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I was online the other day reading about Gloria Swanson when I came across a note that at the time of her death, she wanted to watch a particular movie she was in, but because it was a lost movie she couldn't. Of course, the wording stuck me as odd. Did she lose her copy? Couldn't she just borrow one? What did it mean that the movie was "lost?" Movies don't simply disappear? So I started researching it; turns out they do. There are laws now that every movie made must be put in at least two separate temperature-controlled safe spaces in order to combat this, but in the early film days there were no such rules. Because of the high flammability of film during the beginnings of cinema, a good deal of films would combust, causing massive fires and destroying whole archives of movies.
Before the laws in place to combat movie loss, not every movie was archived, but the ones that were didn't have as much chance of survival either. As it happens, an approximate 90 percent of films created from 1890-1930 are part of this "lost film" collection, meaning every single existent copy of them is either destroyed or...well, lost. Among these curiosities is one Batman fights Dracula, a Filipino film created (without permission from DC Comics) in 1967. I happen to own every Batman movie made, (and yes that includes Lego Batman) except apparently Batman fights Dracula. I can't help but wonder what weird world I would walk into watching this silly parody or if there will be some actor somewhere whose last request in life will be to watch this long forsaken movie only to learn it seems to have puttered out of existence along with a good deal of the silent films and early talkies.
Curiosity about this movie got me more interested and I continued to find out more information about any and every lost film I could. Turns out their are whole societies and groups dedicated to trying to track down copies of MIA movies. They call archives everywhere looking for them, scour garage sales, and buy up personal collections from older passing people in attempts to find and preserve these film treasures. They even have ranking systems for which films are most sought after. And every once in a while they succeed, a copy is found or fixed up enough that the movie can be considered found or partially recovered (the partially lost list of films seems to be almost bigger than the list of those completely missing). Metropolis (a 1927 German film) is among the list that had missing parts almost 80 years later rediscovered.
No director, filmmaker, or actress was exempt from the threat of movie loss in the earlier days of film. Works by Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and even C. B. DeMille lost films. Gloria Swanson (early actress noted for her talkies, Queen Kelly—a famously unfinished early film—and most prominently her portrayal of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard) Lon Chaney (known as the man of 1,000 faces, very prominent in the pre-talkie film scene) and Fatty Arbuckle (a once famous actor who got blacklisted due to a scandal) are among the more famous people to have lost their acts in the early days, but even today some films still fall through the cracks; a 1974 movie called, Catch My Soul was recently listed as lost. This strange indie musical was later retitled Santa Fe Satan and reportedly was recut to add extraneous religious material. It has now been listed as one of the most sought after American lost films. Among many silent films and Early talkies, the few newer films that manage to disappear seem to take on almost ridiculous importance. I have to question if these movies would ever have been famous had they not gone missing.
In the last few weeks I've found myself stopping at garage sales looking for film reels and checking my own collection for anything new. It has become part of my dream to discover a lost film if only for the joy of watching something new that no one else has seen in years. Still, I wonder how film would be different today if it's beginnings had been better protected. Would we still find the works of Charlie Chaplin as impressive if we knew the similar works of some other director? What would it be like to watch the Marx Brothers' only silent film? How many more faces would Lon Chaney have if we could see all his movies? Wouldn't Hollywood be different if we had a copy of the first Cleopatra movie? And what about Hollywood, the first movie made in Hollywood looking at the world of Hollywood. Would Sunset Boulevard be as famous as it is if we had this other movie first? Until these movies are found, I guess we'll never know.