This article was originally published as the Introduction to A Blind Bargain by Philip J. Riley, MagicImage Books, 1988. It is reprinted here with permission of the author, who has updated the article as appropriate to include additional Chaney films discovered since the article was first written
Lost films are a fact of life among film enthusiasts, historians, and archivists alike. Hardly any actor or director who worked prior to 1930 can claim that all of his or her work is extant and in many cases, major portions of careers are lost. Greta Garbo's admirers bemoan the fact that all but a fragment of her silent feature THE DIVINE WOMAN is lost. Likewise, students of the Oscars cannot study Emil Jannings' award-winning performance in THE WAY OF ALL FLESH. Ernst Lubitsch's THE PATRIOT , F. W. Murnau's THE FOUR DEVILS, and Josef von Sternberg's THE CASE OF LENA SMITH have all met similar fates, victims of either neglect, carelessness, or nitrate decomposition. Even a few of D. W. Griffith's 457 Biograph shorts cannot be found in any film archive.
But pity the poor Lon Chaney scholar. The films of "The Man of 1,000 Faces" have not fared well at all over the years. Of Chaney's over 155 billed appearances, a mere 32 of his films exist in a more-or-less complete form. Another 9 exist minus a few reels, fragments of five more are extant. A total of 46 titles. Period. That leaves over 100 of his films that are completely missing.
Why are so many of Chaney's films missing when other artists are so well represented? The major enemy is the instability of nitrate film stock. Prior to the adoption of triacetate "safety" film in the late 40's, nearly all theatrical films were printed on nitrocellulose or "nitrate" film stock. Nitrate is a highly flammable and unstable film base which gradually deteriorates, resulting in a mottling of the image on the film, and ultimately leads to the formation of a highly explosive (and obviously unprojectable) mass of jelly. Studios were reluctant to pay storage charges for this highly dangerous film stock once a film had completed its theatrical run and many prints were junked. Even when prints or negatives were stored, the nitrate stock deteriorated with time, eventually resulting in cans of goo where a print once sat on a shelf.
Another reason for the relative dearth of Chaney films is related to the policies of the individual studios he worked for. While MGM (more than any other studio except for Disney) was preservation-minded for many years, other studios were a good deal less far-sighted. Few studios saw any potential future market for silent films, and hundreds of films were sent off for silver salvage or decomposed out of neglect. Fox let hundreds of their nitrate prints rot in the vaults and many Paramount silents suffered a similar fate. But Universal was the king of silent film neglect. Faced with increasing storage costs and no possible market for old film material, nearly the entire pre-1928 output of the studio (i.e., any film without a soundtrack) was destroyed for a few dollars in salvaged silver per reel. Hence, of Chaney's roughly 110 early films for Universal (excluding the much later OUTSIDE THE LAW, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, THE SHOCK, THE TRAP, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), only 13 exist in any form, and only 8 are complete.
So many of Chaney's key performances are missing, especially those done in his early years at Universal, that it is nearly impossible to study the development of his screen persona. If we could locate some lost films from which to judge Chaney's career, what would the list include? Certainly his first billed appearance, POOR JAKE'S DEMISE (1913, Universal/Imp), as well as his first makeup role, THE SEA URCHIN (1913, Universal/Powers). One of his early comedy roles such as AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS (1913, Universal/Nestor) would certainly be a curiosity, as would any of the films Chaney directed, including THE STOOL PIGEON, FOR CASH, THE OYSTER DREDGER, and others, all 1915 Universal/Victor releases. FATHER AND THE BOYS (1915, Universal/Broadway) and HELL MORGAN'S GIRL (1917, Universal/Bluebird) were pivotal films in Chaney's career and probably led to his establishment as a true star at Universal. THE KAISER, THE BEAST OF BERLIN (1918, Universal/Renowned) was a major success at the time and is on the American Film Institute's "Ten Most Wanted" list of lost films.
Of the films Chaney made after he left Universal, the survival rate is much better, but there are still many major films that are unavailable, including TREASURE ISLAND (1920, Paramount/Artcraft) which may be of greater interest for the stylish direction of Maurice Tourneur than for Chaney's appearance, and THE NEXT CORNER (1924, Paramount), which would be a real curiosity with Chaney very much out of character playing a fiery latin seducer. Likewise, ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (1923, Metro) should be a fascinating straight role for Chaney as a courageous brother of a whaling family. One of the most important lost films is Chaney's star-making role in THE MIRACLE MAN, although a brief clip does exist as part of a "Movie Milestones" series that Paramount issued in the 30's. These shorts contained clips from big Paramount hits of the silent era including BEAU GESTE and THE COVERED WAGON and the brief MIRACLE MAN sequence where crippled Chaney is "healed" by the fake preacher.
So what does exist? Not surprisingly, Chaney's two most famous roles, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), both Universal Super Jewel releases, are readily available, but even these are not entirely complete. Some footage is probably missing from HUNCHBACK, but the lack of a 1923 cutting continuity (a listing of every scene/title in a film that is used by editors to assemble the negative from the various pieces of film) makes it impossible to determine what, if anything, is missing. One famous still shows Chaney kneeling next to a chest, but the scene does not appear in the film. I had always assumed that this was merely a publicity still until I saw an actual clip of the sequence in part of a 1930's documentary on silent films. Universal Show-At-Home 16mm prints exist in the hands of collectors, but even these prints, though made up in the 20's and 30's, presumably from original printing materials, have running times less than that of the original release. Furthermore, there are apparently no surviving 35mm prints of HUNCHBACK.
Several sequences of PHANTOM were originally shot in the early two-color Technicolor process, but only the famous Bal Masque sequence remains. One striking scene with Chaney on the rooftop in black and white, with his cloak hand-painted in bright crimson exists only in b/w; however, a simulated computer-generated version was reconstructed in 1996. Studying PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is even more confusing due to the availability of several different versions. The film was reissued in 1929 with an added soundtrack that included redubbed dialogue sequences and an eerie prologue spoken by a man holding a lantern in the catacombs. All of the opera footage was restaged for this re-release, although no new Chaney footage was added. The soundtrack from this release is lost (perhaps fortunately!), but this version, containing the now mute man-with-a-lantern opening, is the most frequently shown print of the classic. The original and the reissue prints have probably been recut and combined over the years, making it nearly impossible to judge exactly what was released in 1925. The issue is further confused by the fact that current prints of the 1925 version have the ending from Rupert Julian's MERRY GO-ROUND spliced on at the end!
Much of Chaney's career would have been a complete mystery had he not gone to work for preservation-minded MGM in 1924. Of Chaney's 18 films for MGM, the majority have been preserved and beautiful 35mm prints are available. HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), THE MONSTER (1925; an independent Roland West production released by MGM), THE UNHOLY THREE (both the 1925 and 1930 versions), THE BLACKBIRD (1926), TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926), MR. WU (1927), THE UNKNOWN (1927), MOCKERY (1927), WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928), and WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929) all exist in essentially complete versions in the MGM library, now owned by Warner Brothers Classics. But even in this superb collection, some of the titles are relatively recent additions. The only known 35mm print of THE UNKNOWN resided at the Cinematheque Francaise for many years. When archivist Henri Langois was asked to ship the print to the U.S. so that a preservation negative could be made, it literally took years to find it amongst all the cans of unidentified titles marked "UNKNOWN."
WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1928) also resides in the MGM vaults, but portions of reels 6 and 7 are missing. Likewise LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928), the film that helped launch the career of 14-year old Loretta Young, is missing part of reel 4, as well as the alternate happy ending. In addition to their own films, MGM acquired many of the early silent titles from Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn Pictures. Included in this group are the Goldwyn releases THE PENALTY (1920) and ACE OF HEARTS (1921)...but sadly not A BLIND BARGAIN (1922), one of the most desireable of Chaney's works.
Even MGM lost several titles. LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) is the best publicized deficiency in the collection, but THE BIG CITY (1928) and THE TOWER OF LIES (1926) are also on the studio's lost film list. THUNDER (1929), Chaney's last silent film, is also lost, although a 40-second fragment was discovered in 1996. Even Tod Browning's THE ROAD TO MANDALAY (1926) existed in the studio vaults in only fragmentary form until the mid-1980's. I had heard of a few 9.5mm French prints of the elusive title available in Europe, and through a U.S. collector obtained a print. Pathescope released many licensed silent features and shorts throughout Europe in the 20's in the 9.5mm format. This peculiar gauge had nearly the same aperture size as a 16mm print due to the full-frame picture made possible by putting a sprocket hole in the middle of the frame line. When I first screened the print, it turned out to be a 35-minute abridgement of the original 7-reel version, but the continuity held up well. Unfortunately, a literal translation of the French titles back into English took all of the rather florid original language out of the movie. In one sequence, Chinaman Sojin backs down in a knife-fight with Chaney. In the French version, Chaney mutters "Lache," which translates to "Coward." The original title from the cutting continuity, "You ain't got the guts you yellow scum," has a bit more punch to it! For the restoration of ROAD TO MANDALAY, I had a 16mm negative optically printed from the 9.5mm print and new intertitles, taken from the original MGM cutting continuity, were typeset and photographed. A few bridging titles were added to improve the coherence of the abridgement and I cut the final negative together for the version that now resides in the Turner vaults.
Assorted other Chaney titles can be found in U.S. and foreign film archives. The Library of Congress holds the first two reels of the 3-reel A MOTHER'S ATONEMENT (1915, Universal/Rex) and essentially complete prints of THE SCARLET CAR (1917, Universal/Bluebird), VICTORY (1919, Paramount), and SHADOWS (1922, Preferred Pictures). The National Film Archives in London has DOLLY'S SCOOP (1916) and ALAS AND ALACK (1915), both Universal/Rex releases. The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York has a nitrate print of THE FALSE FACES (1919, Paramount/Ince), and a safety print is in the Warner Brothers Classics vaults. About half of THE GRASP OF GREED (1916, Universal/Blubird Photoplays) also exists at George Eastman House. A brief fragment of the 1920 Pathe serial DAREDEVIL JACK is at UCLA Film Archives, but does not contain any of Chaney's scenes. THE WICKED DARLING (1919, Universal/Special) is at the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Holland, and PAID IN ADVANCE (1919, Universal/Jewel) is in the Czechoslovakian Film Archive.
Some of the reported films in foreign archives have yet to be confirmed. A major role for Chaney was playing the villain in William S. Hart's RIDDLE GAWNE (1918, Wm. S. Hart Productions). Long believed lost, the film is listed on the FIAF list of silent film holdings for the former Soviet archive, Gosfilmofond in Russia; however, there are conflicting reports as to whether the film is complete, incomplete, or not there at all.
Some of Chaney's films exist through the most peculiar of circumstances. THE LIGHT IN THE DARK (1922, Hope Hampton Productions) was released by Associated First National but does not exist in a complete print. A Rhode Island film distributor specializing in religious subjects acquired the film in the mid-20's and re-edited it to a 3-reel short, retitled THE LIGHT OF FAITH, which emphasized a subplot involving the Holy Grail. Thankfully, state law required that films for schools and churches (the major market for that distributor) be printed on nonflammable safety stock. As an added bonus to being on safety stock, the print was multitinted, a common practice in the 20's but rarely seen in current prints of silent features. The films from this distributor were eventually acquired by the Rhode Island Historical Society who donated them to the American Film Institute.
Other Chaney titles can be found in the hands of private collectors. A British collector acquired a nitrate print of the one-reel BY THE SUN'S RAYS (1914, Universal/Nestor) and released prints in the Super-8mm collector gauge. Other collectors own fragments of THE GIFT SUPREME (1920, C. R. Macauley Photoplays) andTHE MILLIONAIRE PAUPERS (1915, Universal/Rex). THE TRAP (1922, Universal/Jewel) and FLESH AND BLOOD (1922, Irving Cummings Productions) were both available as home library prints in the 20's and a few prints have survived and been copied. THE SHOCK (1923, Universal/Jewel) and NOMADS OF THE NORTH (1920, Associated First National) were re-released in 16mm by Blackhawk Films, a company specializing in home collector and eductaional 16mm prints. Ironically, one of Chaney's earliest appearances survives in private collections: Lois Weber's 1913 Universal/Rex release, SUSPENSE, which has an unbilled Chaney on screen for about 10 seconds.
The most encouraging piece of news is the fact that lost films are still being found around the world, bringing hope that similar finds will continue. One major find in the mid-1970's was the 1922 OLIVER TWIST, an Associated First National release. Not only was the film of interest for Chaney's fascinating portrayal of Fagin, but young Jackie Coogan appeared as Oliver shortly after his success in Chaplin's THE KID. The film was found in Yugoslavia, with no intertitles. With assistance from Jackie Coogan (over 50 years after the filming!), appropriate intertitles were created by Blackhawk Films and the film was released to the home collecting market.
A Minnesota film collector received a call in the 1970's from a farmer that he had "some old cans of films in the barn that the kids like to play with," so he made a trip to investigate. Buried under all the chicken feathers was a nitrate print of Tod Browning's OUTSIDE THE LAW (1921) which he donated to the American Film Institute for preservation. The nitrate print was in excellent condition except for a few short scenes with extensive decomposition. Based on the principle that "when it rains it pours," a rare Universal Show-At-Home 16mm print was donated to the archive a few years later!
Perhaps the most bizarre film find in the history of film preservation occurred in the Canadian Yukon. In 1978, when an excavation for a new recreation center was begun in Dawson City, a bulldozer came up with a shovelful of reels of nitrate film. Dawson City used to be the end of the distribution line for many films, and the titles were stored at the local library until 1929 when the flammable nitrate was used as landfill in a condemned swimming pool. Stored for 50 years under the permafrost of the Yukon, the films turned out to be extremely well preserved, although sadly, many reels that had survived the years unscathed were damaged in thawing and show water marking on the edges. Included in this amazing treasure trove were films by Pearl White, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks...and Lon Chaney. Chaney made three films for Red Feather/Universal productions in 1916 and two of these were found amongst the frozen reels. The five-reel melodrama THE PLACE BEYOND THE WINDS was missing reel 1 but was otherwise complete. Reels 1 and 4 were missing from IF MY COUNTRY SHOULD CALL, also originally a five-reeler, but enough was there to follow the story and catch a glimpse of Chaney in a small role. These films are now housed at the Library of Congress.
One of the more recent Chaney finds is proof that films can literally turn up anywhere. When a Georgia family decided to rebuild their front porch in 1983, three metal cans were found under the steps. The contents turned out to be a nearly perfect, partially tinted copy of THE OUBLIETTE (1914), the first installment of a then-lavish Universal/101 Bison release with Murdoch MacQuarrie and Pauline Bush. Chaney appears only briefly in the second reel as the villain and is quickly dispatched by the hero. Using funds donated by the Society for Cinephiles, the film was promptly preserved by the American Film Institute.
Given the precarious condition of nitrate film, few finds of this nature can be expected for many more years into the future. Many archivists promote the slogan "Nitrate Can't Wait" which underscores the need to aggressively seek out old prints before they decompose. Still, titles do keep surfacing. In 1996, an elderly projectionist turned up with a nitrate print of WHEN BEARCAT WENT DRY (1919, C.R. Macauley Photoplays). Not to be outdone, the Nederlands Filmmuseum turned up a print as well! One might have almost predicted that this title would be one of the films to turn up. The period between 1918, when Chaney left Universal, until the mid-20's when he settled into his tenure at MGM, were marked by many independent productions for minor companies like Preferred Pictures and Irving Cummings Productions. Many of Chaney's prformances from this period exist. Much of the availability of these titles may be due to the fact that independent producers were much more lax about print control than the major studios. In addition, these films were generally kept in distribution longer and often sold to other distributors. It is not too surprising to find an Irving Cummings Production in someone's attic, but original release prints from MGM and Paramount rarely show up in private hands. If this hypothesis is true, then the likely films yet to be uncovered include A MAN'S COUNTRY (1919, Robertson-Cole), FOR THOSE WE LOVE (1921, Betty Compson Productions), BITS OF LIFE (1921, Associated First National), QUINCY ADAMS SAWYER (1922, Sawyer-Lubin Productions), and WHILE PARIS SLEEPS (1923, Maurice Tourneur Productions). The chances of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, A BLIND BARGAIN, TREASURE ISLAND, THE TOWER OF LIES, or THE BIG CITY turning up are much slimer.
Still, even studios do not always know what is in their vaults and one can hope for a startling discovery. As an example, prints of THE ANIMAL KINGDOM (1932) and HUMORESQUE (1920) were "found" in the Warner Brothers vaults recently, which proves that "lost" films can still show up exactly where they are supposed to be! An interesting point to note is that neither of these two films were made by Warners, but they were remade by the studio, and prints and negatives apparently came in the package when the studio bought the remake rights. If only Warner Brothers had bought the rights for a remake of A BLIND BARGAIN, we might have a print to look at today.
© 1988, 1996, 1998 Jon C. Mirsalis. All rights reserved.
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