Day 558: An Evening’s Worth Of Lost Film

originally published July 11, 2013

Throughout my years of paying an exorbitant amount of money to study the history of film, I was often told of films that had been lost to the ages for whatever reason. Georges Méliès, the first man to play around with film as an art form, had a lot of his original films confiscated during WWI and melted down to make army boots. Old nitrate film stock was highly flammable and prone to deterioration. Sometimes the prints of movies just got lost.

The rediscovery and restoration of vintage film is fascinating work. Fritz Lang’s revered silent film Metropolis has seen rediscovered and reassembled in chunks over time, providing a new experience every time I’ve watched it. Every so often a new Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle short film gets unearthed in a stash found in Norway or France.

Rarely do these films turn out to be cinematic gems, more brilliant than their never-lost counterparts. But they are history – and sometimes weird history. Take, for example, Santo Gold’s Blood Circus.

This is a fairly typical formula flick for the mid 80’s – aliens from the planet Zoran show up to do battle with a bunch of professional wrestlers, who wind up eating their foes once they’ve pinned them. The Shyamalan-esque twist is that the entire film was nothing more than a promotional vehicle for the producer’s jewelry store.

Santo Victor Rigatuso ran a mail-order jewelry business called ‘Santo’s Gold’, which was best known by Baltimore residents as filler programming on late-night infomercials. Rigatuso spent two million to produce and edit the movie himself – even appearing in one scene, singing a song (about his jewelry deals) before a wrestling match. No one would distribute the movie, so Rigatuso rented out a theatre and showed it for a week. He didn’t make back his investment.

Rumor has it the 35mm print of this movie has been found, but still no one wants to release it. Or see it.

As previously mentioned, many of the films of French filmmaker Georges Méliès have been lost forever. Among them was the uncleverly-titled Conjurer Making Ten Hats In Sixty Seconds. This was a simple display of a magician (Méliès) making hats appear. No editing protocols existed in 1896, so Georges simply stopped the camera, allowed someone to bring in a hat, then started it again. This was back when ‘movies’ consisted of a 30-second shot of a train arriving at a station (which actually made people scream in terror) or waves crashing on the beach. Georges Méliès was among the first to build a narrative, and to test the limits of the new medium.

His star was quick to burn out. First he battled with Thomas Edison’s attempts to lock down a monopoly on the movie business in the US. Then his partnership with Pathé Frères, who had been distributing his films, turned sour when Pathé tried to edit his work. That’s about when the French Army decided the silver and celluloid in the original prints of Méliès’ films was worth more as boot-heels for the war effort than as actual movies. Out of over 530 films he created, only about 200 still survive. Hollywood was a cruel, fickle bitch, even before she was located in Hollywood.

Before Leonardo DiCaprio there was Warner Baxter. Way back in 1926, the first attempt to translate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was put to film. Owen Davis had thrown together a stage version of the novel, which had been released only a year earlier, and Paramount Pictures was quick to swoop in on the name, knowing it would draw in the crowds. Warner Baxter, who would go on to win the second ever Best Actor Oscar three years later, was tapped for the main role.

Neil Hamilton, the man who four decades later would take on the should-have-been-award-winning role of Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV series, plays Nick, the part handed to Tobey Maguire in the 2013 remake. F. Scott Fitzgerald netted a cool $45,000 for the film rights to his book, but the movie didn’t make enough of an impact for anyone to think to toss a copy into storage. There’s a rumor that some mysterious archive in Moscow might have a print, but for now, only the trailer remains of this one.

Depending on who you ask, Lock Up Your Daughters is either a 1959 film that has been subsequently lost, or else it never actually existed. There is no record of the film ever being theatrically released, no press materials, and not even a snippet of the finished film, which allegedly stars one-time Franken-monster Bela Lugosi as a vampiric doctor who performs nasty experiments on young women. All we have as proof is a single review.

Kinematography Weekly, a British trade paper, printed a review of the film, indicating that much of the finished work was merely a compilation of some of Lugosi’s older films. Some people who claim to remember the film say Lugosi only appeared as a host, showing clips and even offering cash prizes to audience members who identified the film clips. According to the review, the British Board of Film Censors rated the movie ‘X’, possibly because it contained bits of Edward Wood’s cross-dressing drama, Glen Or Glenda.

There is no surviving copy of the 1929 lavish 80-minute musical film Happy Days, and to the world of film historians, this is a real tragedy. This was the first film in history to be shown exclusively in widescreen, in every theatre that showed it. There had been previous films with widescreen segments, but this was an all-out technical coup, not to mention foreshadowing the future of the industry by over twenty years.

The movie featured a number of the Fox Film Corporation’s biggest stars, including cowboy Will Rogers, Janet Graynor (the first woman to win the Best Actress Oscar), and a 12-year-old Betty Grable, making her first film appearance. In blackface. Ouch.

After lavish premieres at the Roxy Theater in New York and the Cathay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, Happy Days trickled quickly from the public eye. In between the film’s September, 1929 premiere and its official release the following February, the stock market crashed. Only a handful of theatres were willing to invest in the widescreen equipment to show the movie, and even then with fairly blasé reviews, there wasn’t much encouragement to do so.

We are lucky to live in an age when things can be preserved indefinitely with digital technology, meaning the music video to Vanity-6’s “Nasty Girl” will outlast even Youtube’s existence. It’s a shame it’s already too late to save some of these. I think the world is finally ready for a jewelry-ad-laden wrestlers-vs-aliens movie.

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