News that two of Peter Sellers' early comedies have been found in a skip reminds us of the thrill of rediscovery. Which other 'movie orphans' out there could plug the gaps in film history?
I'm fascinated by the idea of the films that get lost; that vast, teeming netherworld where the obscure and the unloved rub shoulders, in the dark, with the misplaced and the mythic. Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that as many as 50% of the American movies made before 1950 are now gone for good, while the British film archive is similarly holed like Swiss cheese. Somewhere out there, languishing in limbo, are missing pictures from directors including Orson Welles, Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. Most of these orphans will surely never be found. Yet sometimes, against the odds, one will abruptly surface.
In his duties as facilities manager at an office block in central London, Robert Farrow would occasionally visit the basement area where the janitors parked their mops, brooms and vacuum cleaners. Nestled amid this equipment was a stack of 21 canisters, which Farrow assumed contained polishing pads for the cleaning machines. Years later, during an office refurbishment, Farrow saw that these canisters had been removed from the basement and dumped outside in a skip. "You don't expect to find anything valuable in a skip," Farrow says ruefully. But inside the canisters he found the lost Sellers shorts.
It's a blustery spring day when we gather at a converted water works in Southend-on-Sea to meet the movie orphans. Happily the comedies – Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You – have been brushed up in readiness. They have been treated to a spick-and-span Telecine scan and look none the worse for their years in the basement. Each will now premiere (or perhaps re-premiere) at the Southend film festival, nestled amid the screenings of The Great Beauty and Wadjda and a retrospective showing of Sellers' 1969 fantasy The Magic Christian. In the meantime, festival director Paul Cotgrove has hailed their reappearance as the equivalent of "finding the Dead Sea Scrolls".
I think that might be overselling it, although one can understand his excitement. Instead, the films might best be viewed as crucial stepping stones, charting a bright spark's evolution into a fully fledged film star. At the time they were made, Sellers was a big fish in a small pond, flushed from the success of The Goon Show and half-wondering whether he had already peaked. "By this point he had hardly done anything on screen," Cotgrove explains. "He was obsessed with breaking away from radio and getting into film. You can see the early styles in these films that he would then use later on."
To the untrained eye, he looks to be adapting rather well. Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You both run 29 minutes and come framed as spoof information broadcasts, installing Sellers in the role of lowly Herbert Dimwitty. In the first, Dimwitty attempts to strike out as a go-getting entrepreneur, peddling print dresses and dishwashers and regaling his clients with a range of funny accents. "I'm known as the Peter Ustinov of East Acton," he informs a harried suburban housewife.
Dearth, it must be said, feels a little faded and cosy; its line in comedy too thinly spread. But Insomnia is terrific. Full of spark, bite and invention, the film chivvies Sellers's sleep-deprived employee through a "good night's wake", thrilling to the "tone poem" of nocturnal noises from the street outside and replaying awkward moments from the office until they bloom into full-on waking nightmares. Who cares if Dimwitty is little more than a low-rent archetype, the kind of bumbling sitcom staple that has been embodied by everyone from Tony Hancock to Terry Scott? Sellers keeps the man supple and spiky. It's a role the actor would later reprise, with a few variations, in the 1962 Kingsley Amis adaptation Only Two Can Play.
But what were these pictures and where did they go? Cotgrove and Farrow's research can only take us so far. Dearth and Insomnia were probably shot in 1956, or possibly 1957, for Park Lane Films, which then later went bust. They would have played in British cinemas ahead of the feature presentation, folded in among the cartoons and the news, and may even have screened in the US and Canada as well. Records suggest that Sellers was initially contracted to shoot 12 movies in total, but may well have wriggled out of the deal after The Ladykillers was released. Only three have been found: Dearth, Insomnia and the below-par Cold Comfort, which was already in circulation. Conceivably there might be more Sellers shorts out there somewhere, either idling in skips or buried in basements. But there is no way of knowing; it's akin to proving a negative. Cotgrove and Farrow aren't even sure who owns the copyright. "If you find something on the street, it's not yours," Farrow points out. "You only have guardianship."
As it is, the Sellers shorts can be safely filed away among other reclaimed items, plucked out of a skip and brought in from the cold. They take their place alongside such works as Carl Dreyer's silent-screen classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, which turned up (unaccountably) at a Norwegian psychiatric hospital, or the vital lost footage from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, found in Buenos Aires back in 2008. But these happy few are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of movies have simply vanished from view.
A few years back, the British Film Institute launched a website, BFI Most Wanted, providing a list of 75 homegrown productions that have gone missing in action. These range from the silent era right through to the 1980s, and include three Michael Powell features, the screen debut of Errol Flynn and a 1970s "sexploitation" romp starring the pop singer Lulu. Curator Jo Botting admits that the "holy grail" for archivists is probably The Mountain Eagle, directed by Alfred Hitchcock back in 1926. She suspects, however, that it will never be located.
Remove a film from circulation and one of two things can happen. The movie either winks out of existence, to the extent that we forget it was even there to begin with, or the mystique surrounding it grows to the point where it risks clouding our judgment. This, perhaps, has been the case with The Mountain Eagle. Hitchcock himself would later dismiss his second feature as "a very bad movie". He was only too glad to see the back of it. All of which raises a troubling possibility. Maybe the bulk of lost movies have been lost for a reason. They have been buried or burned because they weren't very good.
Yet Botting feels that this is missing the point. "People are always asking what films are worth," she sighs. "But we don't classify them like that. Whether you or I rate it as a good film is immaterial; we're just trying to fill gaps in the archive and make these films available. In any case, how can we judge whether a film is good or bad until we actually see it?" She explains that tastes change and art is reappraised. "Many of Michael Powell's films were poorly received at the time. But now they're seen as masterpieces."
There are any number of reasons why a movie goes missing. Nitrate film was flammable; many simply blew up. Studios operated a policy of deliberately destroying any picture they were planning to remake. Black-and-white prints were melted down to extract the silver from their emulsions. In other cases, the companies went bankrupt and their titles slipped off the radar. Nobody cared; what's done was done. Film was viewed as a disposable, cheap-thrill medium. Crank the things out and then throw them away. Posterity, it seems, was an unaffordable luxury.
Can we imagine a similar predicament today? Could a 21st-century movie get lost in the same way as The Mountain Eagle or Metropolis? Again, there's no way of telling; we're back to proving the negatives. "Thanks to DVD and the internet, films have more of a life," Botting concedes. "It's much less easy for a title to go missing. But who knows? It depends on how you define 'lost'. If you make a film on your phone and then post it online, will that film still be available in 20 years' time?"
But this, surely, is a problem we can leave for future generations to tackle. The archivists have their hands full enough already. There are gaps to fill and films to chase, a whole army of vagrants still out in the woods. Most of these movies have probably died by now; we'll never see them again. Life is short, the film industry is cruel and all manner of treasures can fall away through the cracks. But that only makes the survivors feel all the more precious.
Nobody, it seems, lavished much love on the Peter Sellers shorts back in the mid-1950s. The actor shot them in haste and then moved on without so much as a backwards glance. He played Dr Strangelove and Inspector Clouseau; stentorian Fred Kite and the saintly, silly Chance. He became a Hollywood star and embraced a new jetset lifestyle. He stumbled through a series of turbulent marriages, struggled with issues of self-doubt and self-loathing and then died from a heart attack at the age of 54. All the while, Sellers' obscure, long-forgotten films sat down in the basement, beside the buckets and mops.
They preserved the image of the comic in his infancy, before fame came calling and the rot set in. And now, hey presto, here they are again. The films were lost and now they're found and this is cause for celebration. Sellers's abandoned little offspring managed to outlive him after all.
Hitchcock's lost silent melodrama was shot in Germany and Austria, with the locations doubling as the backwoods of Kentucky. Hitch didn't like it and contemporary critics were sniffy. But the Guardian review at the time described it as "a ripping yarn about a dastardly father, a crippled son, a lovely schoolteacher and an innocent imprisoned".
The Miracle of St Anne
In the summer of 1950, Orson Welles repaired to a public park in Paris to shoot a short film that he intended to screen alongside a play he had written. The Miracle of St Anne was billed as a quasi-Biblical saga in which sick and disabled people are cured by a Hollywood starlet. Welles himself took the role of an idiotic studio mogul named Jake Behoovian and appeared to take the role to heart – promptly mislaying the only known print.
Greed (the original cut)
Erich von Stroheim's silent-screen masterpiece spun the Frank Norris novel McTeague into an epic tale of avarice and corruption – but the original version has been lost to the ages. The director shot a whopping 85 hours of footage and then whittled it down to an eight-hour cut. The studio balked and promptly hacked the film's length to 140 minutes. Von Stroheim was devastated. "It was for me an exhumation," he said. "It was like opening a coffin in which there was just dust, giving off a terrible stench, a couple of vertebra and a piece of shoulder bone."