Reputations Restored: Lost and Found Movies of 1929

When The River was released in American theatres in 1929, it was laughed off the screen. William Fox had, unbeknownst to director Frank Borzage, added a singing prologue the film, completely changing the tone of his intensely moving film. When the same film was released in Europe without the singing prologue or talking epilogue, it was considered “one of those rare films in which the face of love moves us by its truth.” (Dumont, 144)

When Lucky Star was released into American theatres in 1929, Variety called it “indifferent and poor,” but this same film, discovered anew in a Dutch film archive, has now been hailed as one of the masterpieces of the silent era.

How could each film elicit such opposing opinions? One word: sound.

In 1929, Fox Films was struggling to survive. The company had just completed a multi-million dollar renovation to make it the leading competitor in the sound film market. William Fox, the head of the studio, had nearly lost his life in a car accident and was deeply in debt following those renovations. He decreed that, from then on, all Fox Films would be issued as talking pictures for the American market. For every other country, he would continue to make silent films, as the synchornization process had not yet been perfected for the foreign market.

So during this critical period, as studios switched from silent to sound, Fox made 2 versions of every film it released. Most films were made into talkies simply by tacking dialogue onto the beginning and the end, as in “The River.” In other instances, such as “Lucky Star,” a completely different film was made.

Almost every single time, the silent film version released overseas was lauded, while the talky version in America was laughed out of the theatre. Why? Because silent film as art was at its zenith, while the sound film was in its infancy. Directors, producers, and actors would completely change their approach to acting and filming within the next few years, as they adjusted story telling to this new medium.

In many cases, only the silent versions of these films have popped up, usually in archives overseas. And what these silent versions do is rescue the reputations of nearly everyone involved. If we were just to go on reviews, we would think that all of these films, made on the cusp of change, were quite awful. We might think that the actors and directors simply could not cut it any longer. But once we see these films as they were originally meant to be seen, we know that you can’t change mediums midscreen–that is, Fox should have left the silents alone. He shouldn’t have glommed one medium onto the other but developed them separately.

It really rescues the reputation of one seriously undervalued actor, Charles Farrell, and his director, Frank Borzage. Together, these men created a new type of hero who was both naive and innocent while maintaining masculine virility. Many people barely remember Charlie today, and he certainly is not regarded as the best actor of his generation. But both of these films contain his finest performances. Borzage has been receiving more credit as an auteur thanks to Herve Dumont’s book, but is still commonly regarded as overly sentimental by contemporary audiences.

Now that they have been rescued from obscurity (or complete demolition), these films force us to reevaluate Farrell as an actor and Borzage as a director. In that sense, film preservation has given these two men (and countless others who worked in this transitional period) new life. Their reputations restored, as well as their work.

 If you support film preservation, you are supporting the restoration not just of films, but the careers of everyone who worked in films. Rarely can one act support the restoration of so many people’s artistic efforts. Please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation today.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Please also visit the blogs of our generous hosts, who made this possible:

Thanks for reading. You can read more about Charlie Farrell and his frequent co-star, Janet Gaynor, in my book Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.


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