Having recently become single again I find myself unable to sleep. One of the things I do when I can’t sleep is watch movies on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Channel. I was lucky last night and caught a Lon Chaney Movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Chaney was an expert at makeup artistry since he did all his own makeup and really earned the title “Man of A Thousand Faces” One thing that impresses me to no end is his incredibly stylized movements to portray his emotions. Chaney had deaf parents so he was well versed the art of pantomime.
Unfortunately some of his performances are lost. The most popular lost film is probably “London After Midnight.” In the old days of film when a movie was distributed to theaters it was then sent back to the studio. They would lock the film in huge vaults. Old nitrate film use to be shot on incredibly flammable stock and once in a while the vaults would suffer fires and because people back then had no idea how to preserve film the things we do have from that bygone era are often in conditions that are sometimes unwatchable. Another big cause of film loss was the wholesale junking of film. Studios saw the films as having no commercial value so often they were simply destroyed to make room for other things in their vaults.
It’s a shame because if you go to Wikipedia there is a huge list of films that have become lost to us. Not that it is not without hope. They also have a large list of discovered films as well. For example, there was a “Frankenstein” from 1910 that a film collector had in his personal collection in the 50s not knowing what he had was a piece of film history. Or if you want an even better movie that is REALLY worth seeing check out “The Passion of Joan of Arc” this one had crappy prints available at the time but a pristine version was found in janitor’s closet in a Norwegian insane asylum. That is awesome.
Who knows, maybe some private collector has a mass of film he or she hasn’t gone through and somewhere some of these greats are just waiting for discovery. If so let’s hope we can find them in our life time. It’d be amazing to preserve these in the Library of Congress finally and get to work restoring and digitizing them so others can see them. Until then I guess we should appreciate the old ones we have and at least hope they are taking care of them.