One of the Title shots from "FOUND EMULSION"
I was one of those kids in the 1970’s who loved the stories and scary photos in monster movie magazines like FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and those unforgettable horror movie picture books like William K. Everson’s CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM. I would underline the titles of the horror movies listed in these publications, eagerly waiting for them to show up on late night TV, or if it was a silent film like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT with Lon Chaney, to screen in a local arts cinema. I'd soon find out that many of the films that never showed up were lost, either from fire, film decomposition, or a frustrating legal battle.
As my movie tastes branched out, I learned that films by master directors like Raoul Walsh, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein, D. W Griffith, and Charles Chaplin were lost as well, which is what prompted me to make LOST EMULSION, a feature documentary on lost films, and film restoration.
I focused on the plight of sultry silent film actress Theda Bara, possibly filmdom's first sex goddess, whose forty plus films (mostly made before 1921) are likely forever lost. I spotlit private film collectors - one of whom, Al Dettlaff, a Wisconsin eccentric, held onto the only surviving print of the 1910 Edison production of FRANKENSTEIN.
When one talks about lost films, they talk about for the most part, silent films, and early sound films, such as LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, THE CAT CREEPS, and CONVENTION CITY. Well, rightfully so. The majority of films made before World War II are lost.
In my latest film, in production, FOUND EMULSION, the story is told of lost movies from all eras and genres of film, some as recent as the 1990's. Early television has an extensive missing-In-action list. Many episodes of DR. WHO and THE JOHNNY CARSON SHOW have been erased over to make way for new television content. The story goes that the erase button was almost pressed on most episodes of MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS. Television producers felt these shows were disposable, and that nobody in the future would care for them. Richard Smith, of Long Island's Piano Exchange is an avid film collector and is on the hunt for episodes of THE MERRY MAILMAN, an Eisenhower-era kids show he appeared in as a child.
FOUND EMULSION will also tell of some of the unwanted orphans of film history - the early “adults-only" films, public service announcements and even vintage commercials. The early adults-only (aka exploitation) films, from before 1965, are a sight to behold. Nudity was still a stranger to mainstream films, so skin was a true novelty. These early stag films, with their almost school-boy approach to lust, showed the neurotic heights adult men would scale to get a quick glimpse of a lady in her birthday suit. In one film, MISTER PETER’S PETS (1961), a man magically turns himself into a kitten, then a dying fish - just to get a little peek. Most of these films are gone, mainly because the many fly-by-night companies who made them went under, and the unclaimed negatives were mostly destroyed, or they rotted due to age and poor storage.
Imagination was limitless when film-makers produced and distributed on 16mm, early short public service films. They must have been frustrated horror film-makers. In LSD: A CASE STUDY, from 1969, a young girl, who tries hard drugs for the first time, imagines her hot dog is screaming in terror. Numerous driver-training films from the sixties gleefully depict the bloody aftermath of reckless driving. Once videotape entered the market in the early 1980's, many schools and colleges had their 16mm libraries head straight for the dumpster. Thankfully, many 16mm film collectors were not afraid of dumpster diving.
The then new analog videotape formats, followed by digital video formats, would prove not to be the safe, permanent home for film/video libraries. These formats eventually degrade. Some formats - like three quarter inch video or Mini DV tapes became obsolete. Simply using the playback machines for these formats wear them down more, inching them closer to extinction.
When I made THE WENDY WILD STORY, a feature documentary about my sister who was a punk/new wave performer in New York's Lower East Side during the 1980's, a grim revelation was made. Master copies of her music videos were difficult to track down. I used second and third generation downloads. One film-maker from the 1980's who captured the punk/new wave scene on early color video was the late Nelson Sullivan. Nelson not only captured these performances with his pro-sumer camera, but filmed hours of street scenes. Thanks to Nelson's surviving videos, we see a bygone, pre-internet, pre-cell phone Lower East Side, decades before the vintage buildings were replaced by soulless modern plastic-looking buildings that resemble Lego projects built by very bored children.
Viewing film from the 1890's to what we have today is the next best thing to a time machine. There will be updates about FOUND EMULSION on Films In Review in the future.
Editor: To learn more about FOUND EMULSION, and to help out please visit the GoFundMe campaign at - https://www.gofundme.com/f/fun-documentary-about-film-restoration.