Wanted by the BFI

The First Men in the Moon (1919), from http://www.bfi.org.uk/mostwanted

In 1992 the BFI launched Missing Believed Lost. It was a campaign to raise awareness of Britain’s lost film heritage, and the work of the National Film Archive. A handsome book of the same title was published, edited by Allen Eyles and David Meeker, which listed 100 lost British feature films that the Archive was seeking in particular. In some cases they were being a tad disingenuous, because the Archive was fairly confident that prints existed out there somewhere and hoped to lure them out of the hands of collectors into national safekeeping.

The project was successful. A number of films were uncovered, including several early works by director Michael Powell, while among the few silents that the book listed one complete example and parts of others from the Ultus serials have turned up, plus the Walter Forde feature What Next? and the Ivor Novello-Mabel Poulton feature The Constant Nymph – all three can be seen at the BFI Southbank this August.

Eighteen years on, and to mark its seventy-fifth anniversary, the BFI National Archive is launching another lost film project, entitled Most Wanted. This time it has narrowed their target list to 75 (neatly enough) and demonstrated how changing tastes have altered to a degree what we now consider most precious among lost films. The original Missing Believed Lost stopped in 1945, with the still-missing Flight from Folly. The new list delves enthusiastically into exploitation films from the 1960s and 70s, and amazingly ends with a title as recent as 1983 ( Where is Parsifal? starring Tony Curtis and Orson Welles). The original book was mean when it came to silents, listing just ten. The new list reflects a greater respect for Britain’s silent film heritage, with twenty titles (interestingly, one title from the original book, the 1916 She, is not included in the new list, while all the other silents are).

Things have moved on in other ways since 1992. Now we have the Internet, and the BFI has gone to town in a most impressive way, produced a micro-site for the Most Wanted project, with impressively researched accounts of each film, including credits, synopses, reasons for its importance, and notes on when the film was last known to be seen. Each is richly illustrated with some evocative stills, but – naturally enough – not by clips…

Here’s the list of twenty lost silents, with short descriptions taken from the BFI site (those marked with an asterisk were selected for the 1992 book):

The Adventures of Mr Pickwick (1921 d. Thomas Bentley)
Silent version of Dickens’ breakthrough novel, directed by one of the writer’s most prolific screen adapters.

The Amazing Quest of Mr Ernest Bliss (1920 d. Henry Edwards)
A much acclaimed mini-serial showcasing the talents of Henry Edwards and Chrissie White, both major contributors to the success of the Hepworth production company.

The Arcadians (1927 d. Victor Saville)
Victor Saville’s solo directorial debut: a silent adaptation of the stage musical. ‘Pastoral masterpiece’ or woeful mistake?

The Crooked Billet (1929 d. Adrian Brunel)
One of the last films made by Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough studios before sound took over from silent cinema.

The First Men in the Moon (1919 d. J.L.V. Leigh)
The first screen adaptation of a novel by the influential British author H.G. Wells, and an early example of British science fiction cinema.

The Last Post (1929 d. Dinah Shurey)
A patriotic war picture from the only woman feature film director working in Britain at the end of the 1920s.

Lily of the Alley (1924 d. Henry Edwards) *
An experiment in film form that may be the first [British] silent fiction feature ever made without intertitles.

London (1926 d. Herbert Wilcox)
The adventure of a girl of the slums who is adopted by a titled lady but eventually marries an artist.

Love, Life and Laughter (1923 d. George Pearson) *
According to contemporary reports, a genuine lost classic: the struggle of an impoverished author and a little chorus girl against the odds of the world.

Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1926 d. Maurice Elvey)
Based on a popular trench song of the First World War, the film tells the story of a patriotic French woman who falls in love with a British soldier and feeds misinformation to the Germans. [Around half the film survives at the BFI National Archive]

Maria Martin or The Mystery of the Red Barn (1913 d. Maurice Elvey)
Film adaptation of a play about the notorious Victorian murder at Polstead in Suffolk in 1826. As the contemporary publicity put it, “A box office magnet on its title alone”.

Milestones (1916 d. Thomas Bentley) *
Family epic charting several generations of shipbuilders who are radical in youth but become conservative in later life.

The Mountain Eagle (1926 d. Alfred Hitchcock) *
Hitchcock’s second film and the only one of his 57 films as director to be lost: a Kentucky-set mountain melodrama of lust, injustice and social stigma.

The Narrow Valley (1921 d. Cecil Hepworth)
A young couple find romance amidst a narrow-minded valley community.

Reveille (1923 d. George Pearson) *
A story of the hectic, forced gaiety at the end of the First World War and the disillusionment which came to many soon after. [Note to the BFI – a short sequence from Reveille does survive somewhere (the famous ‘two-minutes’ silence’) and was shown on BBC2’s The Late Show 30 September 1992 in a programme on the Missing Believed Lost project]

The Story of the Flag (1927 d. Anson Dyer)
Britain’s first “full-length animated feature film” by the country’s most successful pre-war cartoon filmmaker, Anson Dyer.

A Study in Scarlet (1914 d. George Pearson) *
Murder, betrayal and revenge in an ambitious early adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story.

Tip Toes (1928 d. Herbert Wilcox)
Three penniless music hall artistes take a suite at a fancy hotel, where the girl pretends to be an heiress in pursuit of an English Lord.

Who is the Man? (1924 d. Walter Summers)
Romantic melodrama that featured John Gielgud’s screen debut.

Woman to Woman (1923 d. Graham Cutts)
A British officer and a French dancer meet during the war, but are parted by accident, only to be reunited just before her death.

That’s a well-chosen list, with a number of titles that would be certain to be recognised as classics were they to re-emerge, even at this distance of time.

And what’s missing from this list of what’s missing? Well, one could go on and on and on, since hundreds of British silents are missing (no one had ever counted exactly how many). However, the Bioscope will indulge itself just a little by listing another twenty-five to bring it up to a missing 100 (including some non-fiction titles, which the BFI’s list excludes). The BFI would certainly rejoice if anyone of these turned up as well.

  • Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1895) [probably the first commercial British film]
  • The Mesmerist; or, Body and Soul (1898) [former spiritualist G.A. Smith makes a trick film about spiritualism]
  • Dan Leno’s Cricket Match (1900) [The Victorian era’s greatest comic performer captured on film]
  • The Macedonian Atrocities (1903) [documentary series filmed by C. Rider Noble]
  • Robbery of the Mail Coach (1903) [pioneering multi-scene drama made by Sheffield Photo Co.]
  • Voyage to New York (1904) [40-minute travelogue made by Charles Urban]
  • The Empire of the Ants (1906) [innovative anthromorphism from wildlife filmmaker Percy Smith]
  • Henry VIII (1911) [every print of this Shakespeare drama made by Will Barker was supposedly burned in a bizzare publicity stunt]
  • Hamlet (1912) [Will Barker film in which the actress to play Ophelia was famously recruited because she could swim]
  • With our King and Queen Through India (1912) [around ten minutes survive of this two-and-a-half-hour Kinemacolor spectacular account of the 1911 Delhi Durbar]
  • A Message from Mars (1913) [stagey but no doubt fascinating story of Martian who comes to earth with moral mission] [Update: This film exists! See comment]
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1914) [Britain’s first colour feature film]
  • A Welsh Singer (1915) [directed by Henry Edwards, probably Britain’s most accomplished director of the 1910s]
  • The Manxman (1916) [much-praised drama directed by George Loane Tucker]
  • Hindle Wakes (1918) [Maurice Elvey’s first attempt at the story he would triumphantly film again in 1927]
  • Kiddies in the Ruins (1918) [wartime poignancy from George Pearson]
  • Towards the Light (1918) [characteristic Henry Edwards-directed tearjerker]
  • Victory and Peace (1918) [part of one reel is all that survives of the propaganda epic directed by Herbert Brenon and starring Ellen Terry]
  • Jack, Sam and Pete (1919) [Ernest Trimmingham gives first leading performance from a black actor in British film]
  • The Land of Mystery (1920) [drama loosely based on life of Lenin, filmed in the USSR]
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1921) [adaptation of Hardy novel witnessed in production by Hardy himself]
  • Number 13 (1922) [unfinished Hitchcock short]
  • Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (1923) [directed by lost talent Graham Cutts, starred D.W. Griffith favourite Mae Marsh]
  • The Virgin Queen (1923) [filmed in Prizmacolor and starring socialite Lady Diana Manners]
  • The Ball of Fortune (1926) [football drama with legendary Billy Meredith – the BFI holds a trailer for the film]

No doubt you can name your own (and please do).

At the same time the BFI has launched Rescue the Hitchcock 9, calling for funds to help preserve the nine silent Hitchcock feature films that do survive. You can donate here. See also the Bioscope’s silent Hitchcock filmography and the cod review of The Mountain Eagle in 2008’s Bioscope Festival of Lost Films.

Finally, and by way of a sort of obituary, the BFI’s notes for The Arcadians state that “An incomplete and deteriorating nitrate print (from a private collector?) was apparently viewed prior to July 2008 by independent film scholar F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.” Last week it was announced that science-fiction writer and prodigious Internet Movie Database film reviewer F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre had apparently committed suicide by setting fire to his New York flat. It’s a sad end for one whose comments on silent film forums and the IMDb have greatly enlivened debate, even as they sowed the seeds of confusion. Macintyre was fond of spinning tales about his supposed exclusive access to a private collection of films which he would describe, one by one, in passionate detail. Macintyre was knowledgeable about film (particularly silent film), and had some descriptive skill, but he drew no distinction between truth and fantasy, and in the case of The Arcadians – as with so many other lost films he reviewed on IMDb – he is merely telling tales, and no more saw the film than you or I. He remained a writer of fiction to the end.

5 responses

  1. It ill behoves one to speak ill of the dead (nil nisi, etc.) but his imbd reviews managed to irritate me to the point where I blocked his posts. Now I can see why.

    RIP, I suppose.

    Albert

  2. Always RIP. He seems to have been someone with a troubled background who found comfort in fantasy, craving attention while seeking out obscurity. His collected writings, to be found all over the web, might make an interesting collection, but his proper legacy would be to have them where they are, misleading people into eternity.

  3. John Oliver, BFI Curator, has the happy news for me that the BFI has an incomplete tinted copy of A Message from Mars (1913), one of my personal ‘lost’ 25. Unfortunately reel 3 has suffered complete loss owing to nitrate deterioration, but MOMA also holds a tinted print, though probably not complete itself.

  4. Pingback: Looking back on 2010 « The Bioscope

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