Sunday, December 4, 2011


TCM is doing something a bit different with its Silent Sunday Nights slot this week. Instead of one silent film, or a couple of shorts, they're airing a documentary called Fragments that first ran on TCM earlier this year. It's coming up at midnight tonight.

It's sad how many silent films have been lost as there's no known surviving footage. There are other movies, however, for which some portion of the movie survives, but much of it is missing. I mentioned Alfred Hitchcock's The White Shadow back in August and September as an example of this. In the case of The White Shadow, the movie was found in New Zealand in part because that was apparently the last stop on the distibution tour for a movie print, which makes sense if you consider how far out of the way New Zealand would have been back in the 1920s when there were no transoceanic flights. The documentary was obviously made before the re-showing of The White Shadow, but there are still a lot of other interesting things in this documentary.

Apparently, back in the day, you could get copyright on a movie by leaving part of it with the Library of Congress. One of the results is that filmmakers would take a minute or two of footage, have the individual frams reproduced as more substantially-sized phootgraphs, and have those photographs copied as a series. In theory, the rest of the movie wasn't copyrighted, but you couldn't show a movie without showing the copyrighted footage. Today, such footage can be turned back into film by treating the photographs as a sort of flip-book along the lines of the way animation was done.

Other movies have surviving footage as a result of the promotional trailers made to advertise upcoming films. These trailers would have been distributed differently from the films themselves, so they wouldn't necessarily have been destroyed at the same time the films were.

But perhaps the best footage here is the surviving footage from The Way of All Flesh. Emil Jannings won the first Best Actor Oscar for this movie, but only about five minutes of the movie survives. It's one of the only lost films left that won an Oscar, since the rediscovery a few years back of Two Arabian Knights.

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