The Silent Watchdog: Summer 2012

Posted July 11, 2012 at 3:25am by Carl Martin, edited July 13, 2012 at 11:17am

Time for another examination of the prints to be shown in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, starting (strictly speaking) Friday!

This year Wellman's Wings and Lubitsch's Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of Pharaoh) will be shown digitally. In the case of the latter, I'm not aware of the recent "restoration" ever being put back onto film, and extant prints, those that were scanned and patched together to make this not-quite-complete version, individually are quite incomplete, in poor physical condition, and do not circulate. Used to be film restorers would physically repair elements such as these so they could be reprinted and spliced together. Now, often as not, we're just left with data. Wings, on the other hand, certainly exists on film, in both pre-digital and post-digital versions, and I for one could easily forgo the digitally re-imagined color effects in favor of an all-photochemical monochrome print.

(Also being shown digitally, in front of The Cameraman, is Méliès's Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). Why not wait a month and see it on film at the Castro, when it plays with 2001... which will be digital--you can't win!)

In the It's being shown on film but was restored digitally so why bother file we have Pabst's Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box), one I'd like to revisit properly since my viewing 12 years ago didn't stand up to the film's reputation, and Herbert Brenon's The Spanish Dancer, which may be unavailable any other way. More on this last one may be read here.

Now let's take a closer look at the remaining prints, those that can be relied on to provide a true filmic experience.

Little Toys

Weeell, I never have had any luck contacting the China Film Archive. But I'm guessing this is a straight photochemical preservation.

Mantrap and The Canadian

Both of these 1926 Canada-set (though Mantrap was shot in California) films were preserved from nitrate prints in the '80's. The Mantrap print was struck last year, and reportedly looks great (and unlike its DVD counterpart, features no digital touch-up).

Die wunderbare Lüge der Nina Petrowna (The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna)

Lie to me, Brigitte
I realize sometimes these posts seem to hone in on the negative, bemoaning the inclusion of anachronistic digital impostors in what should be an analog sanctuary. But here Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra's Rodney Sauer and the SFSFF have gone the extra 3500 miles and done right. Since its initial release, U.S audiences have only seen a shortened, "censored" version (though it does contain some material not in the domestic release, so it ought more properly be called an alternate version)--now held by Eastman House. The longer version from Murnau-Stiftung--a 1999 restoration drawing primarily on two original camera negatives, and claimed to do Carl Hoffman's photography of Brigitte Helm justice--includes not only spicier intertitles (Sauer's translations of which will presumably be read aloud during the screening) but scenes that portray Helm's Nina in a rather lustier light, whose omission ironically allowed for even more salacious interpretations of the night's events. But given the regrettable choppiness of so much of the surviving material from the silent era, narrative clarity is always welcome.

Irrepressible Felix the Cat!

Felix the Cat in Blunderland and Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather are both UCLA preservations, blown up to 35mm from 16mm diacetate (an early safety filmstock) at the Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, with, in the case of Weathers, a little help from the film-repair experts at Film Technology Company, Inc. Felix Loses Out, Jungle Bungles, and Eskimotive were preserved at Library of Congress from 35mm nitrate prints in 2011, 2005, and 2005, respectively. And Eastman House reports that Felix the Cat Trips Through Toyland (A replacement for Felix Gets Revenge?) and Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate both came from finegrains (a preservation element) made from nitrate negatives in 1978, from which, in 2004, dupe negs and prints were struck.


Like The Great White Silence (shown at last year's SFSFF), South is the photographic artifact of an ill-fated Antarctic expedition and features lots of penguins. Both are BFI restorations, but as South's was completed in the '90's it's strictly photochemical, and we'll be seeing a print on black and white stock tinted and toned via traditional dye bath, a process the BFI deems cost-prohibitive at present.

Шинель (The Overcoat)

While this print comes from BFI as well, it's simply a distribution print they acquired from Moscow. You'll recall from last year's edition of TSW that the Muscovites are notorious for cropping the silent frame in their printers. Hopefully this print hasn't suffered that misfortune.

The Mark of Zorro

This is a safety print struck from MOMA's nitrate negative in 1963 and held in Eastman House's collection. I'm told the resulting image is beautiful, though there's always the possibility it will show off several decades' worth of handling.

The Docks of New York

Olga Baclanova, dockside dame
You might have seen this print already in the PFA's von Sternberg retrospective of 2009. UCLA struck it in the middle of the last decade, from a dupe negative in their collection, as a reference for an eventual preservation/restoration. As I recall the print looks quite fantastic in its own right.


An edited version of this film was shown in Sweden a few years after the original release, and from a print of this cut, further shortened by a nitrate fire, a duplicate negative was finally made on safety stock in 1969. In 2005 the print we will see was struck on color stock, tinting and toning having been added by the Desmet method. Altogether about 12 minutes are missing.

Stella Dallas

This print, a blow-up from 16mm, was purchased from Warner Bros. for a 2006 Ronald Colman retrospective at the Stanford Theatre (where it played again earlier this year), and then deposited at UCLA.

The Cameraman

Buster Keaton's first MGM picture, and the last great picture of his heyday, was for decades only viewable in a not-so-hot blowup from a small-gauge print found in France. Apparently a finegrain had been lent to compilation-"documentarian" Robert Youngson, who physically removed clips from it for use in his The Big Parade of Comedy and didn't return the rest. This finegrain, minus reel one, was found by David Shepard amongst a garage-full of film left after Youngson's death. After the clips from Big Parade were repatriated, it remained to find the first reel in decent condition. Fortunately, a 16mm reduction from the camera negative that had been made for restoration pioneer Karl Malkames had been passed down to his grandson, film historian Bruce Lawton, and was lent for this project.

Buster at the beach
But The Cameraman is still not quite complete. A few minutes of footage, essentially one gag, is missing from all these versions, evidently having been removed from the negative before Malkames's reduction or the MGM finegrain were struck. In 1950 MGM released a remake of The Cameraman called Watch the Birdie, in which this gag is reproduced. There is speculation that the original footage was excised from The Cameraman's negative for study, perhaps at the suggestion of a gagman working on the new picture, Buster Keaton.

Thanks to Jared Case, Bryony Dixon, Steven Hill, Mike Mashon, Anita Monga, Cyndi Mortensen, Ed Stratmann, Jon Wengström, and Anke Wilkening for answering all my inquiries.

Update: Thomas Bakels of ALPHA-OMEGA digital GmbH writes me with corrections and elaborations. Firstly, there is a film-out of The Loves of Pharaoh, and it has played at several festivals. He also emphasizes the brittleness of the Russian nitrate element used in restoration, and points out that it lacks perforations in lengths up to 100':
Extensive perforation damage

I still dispute his claims of irreparability. A friend who used to work for YCM Labs routinely had to contend with film in such straits, and spent countless hours laboriously replacing missing perforations on film in various states of shrinkage. It's tedious and time-consuming, but it can be done.