In the past year, the cause of lost films received significant attention thanks to the discovery of long-missing U.S. silent films in New Zealand and Russia, plus the uncovering of one of cinema’s holiest grails: the director’s cut of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Of course, there are still many films that are missing and presumed to be lost forever – most notably London After Midnight and Orson Welles’ director cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. But there are many other films that may not be as famous, but which nonetheless represent significant gaps in the both the development of global cinema and in the artistic evolution of major filmmakers. Picking up where we left off in 2008, we present Film Threat’s Top 50 Lost Films of All Time, V2.0 – and if you have any leads regarding the whereabouts of the missing footage, please drop us a line!
1. Tokyo’s Ginza District (1898). Tsunekichi Shibata, who worked in the photography department of the Mitsukoshi department store, shot one of the earliest known examples of Japanese filmmaking with this brief glimpse of a Tokyo street scene.
2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for a Ransom (1905). Broadway matinee idol Maurice Costello played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in this one-reel adaptation of The Sign of Four. This was the first authorized film adaptation of a Conan Doyle story.
3. His Neighbor’s Wife (1913). Lily Langtry, the celebrated British actress (and mistress of King Edward VI), starred in this truncated version of her stage triumph. While Langtry was well past the prime of her legendary beauty by the time this film was made, this production nonetheless was the only time that her acting was captured on film.
4. One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints produced this film history lesson, which depicts the events that shaped the creation of the Mormon faith. The production was one of the earliest known examples of a religious organization using film for educational and promotional purposes.
5. The Life of General Villa (1914). Pancho Villa took time away from his Mexican Revolution to star in this seven-reel biopic. Authentic battle footage was mixed in with staged recreations of Villa’s life, and future director Raoul Walsh played Villa in flashback sequences that recalled his youth.
6. Olives and Their Oil (1914). This one-reel documentary on the creation of olive oil had an auspicious debut: it shared a split reel with the 1914 Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice, which introduced Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character.
7. Anna Karenina (1915). Tolstoy’s doomed lover went to Hollywood for the first time in J. Gordon Edwards’ adaptation, starring Betty Nansen as Anna and Richard Thornton as Prince Vronsky.8. Carmen (1915). Sex symbol Theda Bara played the sultry but treacherous Gypsy in this colorful production, which went into release directly against a rival Cecil B. DeMille version starring Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Ferrar (who became a silent movie star!). The DeMille-Ferrar version survives, but Bara’s version (along with the vast majority of her films) is lost.
9. The Spirit of ’76 (1917). This Revolutionary War drama created a major controversy due to its virulent anti-British sentiment – the U.S. government had the film removed from release because of the U.S.-U.K. alliance in World War I and producer Robert Goldstein was jailed under the sedition laws of the period. The film had a brief postwar release before vanishing.
10. Cupid Angling (1918). The only film produced by the National Color Film Company, this early effort to move away from monochrome included appearances by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Many sources cite this as the first attempt at feature-length color film production.
11. Yehuda Hameshukhreret (1918). Russian-born Ya’ackov Ben-Dov directed this pioneering documentary work that followed the transfer of the World War I transfer of the Holy Land from Turkish to British control. This was one of the earliest films made in pre-Israel Palestine.
12. The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921). Groundbreaking African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux helmed this controversial racially tinged courtroom drama, which was inspired by the infamous Leo Frank murder case.
13. 813: The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1923) – Kenji Mizoguchi directed this little-known Japanese adaptation of the classic French novel. It is not believed that this film was ever seen outside of Japan, and it one of many Mizoguchi films believed to be lost.14. The Courtship of Miles Standish (1923). Silent film star Charles Ray self-produced this extremely expensive adaptation of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. The film’s commercial failure, coupled with Ray’s difficult personality, helped to diminish his star value and speed his career to a hasty decline.
15. Miss Suwanna of Siam (1923). One of the earliest pan-Pacific co-productions, this U.S.-Siam (later Thailand) drama was shot entirely in Siam using local actors. Canadian-born director Henry MacRae would later go on to direct the Flash Gordon serials.
16. A Sainted Devil (1924). Paramount Pictures drummed up audience enthusiasm for Latin lover Rudolph Valentino with this romantic drama. Only a fragment of one reel is known to survive.
17. The Ancient Mariner (1925). Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem was brought to the screen by Fox Film Corp., with Paul Panzer as the damned captain and sexpot Clara Bow as “Doris” (a character that Coleridge obviously intended to include but never got around to actually mentioning).
18. Corazon Aymara (1925). A landmark in Latin American cinema was this ambitious production, the first feature-length film produced in Bolivia and one of the earliest to provide a non-stereotypical view of the indigenous peoples of the Andes.
19. Zowie (1925). New Jersey-based filmmakers Frederick Eugene Ives and Jacob F. Leventhal directed this one-reel experiment in 3-D filmmaking. Released under the “Stereoscopiks” series of 3-D test films, its projection proved to be unsatisfactory and it was never widely released.20. The Mountain Eagle (1926). This British-German co-production was a thriller set in rural Kentucky but shot in Austria. It was also the second feature film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and it is the only film in the master director’s canon that is considered lost.
21. Vasya the Reformer (1926). Alexander Dovzhenko wrote and co-directed this relatively rare (for its era) Soviet comedy about the misadventures of an extremely curious boy.
22. Poro College in Moving Pictures (1927). This seven-reel documentary was a celebration of Poro College of Beauty Culture, a trade institute for African Americans. The film presented pioneering African American entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone, who founded the school in an Illinois cabin and built it up to a sophisticated St. Louis operation.
23. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). Long before Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe, there was Ruth Taylor playing Anita Loos’ wise-dumb blonde gold-digger in this silent comedy. Taylor’s career barely survived two years after the film’s premiere – the film itself did not survive at all.
24. My Man (1928). Broadway headliner Fannie Brice made the trek to Hollywood to find a niche in the new world of talking pictures. Brice’s feature film included six of her musical standards, including the title tune. Sadly, Brice never became a big screen fixture and all that survives of this effort are three reels and a disc of the complete soundtrack.25. The Case of Lena Smith (1929). Josef von Sternberg’s moody silent drama had the misfortune of hitting theaters just as sound films were taking root as the audience-preferred entertainment. Paramount Pictures had no faith in this effort and carelessly allowed it to disappear. A four-minute fragment is all that survives.
26. The Duke Steps Out (1929). Another too-late-to-the-screen silent feature, this MGM offering paired matinee idol William Haines with up-and-coming starlet Joan Crawford. The film grossed an impressive $920,000 (not bad for 1929 prices), but that wasn’t enough to ensure its preservation.
27. Little Johnny Jones (1929). Mervyn LeRoy directed this early musical, based on George M. Cohan’s landmark Broadway show. Strangely, one two songs from the classic score were kept for the screen adaptation, while newcomer Eddie Buzzell failed to sizzle in the star role.28. Jealousy (1929). Another Broadway transplant, Jeanne Eagels, wound up on the big screen during the transition away from silent movies. A young Fredric March was the romantic lead opposite Eagels, but the great stage star was in failing health during the production and died shortly after the film’s completion.
29. Queen of the Nightclubs (1929). Actress and speakeasy operator Texas Guinan played a thinly disguised version of herself in this Bryan Foy-directed talkie, which co-starred the director’s brother Eddie Foy Jr. and introduced George Raft in a small role.
30. Smiling Irish Eyes (1929). Silent film star Colleen Moore gamely attempted to make the transition to sound in this musical feature that included Technicolor sequences. A silent version was also released. Moore never found her footing in talkies – whether her attempts at singing helped kill her career is something that we may never know!
31. Thunder (1929). Lon Chaney was one of the last stars to hold on to silent film format, and this production was his final in the microphone-free movies. Chaney played an aging train conductor, but the location shooting in Wisconsin during the winter gave Chaney an advanced case of walking pneumonia. This health hazard, combined with throat cancer, sped his death a year later. Only half a reel of footage survives.
32. The Cat Creeps (1930). Universal Pictures sought to recycle its silent film collection with this sound remake of the 1927 The Cat and the Canary. Helen Twelvetrees was the appropriately distressed damsel and a young Neil Hamilton (who would later play Commissioner Gordon on TV’s Batman) was the young hero.
33. A Daughter of the Congo (1930). While Hollywood was already transitioned to sound, the independently produced all-black “race films” lacked the financing to keep pace. This 1930 Oscar Micheaux production was mostly a silent film, with one brief sound sequence that includes a song. Micheaux’ first all-talking film, The Exile, was released in 1931.34. Alam Ara (1931). India’s cinema was even later in getting into sound films. This production was the first Indian talkie, complete with seven songs. Production facilities were so crude that the film had to be shot at night, in order to avoid recording the distractions of daytime noises. Despite its importance in the development of Indian cinema, no trace of any footage exists.
35. Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932). The popular aphorism-spouting Chinese detective (played by the decidedly non-Asian Warner Oland) was at the center of yet another mystery. H.B. Warner, who played Christ in DeMille’s King of Kings, co-starred in this Fox production.
36. Freaks – The Director’s Cut (1932). Tod Browning’s original concept for Freaks proved much too freaky for the MGM brass, which ordered a half-hour of footage jettisoned before the film could be theatrically released. Lost and never recovered was an extended version of the sideshow denizens’ revenge during the thunderstorm and the gruesome fate of the treacherous strongman.37. Men of Tomorrow (1932). Hungarian-born Zoltan Korda and Austrian-born Leontine Sagan (one of the few female directors in 1930s European cinema) co-directed this British feature that included the relatively unknown Robert Donat, Merle Oberon and Emlyn Williams. The film didn’t get released in the U.S. until 1935, but it appears to have vanished after its trans-Atlantic crossing.
38. Symphony in Steel (1932). Frank Hurley’s Australian documentary provided a filmed record on the construction of Sydney Harbor Bridge. The bridge is still a marvel to behold, but no one has seen the documentary since it was released.
39. Walking Down Broadway (1933). Erich von Stroheim’s reputation as a reckless and wasteful director ruined his Hollywood career. Fox Film Corp. gave him one last chance with endeavor, which was his first attempt at directing a sound film. But von Stroheim lapsed into his bad-boy behavior and he was fired from the production after it ran over budget. The production was mostly reshot by other directors and released as Hello, Sister! – which flopped. No copy of von Stroheim’s director’s cut is known to survive.
40. Murder at Monte Carlo (1934). American director Ralph Ince and Australian newcomer Errol Flynn traveled to England to create this crime drama set in Monaco. Flynn’s performance helped bring him to the attention of Hollywood, but his stepping stone work has vanished without a trace.
41. Heartache (1936). Notable as the first U.S.-made Cantonese-language film, this independent production was shot in San Francisco in six days. The plot involved a Chinese opera star whose lover, a Chinese-American pilot, ventures to China to fight against the Japanese invasion. The film was directed by Frank Tang and co-produced by Esther Eng, a pioneering Asian-American female filmmaker.
42. The Wizard of Oz – The Buddy Ebsen Tin Man footage (1939). As every friend of Dorothy knows, Buddy Ebsen was the original Tin Man, but he was replaced during production after a near-fatal allergy to his make-up. Ebsen’s voice remained on the soundtrack for the ensemble singing of “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” but it remains unclear whether any of the actual Technicolor footage of Ebsen with his fellow Yellow Brick Roadsters ever survived.
43. Red Sky at Morning (1944). Australia’s founding as a depository for Britain’s convicts was the setting for this drama, which included an early performance by future Oscar-winner Peter Finch.
44. Ivan the Terrible, Part III (1946). Sergei Eisenstein intended to create a trilogy based on the life and crimes of the notorious tsar, but the hostile reaction by the Kremlin hierarchy to the second film in the cycle resulted in their shutting down the production on the third film. Soviet authorities confiscated the remaining footage after Eisenstein’s 1948 death, and only a few scenes have since surfaced.
45. The Peanut Man (1947). The life of African American educator and agricultural chemist George Washington Carver (played by Clarence Muse) was the subject of this ambitious race film, which was one of the very few in the genre to be shot in color.46. Mad Fire Mad Love (1949). This film definitely stood out among the independent productions of its time: a Cantonese-language feature, shot in Hawaii in color and directed by Esther Eng, who also wrote the screenplay. Made exclusively for Asian theatrical release, there is no record that it ever played in the U.S.
47. Double Confession (1950). Peter Lorre somehow wound up in a supporting role as a gangster’s henchman in this low-budget British film noir offering about a dishonest businessman who is framed for murder. The last known exhibition of this film was a 1962 broadcast on British television.
48. Big and Little Wong Tin Bar (1962). Eight-year-old Jackie Chan made his film debut in this Hong Kong action flick, which also included another child actor named Sammo Hung. A brief clip of young Jackie fighting and singing is known to survive.
49. Superspread (1967). Robert Nelson’s experimental 16mm film was notable for its wild psychedelic imagery and a Grateful Dead soundtrack. Only five minutes of this intriguing effort exists.
50. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever – The Director’s Cut (1970). Vincente Minnelli’s original vision for this film adaptation of the Broadway musical was a three-hour production that would be released on a road show basis. But Paramount Pictures, facing financial difficulties, ordered one hour of footage to be shorn. The resulting film was a choppy and off-balanced affair, with a large chunk of the delightful score (including a duet between Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson) cut out and thrown away. The deleted footage can no longer be located, and only the recordings of the jettisoned songs survive.