The biggest heartbreak of the silent film era is that so many, some estimate up to ninety per cent, of the movies made during that time have been lost or destroyed, with no surviving copy left behind. Scholars and researchers continue to scour archives hoping to find an elusive title that has not quite faded into the mists of time. And now preeminent silent film historian Kevin Bronlow believes he may have found an searched resource that could offer up a couple of hitherto thought lost gems.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, Brownlow talked about a lead he got to a lost 1920 silent drama directed by Erich von Stroheim which might be among the holdings of the Cinemateca de Cuba in Havana.
I remember a Cuban refugee meeting me in London and saying all the films you’re looking for are in the Cuban archive. So I spoke to a high ranking member [of the Cinemateca] on the telephone, and just to try and test the waters, I asked him if he had a print of the lost Erich von Stroheim film The Devil’s Pass Key. And he simply said, “I’ve seen it.”
It is not an entirely rare event for a thought lost silent film to resurface. In the last several years, we have seen the rediscovery of early work from Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford to alternate versions of the Buster Keaton comedy The Blacksmith and director Fritz Lang’s science-fiction classic Metropolis to some of the earliest adaptations of the literary work of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
But the finds are starting to become fewer and more far between as time and simple chemistry see to it that the volatile nitrate film stock used in that era continues to breakdown and destroy itself.
Hopefully, political relations with Cuba will improve to a point where the Cinemateca can welcome film scholars to come and search their vault to see what treasures are there to be discovered, restored and shared with the world.