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Reconstructing a Lost Silent Film

by | Mar 1, 2019 | Blog

 

In February 1999, Frank Scheide, professor of communication in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, was sitting in the British Film Institute. Before him were 423 cans – about 70 hours of footage – of outtakes from historic Charlie Chaplin films that needed to be watched and catalogued. The project, he knew, would take months.

But on that first day, in one can of footage he watched, something was different. In it, a sinister-looking barber waves his hands around the towel-covered head of another man while a third actor looks on. After much gesturing, the barber slowly, almost sensually, removes the towel, revealing the man’s face.

Scheide, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, said he was totally unfamiliar with the movie for which that footage was shot. “I said to myself, ‘this is not Charlie Chaplin!’” he recalls.

However, he did recognize the actor playing the barber: Sydney Chaplin, brother to the more famous Charlie. But that was all he knew.

So Scheide described these outtakes to silent film historian Bo Berglund, who identified the movie these outtakes had been cut from: a 1921 silent film King, Queen, Joker, which was written, produced, directed by and starred Syd Chaplin. According to a brief synopsis, the film is about a barber’s assistant who is made up to be a double for an unpopular king, whom revolutionaries have kidnapped. The barber’s assistant has the time of his life playing king, until the real king escapes and the barber is sentenced to be shot. But the queen saves the barber, and in the end, the king concedes to the people’s demands.

From this synopsis, Scheide inferred that King, Queen, Joker probably was a large influence on Charlie Chaplin’s later, much more popular film The Great Dictator – a film that Scheide calls one of the most important films of the mid-twentieth century. Other Chaplin historians quickly supported his conclusion.

Unfortunately, like the vast majority of silent films, the original King, Queen, Joker was lost to history. Movies shot between 1895 and 1929 were shot on nitrate film, which is highly flammable and quickly degrades. Because of this, some 85 percent of those early films are lost forever. So it’s not surprising, Scheide said, that King, Queen, Joker would be lost. What is surprising, he said, is that these outtakes survived.

Would it be possible, Scheide asked himself, to put King, Queen, Joker back together from these discarded fragments? “There was no guarantee that discarded key shots or even major narrative segments existed among this footage from the cutting-room floor,” he said. “I had to assume that everything I was looking at had been rejected for some reason, and the best footage used in the final film is presumably lost.”

“It’s like trying to re-create a sculpture using only what has been chipped away,” he said.

He felt he was up to the challenge, though, by virtue of having seen numerous silent movies of that time. “You have to get into the mindset of the director and the audience of the time.” With the help of Bryony Dixon and the British Film Institute, he decided to see what he could do.

His first job was to identify which cans contained King, Queen, Joker footage, and then determine how each shot was intended to be used in the final film.

It turned out that there were about 143 cans of footage, so Scheide concluded that he probably could reconstruct the film. However, he said, “I was not sure how close that narrative would be to the original.” Without the intertitles that guide a viewer through the story, it would be difficult to determine which segments were included or discarded, or in what order they were meant to be viewed.

But Scheide had an “ace” up his sleeve: “As a silent film historian, I knew that Sweden had an interesting law requiring that a written list of all the intertitles in a silent movie be submitted to their national censorship office before the film could be shown,” he said. So he reached out once again to Berglund to see if he could get the Swedish intertitles – and he did. But Berglund didn’t have the time to translate them back into English.

“Fortunately for me, both of us attended a Chaplin conference in London in 2005, and between Bo and I, we were able to come up with a rough translation,” Scheide said.

“Since an edited version of the third reel of this five-reel film had survived, and I now had intertitles referring to the footage in the other four reels, I began to piece King, Queen, Joker together.”

In 2008, one of Scheide’s students, Suzannah Hicks, volunteered to help him with this project. Hicks, he said, went through his notes and identified categories of shots that seemed to be part of common sequences.

“After viewing and reviewing the video footage I had, and comparing it with Suzannah’s list, I made two trips to the [British Film Institute] and shot videos of the footage I was lacking through the viewfinder of the Steenbeck” – a flatbed film editing machine that works with both 16mm and 35mm film. “The image quality of those videos is not good,” he said, but it was good enough to work with.

He digitized those video copies so he could edit them on Adobe Premiere. “Once I had the digitized video on my computer,” he said, “I grouped the shots from the given sequences together.”

“It was a time-consuming process,” he said.

On Dec. 31, 2018 – almost 20 years after he first watched that mysterious reel of film – Scheide added the final shot to his version of King, Queen, Joker.

Scheide said that his version still needs some further editing – it is about 93 minutes long, whereas the original was only about 60-65 minutes. But that won’t be the final step. In order to make the film available to the public, Scheide said he will need to find a partner to work with him and the British Film Institute to fully restore it.

In the meantime, to learn more about Scheide’s discovery of the lost footage and his work reconstructing King, Queen, Joker, you can watch his presentation at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History.

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