The entire Hollywood oeuvre — from Casablanca to 1984's Toxic Avenger— might feel like it's at your digital fingertips these days, but there's one prominent exception to this streaming renaissance: the majority of films from the industry's earliest days. According to the Library of Congress, just 14 percent of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios are still with us. So the fact that a restorationist from the British Film Institute (BFI) recently discovered snippets from several missing films from the 1920s is significant. The fact that many of them are in Technicolor is even more exciting.
According to a BFI press release, the snippets were found on the reels of 1926’s Black Pirate, donated to BFI by the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. As conservation specialist Jane Fernandes was working on a project to try and determine what those early Technicolor films looked like, she noticed that other bits of film were taped to the beginnings and ends of the reels. What she found were short, Technicolor snippets of costume tests and scenes from many lost films.
In a video compilation of the fragments, BFI’s curator of silent films Bryony Dixon explains that the bits were likely from things like promotional films, color tests and auditions. They were used as leaders and ends (lengths of film that helped protect the main feature as it was fed into the projector and also ensured everything was running smoothly by the time the movie was ready to start).
Among the snippets from Black Pirate are bits from The Far Cry, The Fire Brigade and Dance Madness, all from 1926. It also includes a film test for a movie called Mona Lisa in which actress-turned-Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper stars as Leonardo da Vinci's ever-inscrutable subject. It is the only surviving footage associated with that film.
Another batch of extracts was found taped to ads for a North London television shop that ran before and between movies in the 1950s. They include scenes from early Technicolor musicals that came out in 1929 including Sally, Gold Diggers of Broadway, Show of Shows and On With the Show!.
The most exciting find, however, is a blink-and-you-missed-it snippet of Louise Brook, a dancer and silent-film actress who epitomized the Jazz-Age flapper. The clip is a costume test from her first credited roll in the now-lost film The American Venus. In the faded pastel clip, Brooks poses and smiles in her fringed ensemble.
“Everybody loves Technicolor but so much film from glamorous 1920s Hollywood is lost; when it turns up, however fragmentary it’s exciting,” Dixon says. “What to do with tiny clips that are only a few seconds long? Imagine an Egyptian vase shattered into pieces and the shards scattered across museums all over the world. You can imagine that one day you might be able to see it whole again. It’s like that with films; only an international effort by film archives like the BFI can bring the pieces of the jigsaw together. For now we have the shards but we can dream of seeing Louise Brooks’s first film or a lost Hedda Hopper in color.”
These clips are also important for what they tell film historians about the early days of color film. While Technicolor wasn’t the first colorization process for movies, it was the most successful. Technicolor became most famous for the vivid hues of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but its earlier incarnations were much more muted, combing images filmed with a red filter and green filter before a dye was added. Richard Trenholm at CNET reports that Technicolor went through five processes, with most of the clips showcasing Process II and Process III. Process IV is what was used to make Oz pop. By the 1970s, the dye-transferring process died out and, and in recent years digital filmmaking has almost completely replaced film across the board. Technicolor the company still exists. It, too, has changed with the times, morphing from processing film into a digital production company.