Silents are golden

Not long ago, a cache of films was discovered in Buster Keaton’s Hollywood mansion.

In 1955, actor James Mason, then living in Keaton’s former home, discovered a set of positive prints of films in a secret vault. The stash – long forgotten by Keaton – included a high quality print of The General and of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, which was shot at the so-called Italian Villa.

The search goes on to preserve the 20th century’s cinematographic heritage, especially from the era of silent films (1895 to 1929), which came to an end after Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first commercially successful sound film.

ButterflyNow, one hundred years after its debut, The Broken Butterfly has been restored and screened by the U.S.-based Film Foundation. It’s a 59-minute drama directed by Maurice Tourneur and starring Lew Cody, Mary Alden, and Pauline Starke. Tourneur’s The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), The Blue Bird (1918) and The Last of the Mohicans (1920) are rated “culturally significant” by the U.S. Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry.

Based on the story “Marcene” by American author Penelope Knapp, about whom very little seems to be known, The Broken Butterfly is a rather far-fetched and sentimental story of a young woman, Marcene Elliot, who wandering through the woods one day meets Darrell Thorne, a composer looking for inspiration to write a symphony. Darrell discovers his muse in Marcene and the two fall in love. Darrell writes a symphony and asks Marcene to accompany him to New York for its premiere, but she refuses, fearing the reaction of her domineering Aunt Zabie.

After Marcene gives birth to a daughter, her aunt’s anger and her own fears lead her to attempt suicide. Darrell hears from Aunt Zabie that Marcene is dead and travels to France to cope with his grief. Now the plot becomes more absurd. Darrell meets Marcene’s sister on the Riviera where she is conducting his symphony. They marry and return home to find Marcene still alive, but dying of a broken heart. Darrell’s love is reignited and he proposes to Marcene after her sister releases him. Marcene dies happy and Darrell and her sister resume their marriage, now with Marcene’s child.

The plot sounds like something out of Victor Borge comic opera and not quite a fitting subject for a film made in 1919. The Broken Butterfly faced stiff competition. According to the American Film Institute’s online catalogue, 772 films were released that year, including the top-grossing The Miracle Man starring Lon Chaney and Broken Blossoms directed by D.W. Griffith.

The vast majority of the silent films produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are considered lost. According to a report published by the United States Library of Congress, some 70% of American silent feature films fall into this category. They include Saved from the Titanic (1912) directed by Étienne Arnaud, starring Dorothy Gibson, an American film actress who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912. Premiered in the U.S. just 29 days after the event, it is the earliest dramatization about the tragedy.

And then there is The Life of General Villa (1914) directed by Christy Cabanne, a biographical action film starring Pancho Villa as himself. It incorporated both staged scenes and authentic live footage from real battles during the Mexican Revolution.

Fortunately, the degradation of old film stock can be slowed through proper archiving and movies can be transferred to safety film stock or to digital media for long-term preservation. For film buffs, this is a priority of the Film Foundation – founded by Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg – as well as the British Film Institute, the Cinémathèque Française, and many others. Silents are golden.

Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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