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Review by Sam Moffitt

I love silent films!  I have to say that from the beginning I have been fascinated with the silent years of film making.  When I was growing up in the St. Louis area in the sixties there was a syndicated show called Who’s The Funnyman?   Hosted by Cliff Norton this was a kid’s show which presented silent slapstick comedies, Hal Roach, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, The Keystone Cops.  These were short versions, cut to fit a Saturday morning time slot and with voice over by Mr. Norton. He would always introduce the films as a record of his family members, cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters, and describe the predicaments we could see being acted out on camera.

How I loved that show!  It made me want to see the complete films, I could tell they had been edited just as Channel 11 edited The Three Stooges for Captain 11 on weekday afternoons.

I also loved Fractured Flickers, a Jay Ward Production, the same group that produced Rocky and Bullwinkle, which would re edit silent films and provide voiceovers and sound effects to create an entirely new story.  Voice acting by Paul Frees and June Foray added to the comedy and as much as I loved that show I wanted to see the complete films.

I can also recall seeing Robert Youngson’s compilation films of silent movie clips, When Comedy Was King,  the Golden Age of Comedy and especially The Great Chase which features amazing stunt work from the silent era.   I recommend all these by the way, Netflix has all of Youngson’s films and a lot of complete silent films.

Most importantly my sister Judy for Christmas 1967 gave me a book, the Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow, a history of silent film production. I must have read that book 5 or 6 times all the way through, and would read entire chapters over and over again.  One chapter dealt with D.W. Griffith’s massive production of Intolerance, of which the building of the set for the Babylon sequence gave Kenneth Anger the title for his famous set of books detailing Hollywood excess.  Another chapter dealt with Abel Gance’s production Napoleon.  I read that chapter so many times by the time the movie was restored and I got to see it at the Esquire Theater in St. Louis it was almost an anti climax.  I recommend that book by the way, if you can find it, long out of print, wish I had kept my copy.

My Mother took me to the St. Louis art museum around 1971 for a showing of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first silent film I got to see in a theatre.  I can also recall Channel 9 in St. Louis, the PBS station showing a series of silent films, one of which was Shadows, the first Lon Chaney film I ever got to see, this would have been 1968.


All of this leads me to Lyrical Nitrate and Forbidden Quest an amazing and heart breaking set of films by Peter DelPuet.  We are told at the beginning of Lyrical Nitrate that we will be seeing clips that were saved and restored from an attic in Amsterdam.  All that remains of films bought and exhibited by Jean Desmet between 1905 and 1920.

The clips are grouped into sections with their own title; looking, protagonists, children’s exhibition, passion, dying, several others.  Some clips are as brief as a few seconds, others go on for 2 or 3 minutes.  An interesting thing occurs in watching Lyrical Nitrate, your mind tries to make connections, to fill in the gaps missing, to try and put the clips into context.  Some are easy.  A section called The Shipwreck shows a man and woman in a boat landing on a desolate stretch of beach.  They make a shelter, then are rescued.  The man refuses to leave, apparently the woman has rejected his affection and he chose to stay alone on the desert island.

Others are more elusive.  What are we to make of a man walking into a bedroom, a woman lies in the bed being attended by another woman (a nurse?), the healthy woman exchanges a knowing look with the man and with we the audience, then takes the man’s hand and makes him clasp the bedridden woman’s hand.  The man and woman embrace, the nurse leaves with what is obviously a heavy sigh and doomed resignation.  What led up to this moment?  What happened after?  We are never to know as the entire film is lost, which is what makes Lyrical Nitrate so heart breaking.

Over 75% of the silent era is gone forever.  Nitrate film was never meant to last.  In the early days of cinema once the films had been exhibited in every possible venue they were routinely destroyed, and for a logical reason, nitrate was highly flammable.  If you have ever seen Cinema Paradiso ( if you haven’t I highly suggest you catch up with it, a Movie Geeks dream!) you have seen what a projection room fire can do.

Neglect destroyed many more films, and continues to destroy them.  For every silent and sound film on nitrate that can be converted to regular film and then video hundreds, thousands are waiting to be restored, and most will not be. The restoration process takes too long and priorities have to be set as to what is saved and what is lost.  For every Metropolis that gets restored to (almost) it’s original condition there are hundreds of films that will never make it.

In Lyrical Nitrate we see exactly what that destruction looks like.  We see some action scenes, a war (in the middle east ?), travel shots of a rail line in what appears to be Austria or the Italian alps, boats gliding though the canals of Amsterdam.  An elevated rail line in Amsterdam which straddles the canals and not only looks modern, it appears futuristic, it is actually a monorail, we see the inside, filled with commuters, and the outside as it glides over the waters of the canals.  What happened to that monorail?  Did the Dutch, of all people, decide it was not worth keeping?

We see what appear to be portraits of children, many of them dressed up in their best clothes, some cry, most smile and laugh at having their picture taken.  Who were these children?  Why were they captured on film in what was obviously not a linear photo play?


We also see a color Passion Play, Jesus led to the Mount of Calvary, attended by Roman Legionnaires and nailed up on the cross.  Nothing like Mel Gibson’s film but the color was obviously hand painted onto to the film, a fairly common practice in the silent era, beautiful, other worldly stuff.

Most intriguing of all we see a series of hollow eyed, haunted looking women in every state of anguish and misery imaginable.  Women standing in deep shadow, looking longingly out windows, gliding down staircases, making grand melodramatic gestures so common to silent films.  At certain points DelPeut   slows down these moments, zooms in and repeats certain actions, he goes in for extreme close-ups of these actresses howling in agony and clutching at their heaving bosoms.

Finally, the last section, dying,  is footage beyond saving, a film about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, complete with the snake wrapped around a tree, begins to completely disintegrate.  We get only brief glimpses of the actors through the mold and burn marks.  And finally the film just stops.

We get a list of the film titles and possible production dates,  many of the dates have a question mark.  Also a list of the opera music used as background, and very effectively used.

Forbidden Quest is a bit different.  We have an actor in new footage telling us the story of a doomed expedition to the North Pole accompanied by clips from several films.  Much of this footage is incredible, ice floes breaking off into the sea, huge snow and ice mountains and the ship frozen in the ice.  Also dog sleds mushing through some very dangerous looking territory.

Lyrical Nitrate doesn’t run even a full hour but it is devastating to see, if you care about film at all.  I have met so many people who will not watch black and white, forget about silent films, or films with subtitles.  I would feel sorry for these people but they make their own choices.  They are missing some of the greatest films ever made.  I am the type of cinema obsessive geek who would love to ultimately see every movie ever made, at least once.  Where I could find the time I don’t know but how I would love to see Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, one of the most famous of lost silent films.  I have also never seen one minute of footage of Theda Bara, her entire career is gone except for, I believe two films, neither of which I have gotten to see, yet.

Some of my happiest movie moments recently, since I came to St. Petersburg, were seeing silent films at the Tampa Theater, many times with Rosa Rio at the mighty Wurlitzer organ!  Rosa is gone alas, but I got to see Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Phantom of the Opera, a Buster Keaton festival and Sparrows with Mary Pickford.

There was an English comic named John Bunny who was almost as popular as Chaplin at one time, now totally forgotten and every film he ever made is gone. There is something disrespectful in that, maybe John bunny was funnier than Chaplin but I and other movie geeks will never know.

I am grateful for what there is left and have made it a point to see every silent film I can get my hands on.  Roger Ebert has made the point on his website that silent films are not just movies without sound, they are a different medium altogether, as different as radio is to television.

Lyrical Nitrate is more than just a film, it is a solemn funeral dirge, a lament for what was so beautifully created in the past, and what has been lost forever.  Like zeppelins and radio drama and Studebaker automobiles and kids building tree houses it is part of the past that is long gone.

Remind me to put Call Her Savage with Clara bow on my Netflix queue, will you?

I’m done.


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