Movies Lost and Found: 'Shirkers,' 'A Star Is Born' and More
The process of filmmaking has been so established for so long — a well-trod path from script to deal to production to release — that there’s something thrilling, even subversive, about films lost and rediscovered, scenes tossed and restored, and movies that go unfinished for years or even decades. Two long-unfinished projects, Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” and Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers,” are now streaming on Netflix; those pictures, an earlier version of “A Star Is Born” and other butchered classics make for fascinating stories of cinematic archaeology.
This bracingly visionary and wildly influential 1927 science-fiction epic from the director Fritz Lang was cut by 40 minutes by its German studio shortly after its release and further trimmed by the American distributor Paramount. Shabby public-domain versions circulated on film and video for years until a 2002 rescue job by German preservationists restored the work to what seemed its fullest possible form. And then, a miracle: In 2008, a complete 16-millimeter print of Lang’s original cut turned up in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, including 25 minutes of long-thought-lost footage. And so “Metropolis” was restored again, finally approximating its original form for the first time in 90 years. (Available online and on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Abel Gance’s 1927 biopic was always a work in flux: Running six-plus hours at its premiere, it was cut to barely three for its European release and then to a mere 80 minutes for American audiences. The film historian Kevin Brownlow first saw an excerpt from the film as a schoolboy and was so taken by it, he made restoring “Napoleon” his life’s work — chasing down reels and prints from around the world, dead set on recreating Gance’s epic vision. A four-hour version screened at Radio City Music Hall in 1981 and was a surprise box-office smash, but Brownlow is still digging; his current iteration of “Napoleon” clocks in at five and a half hours. (Available on British-format Blu-ray and DVD.)
‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece was borderline cursed: The original negative was destroyed in a studio fire shortly after its release, so Dreyer assembled a new cut from outtakes and alternate shots, only to lose that negative in another fire. The prints that circulated in the following decades varied greatly in quality and content, because of the lack of a master negative and the trims of government censors. But film historians hit the jackpot in 1982 with the discovery of Dreyer’s original cut, found in pristine condition in the closet of a mental hospital near Oslo; a doctor there had requested a print shortly after the film’s premiere, and its distributor never asked for it back. That version includes more than 15 minutes of restored footage. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
‘Drácula’ (Spanish Version)
In the early, pre-dubbing and pre-subtitle days of talking pictures, studios tried to preserve lucrative overseas revenue by shooting alternate, foreign-language versions of their biggest pictures. So the director Tod Browning and the star Bela Lugosi shot their 1931 vampire classic on the Universal lot during the day; the director George Melford and his cast took over the sets on the night shift, shooting a Spanish-language version that was sexier, moodier and (most agree) better than its companion. But “Drácula” disappeared — even the Library of Congress had only a partial print — until the early 1990s, when the Cinemateca de Cuba in Havana announced it had a complete copy. That print was digitized, restored and released in a shiny Blu-ray edition.
‘A Star is Born’ (1954 Version)
When George Cukor’s remake starring Judy Garland in this oft-told tale debuted in fall 1954, the 182-minute running time didn’t seem to bother enthusiastic reviewers or rapturous audiences. But exhibitors wanted to “increase turnover,” according to Variety — that is, make more money by squeezing in more daily screenings — so Warner Bros. trimmed 27 minutes from the picture. “They butchered it,” Cukor fumed. “Two of Judy’s best numbers were removed that way. And the tragedy is, they’ve disappeared.” He was wrong, thankfully — in the early 1980s, the curator Ronald Haver was given access to the studio vaults, where he recovered a complete soundtrack and some of the missing footage, including those two Garland songs. The recovered elements (with stills where the footage is still lost) were used to assemble the picture’s definitive 1983 restoration. (Available online and on disc.)
‘Wake in Fright’
The near-disappearance of this grimy Australian outback tale wasn’t a case of studio interference or government censorship; it was released in 1971 to enthusiastic reviews, if unspectacular box-office results. But when the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, tried to locate the original materials in the mid-1990s, he couldn’t even find a print. He finally found the entire original negative years later in a Pittsburgh storage warehouse, among reels designated for immediate destruction and disposal. With those materials and additional elements from the “dump bins” of a film vault, “Wake in Fright” was digitally restored and rereleased in theaters in 2012. (Available online and on disc.)
The martial arts instructor and motivational speaker Y.K. Kim’s fusion of ninja thriller and rock musical went absolutely nowhere in a small, self-financed 1987 release, and it probably would have remained in the dustbin of history if Zack Carlson hadn’t reached in 22 years later. Carlson, a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse, bought a 35-millimeter print of “Miami Connection” for $50 on eBay, hoping for an addition to the chain’s rotation of forgotten oddities — and boy did he get one. The Drafthouse crowds were so taken by its amateurish production and awkward sincerity that the company’s film distribution arm restored the picture and rereleased it, allowing it to achieve its true destiny as a goofy yet charming cult classic. (Available online and on disc.)
‘The Other Side of the Wind’
This wildly experimental story of a once-great filmmaker attempting a comeback was shot in bits and pieces between 1970 and 1976 by Orson Welles, a director eyeing a comeback of his own. But as with so many of his pictures, there was trouble along the way (detailed in the film’s new companion documentary), including a lack of money and a struggle for control of the negative. At the director’s death in 1985, “Wind” was unfinished, with a number of people, from the cast members John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich to the production manager turned producer Frank Marshall, trying to finish the job. Announcements were made every few years of a new studio or financier stepping up, but those promises came to naught. Finally, Netflix rescued the film last year, financing its long-awaited completion and release.
Sandi Tan’s haunting new-to-Netflix documentary is a movie about another movie, also called “Shirkers” — a never-completed low-budget indie that she shot on the streets of Singapore the summer after high school, with the help of several friends and an American film teacher named Georges Cardona. And when they were done, Cardona took their 16-millimeter film cans and disappeared. Over the next quarter-century, Tan tried not only to track down her movie but also to unmask the motives of the man who stole it, taunting her with years of broken promises and blank videotapes. That story is quite possibly more compelling than the one she and her friends set out to tell, all those years ago. But with lost-and-found films like these, that’s not unusual.
Review: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ Is Orson Welles’s Haunted Hall of Mirrors
Review: In ‘Shirkers,’ Stolen Footage and Dashed Dreams
Review: ‘A Star Is Born’ Brings Gorgeous Heartbreak
Holiday Movies 2018: All Creatures Great and Small
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