There is also a comprehensive survey of the film’s various reviews – positive and negative, including one by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Carl Sandburg, another by a contributor to Weird Tales, and another by the radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who today is a candidate for sainthood. By the way, she liked the film a lot.

Besides Brooks, The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond newly reveals the identities of some of the film’s other bit players – a noted journalist, a future screenwriter, a soon to be famous actress, and a world champion boxer – which include accounts of their working on the film. (I was able to identify some of the uncredited actors through a frame-by-frame examination of images from the restoration. Screen captures also led me to identify location shots in New York City as well as a few of the props which dress various sets in the film.) My book also tells the story of Lassie’s role in The Street of Forgotten Men. No, not that Lassie, the first screen Lassie.

As the saying goes, silent films were never silent; I look at the music associated with this production – namely the music played on set, the music depicted in the film (including, coyly, the sheet music for Peter Pan), the music heard before the film was shown, and the music played to accompany the film itself which includes both the studio cue sheet as well as a rare alternative score described in a music trade journal from the time.

Notably, The Street of Forgotten Men had an unusually long afterlife… hence the and beyond in the book title. Not only did preachers of all stripes reference the film in sermons for more than a decade after its release, it was also once mentioned on the floor of the United States Congress and included in a series of articles which ran over the course of two years in a trade journal, Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. (The articles concerned an ongoing debate over which sorts of pictures theaters should program.) There is more….

Few film titles become a catchphrase, let alone a catchphrase which remained in use for half-a-century. I document the use the title within the “American Language,” and show how the phrase, although increasingly disassociated from the film itself, continued to resonate throughout American culture. From Dorothy Day to Pal Joey novelist John O’Hara, from TIME magazine to B.A. Botkin’s classic New York City Folklore, my book documents the ongoing use of this memorable catchphrase in cinema, sociology, humor, fiction, poetry, journalism, the visual arts, and even comics.

One of the strangest things I came across in my research was a 1926 New York Times article about an individual arrested for panhandling. The article, titled “Speakeasy Equips Beggars as Cripple,” suggests The Street of Forgotten Men had inspired criminal behavior similar to that depicted in the film! And then there was the wretched 1927 exploitation film, Street of Forgotten Women, which truth-be-told, has nothing to do with its near namesake except for its obvious indebtedness to the title of the earlier Brenon film. Besides that, the most curious thing I came across was a 1947 Captain Marvel comic titled “Captain Marvel and the Street of Forgotten Men,” which is set in the same stretch of the Bowery inhabited by the characters in the film I write about.

The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond features two forewords. One is by noted film preservationist Robert Byrne, whose 2022 restoration of The Street of Forgotten Men saved it from undeserving obscurity. The other, by acclaimed film historian and Academy Award honoree Kevin Brownlow, is an appreciation of Herbert Brenon which, in part, reveals little known details about the movie drawn from his correspondence with Louise Brooks.

In a way, The Street of Forgotten Men: From Story to Screen and Beyond is an act of cinematic and cultural archeology. I just kept on digging to find out what I could find out.

Thomas Gladysz launched the pioneering Louise Brooks Society website in 1995. He has assisted with the restoration of two of the actress’s films, provided audio commentary to the DVD releases of two others, mounted exhibits, written articles and books, and spoken on the actress for more than a quarter of a century. His previous book is Louise Brooks, the Persistent Star.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *