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15 historically significant 'lost' films


You won't find any of these classic selections on Netflix, unfortunately...

Emil Jannings in The Patriot

Today's generation is surrounded by technology. Rapidly-advancing tools of all sorts are so prevalent in every aspect of our lives that we depend on them, nay, expect them to make our lives easier, more enjoyable, and more interesting. Multi-billion dollar industries such as cinema are in no way immune from the public's desire for bigger and better things. Moviegoers have the options of watching films in a variety of locales, in IMAX or 3D, via regular projection screens or the latest in digital picture. For those who prefer to stay close to home, the options multiply. Satellite TV, cable TV, Redbox, a widespread availability of DVDs, and even the disappearing neighborhood rental store all combine to contain every movie that the discerning film aficionado could ever hope to watch, available at the push of a button or a short drive up the street.

Well... almost every movie. It may seem hard to believe to the casual movie buff amidst the contemporary glut of cinematic choices, but there is an enormous number of films, largely from the silent era and soon afterward, that are deemed "lost". Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that roughly 80 percent of pre-1930 movies have vanished with little to no trace. These films are simply gone. No prints or reels are known to exist, whether through reasons accidental (the nitrate in old film stock was extremely flammable) or purposeful (many studios saw no value in silent era films and simply discarded them to make space). Lobby cards, stills, or other fragmented bits of memorabilia may remain in collections, but it is impossible to actually see the accompanying films. To be sure, many productions of this stripe were 'starter' films of sorts, of little historical value or interest. But some of them, for one reason or another, encompass significant moments in film history. Here are 15 such instances, in chronological order, where intriguing films of note have vanished and may never be seen again.

1. Saved From the Titanic (1912)

Saved From the Titanic

Barely a month after the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April of 1912, the first film adaptation of the disaster was released in the form of Saved From the Titanic, a 10 minute silent short. The film starred Dorothy Gibson, an actual survivor of the luxury liner's sinking, who was purported to be clad in the same dress that she was wearing on that fateful day. Also significant was the use of Kinemacolor in two scenes, the movie industry's first attempt at film colorization. Two years later, the film's distributor, Eclair Studios, suffered a fire and all known prints of Saved From the Titanic were destroyed. No new prints have been discovered in the 97 years since the Eclair fire and only a small collection of posters and production stills remain.

2. The Werewolf (1913)

The moon - a werewolf's infamous trigger

Directed by Henry MacRae, best known for later helming the legendary Flash Gordon serials in the 1930s and 1940s, The Werewolf was based on Henri Beaugrand's novel The Werewolves and was the first movie ever to feature the eponymous classic horror character. The silent 18-minute short was released by Universal Studios and featured an actual wolf for scenes that required the main character's transformation from human to werewolf. As with Saved From the Titanic, all prints and negatives of The Werewolf are thought to have been lost in a fire in 1924. No memorabilia of any kind related to its release is known to be in existence.

3. The Life of General Villa (1914)

Pancho Villa

While fighting the Mexican Revolution and with funds running low, famous revolutionary Pancho Villa signed a contract with Mutual Film Company to film this biographical action-drama in return for an influx of desperately needed cash. The movie contained both staged action scenes along with surreptitiously-shot sequences of actual battles between Villa's Constitutionalist Army of Mexico and soldiers of would-be dictator Victoriano Huerta. The production starred Pancho Villa as himself, along with a young Raoul Walsh, who would later become one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Two years after The Life of General Villa, Mutual Film would sign Charlie Chaplin, making him the highest-paid actor in cinema. The 105-minute silent film is lost for unknown reasons, with only publicity stills and brief unedited segments of the movie existing in private collections.

4. A Study in Scarlet (1914)

A Study in Scarlet

Based on the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel, A Study in Scarlet was the first British film to feature Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen. It was also the first movie directed by prolific director George Pearson, OBE, the innovator of the moving camera shot. Producer G.B. Samuelson, British film pioneer and founder of Southall Studios, hired James Bragington to portray Holmes purely on the basis of his resemblance to the traditional Holmes "look". Bragington had no acting experience and never acted again after Scarlet. The film has not been proven to have ever been shown after its initial release and its reels are suspected to have been recycled for their precious metals for use in Great Britain's war efforts at the outbreak of World War I. Only production stills have survived to the present day.

5. The Fall of a Nation (1916)

Victor Herbert, composer for The Fall of a Nation

The Fall of a Nation is the sequel to D.W. Griffith's infamous and controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, thus making it the first-ever sequel in movie history. In another first, composer Victor Herbert wrote a score specifically for the production, making it the first known original symphonic soundtrack for a feature film. Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., co-writer of The Birth of a Nation and author of its original source, wrote and directed this follow-up, which was again based on his novel. While Birth uncomfortably lauded the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan, Fall attacked pacifism and America's anti-war movement during WWI, warning of a possible European invasion of the United States. Dixon founded Dixon Studios to advertise and distribute his pet project, but the movie was a critical and commercial flop and Dixon Studios folded soon after. Like so many other lost films, nothing is thought to remain of this notable production.

6. Humor Risk (1921)

Early Marx family (l to r): Groucho, Gummo, mother Minnie, Zeppo, father Frenchy, Chico, and Harpo

Premiered to select small audiences but never widely released, Humor Risk was the first film to ever feature the four Marx Brothers together. Little is known for certain about the movie's plot, but it is thought to have been a slapstick comedy in the vein of other silent comedies of the era. The Marx Brothers' patented personas were not yet in place in Humor Risk. Instead, Groucho is generally claimed to have played the piece's villain, with Chico as his henchman, while Zeppo played a nightclub owner and Harpo was the 'hero', as a detective named Watson. So little is known about the short that the identity of its leading lady has been called into question and hotly debated, with Jobyna Ralston, Mildred Davis, and Helen Kane all having claimed to have been the requisite damsel in distress. What is certain is that no copy of the movie has been found since its early screenings, the two leading explanations being either that the reel was accidentally misplaced or that Groucho purposely destroyed it because of his displeasure at the final outcome. In what was perhaps a telling moment regarding its disappearance, Groucho was asked pointedly about Humor Risk during an interview many years later. When prodded about the film and its ultimate fate, the master of wit dismissively replied, "Forget about that one".

7. Drakula Halala aka Dracula's Death (1921)

Dracula's Death (Drakula Halala)

Widely searched for by horror fanatics, Drakula Halala is a Hungarian silent film and the first ever to show Count Dracula on the big screen. Although German masterpiece Nosferatu was thought to have been shown earlier, as its 1922 release date predates Drakula Halala's generally-accepted exhibition year of 1923, recent research indicates that the Hungarian offering was actually debuted first, in 1921. Regardless of the date, horror buffs may recall that, due to trademark disputes with Bram Stoker's widow, Nosferatu's producers were forced to change the name of its antagonist from Count Dracula to Count Orlok. So whether Drakula Halala or Nosferatu was truly first, what is indisputable is that the former was the first in movie history to successfully use the Dracula name.

Why it was able to fly under the radar of legal action is unknown, but its small scale and inferior production values to Nosferatu most likely led to its more prominent cousin attracting the widow Stoker's attention. Unfortunately, while Nosferatu is universally beloved and appreciated by contemporary critics and fans, Drakula Halala is lost and nearly forgotten. The only piece of proven Drakula Halala memorabilia is the above still.

8. Hollywood (1923)

Hollywood (1923)

Hollywood was a silent comedy released by Paramount Pictures, directed by James Cruze, and starring Hope Drown as a hopeful actress who travels to California to chase her dreams, with George K. Arthur as her tag-along grandfather. Its unknown stars and near-unknown plot would have likely relegated the film to little more than run-of-the-mill status in the annals of Tinseltown history if not for its incredible array of famous cameos. Although Drown never acted again, she was onscreen with over 40 of the biggest cinematic icons of the Silent Era in Hollywood, including 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Astor, Mary & Jack Pickford, Will Rogers, and Gloria Swanson. Despite its amazing star power, only movie posters and lobby cards are known to exist of this fascinating film.

9. Who is the Man? (1924)

John Gielgud in Who is the Man?

Who is the Man? was a silent drama piece based on Louis Verneuil's successful theater production Daniel. It follows a 'love triangle' formula where the young man and main character, Daniel, falls in love with a woman, Genevieve, who spurns his advances and eventually marries his brother, Albert. At the climax of the story, Albert mistakenly believes that his wife has fallen in love with Daniel when, in fact, Genevieve has fallen in love with a third man named Maurice. Albert savagely attacks Daniel, who eventually dies of his injuries, while pleading with Albert to renounce his violent ways and allow Genevieve to be with her true love, Maurice. Slightly convoluted and extremely rote for the silent melodramas of its time, as well as suffering from the difficulty of translating a wordy theatrical play to a silent film, Who is the Man? is instead notable for including the very first on-screen appearance of acclaimed English actor John Gielgud, as well as serving as his only silent role. The 60-minute feature is listed on the British Film Institute's list of '75 Most Wanted' lost British films.

10. The Mountain Eagle (1927)

A young Alfred Hitchcock shoots 'The Mountain Eagle'

One of two movies that are generally accepted to be the 'Holy Grails' of lost films, The Mountain Eagle is the only missing production in Alfred Hitchcock's extensive catalog and starred Nita Naldi and Malcolm Keen. It was the second movie that Hitchcock directed, was distributed by the UK's Gainsborough Pictures, and cast and crew infamously endured constant weather problems during filming in Austria. In later years, Hitchcock derided The Mountain Eagle as "awful", "ridiculous", and a melodramatic bore, even going so far as to comment that he was "not sorry" that no surviving prints of the picture could be found. Reviews at the time seem to generally agree with Hitchcock's assessment of the film, although many lauded its "brilliant" direction, foreshadowing the master of suspense's upcoming success. A modest furor of excitement in the film community was caused when a single lobby card from a United States showing was found at a flea market in Massachusetts, but apart from that and some production stills, nothing related to the picture exists in any established collection.

11. The Way of All Flesh (1927)

The Way of All Flesh

Over a decade before directing such classics as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, epic film auteur Victor Fleming helmed dozens of somewhat lesser-known selections, including 1927's The Way of All Flesh, starring German movie star Emil Jannings. A happy family man and bank clerk, Jannings' character August Schiller is robbed and left for dead by a blond seductress and her hired goon, while delivering a briefcase containing bank securities. Presumed dead, Schiller wanders the streets, avoiding his family for fear that they will be targeted by the people who tried to murder him if he comes out of hiding. As the years go by, Schiller is doomed to watch his family from afar, never to rejoin them as beloved father and husband.

During the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1927, Jannings was awarded the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in The Way of All Flesh. Subsequently, all copies of the film were eventually lost, making it the only Academy Award-winning movie to be entirely absent from all confirmed public and private collections.

12. London After Midnight (1927)

Lon Chaney in London After Midnight

The second of the two aforementioned cinematic 'Holy Grails', London After Midnight is arguably the most sought-after lost film today. The film was a mystery-horror silent feature released by MGM, starring the incomparable Lon Chaney. It is also notable as director Tod Browning's first foray into the vampire genre and preceded his immortal Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, by four years. Furthermore, the picture was one of 10 collaborations between Browning and Chaney and was one of Chaney's last feature films before his death in 1930. Although not necessarily considered to be the best Browning/Chaney picture, it was their highest-grossing effort. The official MGM print and negatives survived for 40 years in MGM's film vaults, until the infamous MGM vault fire of 1967, which consumed many MGM classics and can be briefly read about here. In 2002, an abbreviated restoration was created from the script and surviving stills, which was given a warm reception by genre fans. However, no original reels have been discovered since the original's destruction in 1967.

13. The Patriot (1928)

The Patriot

Directed by three-time Academy Award nominee Ernst Lubitsch (who also produced and edited), The Patriot was a silent semi-biographical period piece about Czar Paul I, again featuring Emil Jannings (#11). It co-starred Lewis Stone, Florence Vidor (ex-wife of famed director King Vidor), and Neil Hamilton (who Batman fans might recognize for his stint as Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s Batman television series), and had an enormous budget of over $1 million. Achieving widespread critical success, the film was nominated for five Oscars, including Lewis Stone for Best Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Director, Best Picture, and winning for Best Writing Achievement. It also holds the distinction for being the last silent film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Undoubtedly the most critically-praised and awarded lost film ever, only minor fragments of The Patriot remain, making it the only Best Picture Oscar nominee not to exist in a complete form.

14. Murder at Monte Carlo (1934)

Errol Flynn (r) in Murder at Monte Carlo

Before he was one of the world's most popular movie stars, Errol Flynn starred in this unassuming 70-minute feature for Warner Brothers' British subsidiary Teddington Studios. Immigrating to England from Australia, Flynn first performed at Northampton's Royal Theater and London's West End in the early 1930s before trying his hand at film. In Murder at Monte Carlo, Flynn played an enterprising journalist looking to make a scoop out of the death of a famous mathematician at, you guessed it, Monte Carlo. Reviews were middling, but Flynn's talent and potential was noticed by an American WB representative. The studio immediately sent him to Hollywood, where he was featured in Captain Blood the next year, his breakthrough role. Three years later, Flynn achieved cinematic immortality as the star of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The movie that started it all, though, has apparently been lost to history.

15. The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935)

The Public Life of Henry the Ninth

The Public Life of Henry the Ninth stars Leonard Henry as Henry Henry, a street musician who is hired as potman (glass collector) at local pub Henry the Eighth, and immediately goes about livening up the atmosphere. Eventually he holds a benefit for a child who is injured in front of the pub and is discovered by a theatrical manager and given a contract. The feature was 60 minutes long, directed by Bernard Mainwaring, and distributed through a partnership between MGM and William Hinds' new production company. The name of the company? Hammer Productions. That's right - the Hammer Productions. The Public Life of Henry the Ninth was the first movie ever created by the fabled British source of "Hammer Horror" that took root in the 1950s. Although Hammer eventually found its famous niche, with its take on everything from Frankenstein to The Mummy, its origins were in straightforward 'everyman' films such as Henry the Ninth. Sadly, only a press book and a small number of stills exist from Hammer's low-key debut.

Sad stories all. Fifteen whisperings of films gone to the mists of time, with hundreds other lesser-known works also in the shadows. But there is one thing that gives hope to cinema fans like you and me - no film could ever be proven to be lost forever. Just as dusty Picassos are still espied in attics and copies of the Declaration of Independence found hidden behind picture frames at yard sales, there is still the dream that these and other presumably 'lost' films may once again be unearthed one day. So check your basement or your attic, or your parents' attic, or your grandparents'. Be on the lookout at estate sales or thrift stores. These films could be out there. The chance will always exist that a find of unimaginable proportions is under a pile of trinkets in the dingy corner of a nondescript crawl space, just waiting to be discovered. Know what you're looking for, and that discoverer could be you.

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#1 Too bad they are gone. suzyq 2011-01-23 02:58
It's too bad these movies with historical significance are either gone or lost. It would be great if any were found some day.
Unfortunately this has happened to a lot of older movies. I think for the really early movies people didn't realize how important they might be some day. Too bad that many more were lost to fires or deterioration. It's great that efforts are being made to restore a lot of the older movie copies that are still around. Hopefully more money will be made available to continue with this effort to restore many more of these classic treasures.
A pet peeve of mine is the lack of variety of good movies shown on cable/satellite TV today. With so many channels to choose from, it seems like they play a lot of the same B movies over and over. What happened to the vast variety of good movies that have been made over the years? Why can't they be shown? I suppose it's an issue of paying for the rights to them, but it gets pretty old after a while when even the premium channels only play a few of the newer good releases or classic great movies and rehash the same B movies over and over. I think it's time for the movie channels & cable/satellite providers to fork over some of the money we keep paying them for their overpriced services and use it to pay for more rights to show more varied and better movies. It seems a lot of the better movies are being shown on the commercial channels than the premium channels, but I pay good money to not have to watch commercials or pay extra for TIVO type services.
It would be great if there was a VAST LIBRARY of good movies to choose from on Cable/Satellite TV in an on-demand format. I know you can rent or buy movies on i-tunes for Apple TV or Netflix, etc., but I already pay enough for cable and think it's time they spend more money on GOOD movies and less on "Reality TV" that is worthless, mind numbing and a waste of time. It would be pretty nice if you could choose only the channels you want to pay for and make your own personal mix of channels...
So there, I've had my rant! I don't think it will change anything, but it's just my opinion. I guess if there were enough people who felt the same way maybe consumer choice would become a reality some day.....
#2 A few more 'Holy Grail" lost films Bruce Calvert 2011-01-23 15:05
Any list that calls attention to lost films that were probably classics, and at least would have been fascinating to watch is great. I'd have to add a few more that film historians really miss:

CLEOPATRA (1917) with Theda Bara
HATS OFF (1927) with Laurel & Hardy
CONVENTION CITY with Joan Blondell, a Warner Brothers Pre-code film
#3 Dracula stuff Jacob 2013-05-13 23:31
The first dracula movie was Drakula. It's a russian silent horror film released in 1920. All copies were destroyed because of copyright infringement.
#4 Modern Lost Films Zsimonidis 2013-09-09 05:05
These articles tend to focus on the lost films of the silent/early talkie eras. There are plenty of lost films, mainly genre pictures, that remain to be discovered. A prime example is Mortal Remains by the late Karl Atticus, a filmmaker from Baltimore, Maryland. It was destroyed during a riot which broke out at the theater where it premiered. No other prints of that film are available today.
Other such modern day lost films include Fred Hobbs's Troika (1969) and Nizet's Voodoo Heartbeat (1972). Lost to history, waiting to be relocated by dedicated archivists...
#5 El Apostol (1917) Rajko, Croatia 2015-03-09 07:14
A great list, although an extremely significant film was not mentioned at all - Quirino Cristiani's El Apostol (1917), the first feature-length animated film, made in Argentina, preceding Snow White by 20 years. In my opinion this loss is more important than any of the above mentioned selection.
#6 There's always hope. Meg 2015-04-05 04:50
They just located the long lost William Gillette Sherlock Holmes...which in addition to its signifignance to Holmes fans, was the only film Gillette, a great stage actor, ever made.

I remember the thrill of seeing the both restored Napoleon and A Star is Born in the theatre in the 80's. Not quite lost films, but certainly butchered ones. So film fans can always hope for more lucky finds.
#7 Re: Dracula (1920) zombi2 2015-04-27 23:26
Quoting Jacob:
The first dracula movie was Drakula. It's a russian silent horror film released in 1920. All copies were destroyed because of copyright infringement.

That film is a myth/hoax. It never existed.
#8 there's always hope Meg Hammil 2015-06-21 08:46
Last Years discovery of the long lost William Gillette Sherlock Holmes (the first Holmes feature and the only film this stage legend ever made) is a reminder that every once in a while we lucky.

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