Frenchman Serge Bromberg, saviour of more than 100,000 reels of old films, this week marked the 15th anniversary of a world-touring show with a difference – where he accompanies rescued silent movies on the piano.
A twice yearly Paris event, Retour de Flamme (Return of the Flame) has played New York’s MoMA and travels to India next February before going to Italy and the US for shows in San Francisco and New York.
“I like to say I ‘restore’ the spectator,” he said in an interview. “I bring old movies up-to-date with a presentation and a specially-written musical score, to bring the films alive.
Bromberg’s company Lobster Films, set up two decades ago with fellow film addict Eric Lange, has saved from destruction movies dating as far back as 1895, including film’s first movie with sound – Charlie Chaplin’s first 1914 movie “Twenty Minutes of Love” – and the first movies shot in Palestine (1897) as well as the only Marx Brothers shot in colour.
In the first 50 years of cinema, films were recorded on nitrate stocks, which is inflammable and decays. As no-one had thought at the time of preserving film, much of movie history was lost.
“I pick up films all year, with 99 percent unviewable but there’s always one which is extraordinary and which I want to share,” said the 46-year-old film buff.
On DVD now is 1912 footage of the Titanic before it went down, and a 1931 burlesque titled Stolen Jools, featuring Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
“Fifty percent of the films shot before World War II have been lost,” he added.
Among recently saved treasures are 15 hours of rushes from a 1964 drama featuring the late Romy Schneider and directed by Henri-George Clouzot. The film was never completed and the rushes had been kept at home by Clouzot’s widow Ines.
Another of his 2007 finds is “Bardelys the magnificent” (1926) by King Vidor, starring John Gilbert.
So it’s true, Bardelys the Magnificent has been found, and of course it would be Lobster who found it. All power to them, and three cheers to all film archivists able to accompany their restorations of silent films on the piano. It ought to be a compulsory part of the job.