The Bells is a story with many incarnations. Best known as a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, and as a choral symphony by Sergei Rachmaninoff adapted from that poem, it is also an obscure French play from 1867, Le Juif Polonais, which was translated into English and performed in London as The Bells. It was a great success and ran for more than 150 performances at the Lyceum Theatre, remaining a lifelong moneymaker for actor/producer Henry Irving (who played Mathias). The play had no connection to Poe’s poem, but it was the source for a number of films titled The Bells.
It was common in the early silent era to film popular stage plays — dialogue melodramas which, of course, had no dialogue (an irony of the silent era). This was especially true in American cinema which turned often to novels and Broadway plays for adaptable material. But in Europe, and especially in Germany’s Weimar Republic Expressionist era, filmmakers were hell-bent on freeing themselves from proscenium source material and also from intrusive intertitles, exploiting the camera with ever more imaginative, even helter-skelter dolly, crane and handheld movement. These influences were being felt in American movies as well; Karl Struss’ tracking shot through the moonlit swamp, with the camera on overhead rails following George O’Brien, is one of the most memorable of these moving shots in late American silent cinema.
Between 1911 and 1931, at least four versions of The Bells were made. Three of them are “lost” to posterity — a percentage similar to that of the survival of silent films in the 2013 NFPB report by David Pierce. An Australian version from 1911, directed by W.J. Lincoln, is lost. A version from 1918, directed by Ernest C. Warden, is also lost, as is the British sound version from 1931, directed by Harcourt Templeman and Oscar Werndorff. (Its musical score, composed by Gustav Holst, best known for The Planets, is also lost.) A fourth version, the one most widely known and appreciated, was directed by James Young in 1926 and stars Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff.
James Young is a fascinating footnote in film history. He began acting in movies in 1909, and became a director three years later with the short The Picture Idol. Between 1912 and 1928, he directed 93 shorts and features. His last credit, Midnight Rose, was made on the eve of sound films; it is also silent. He lived another 20 years but never directed a sound film. If his version of The Bells had been lost, like the others, he would be even less than a footnote. Such are the vagaries of film history. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us who are increasingly vulnerable to the “digital dilemma” of our age; most of our movies today are photographed on a medium more fragile even than nitrate film, one that is subject to migration errors, format obsolescence and simple pixel dropout (called “digital nitrate” by archivists).
All of this is by way of introducing a contemporary filmmaker who has effectively given new life to near lost movies, and who has repurposed a voluminous amount of archival film: Bill Morrison. His work includes the documentary The Great Flood, and his most recent film is Back to the Soil, which uses 1927 footage shot by his grandfather to tell the story of Jewish colonies in the Ukraine.
Morrison is best known for his 2002 film Decasia. Featuring a score by Michael Gordon, founder of Bang on a Can, it is a 67-minute meditation on cinematic loss — a compilation of decayed footage, including scenes from two Hollywood movies, 1914’s The Lost Egyptian and 1916’s Truthful Tulliver (starring William S. Hart).
In an interview with Dave Heaton, Morrison explains how he found the footage, as well as the evolution of the musical score:
I looked at several hundred reference prints, probably closer to a thousand. They primarily are from the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library and the Cinematheque Suisse. There are a few shots that were provided by private collectors, A/V Geeks in Durham and Oddball Films in San Francisco. They range from 1914 to 1954 in age, although I used primarily films that had been originally shot on nitrate-based stock, especially those from before 1929. I would say a good deal of the actual footage is from the years 1927-1929, and the rest is spread all over.
Here is a trailer, which begins with images of a whirling dervish that gradually decay:
In an interview with Chris Darke, Morrison notes that critic Lawrence Weschler called the clips featured in Decasia “of the moment;” they exist in the present, subject to the same decay we aging humans suffer:
At screenings, I only make the single introductory remark that I didn’t do anything to these images; this is what time did to these images. Otherwise, people are going to wonder if this is the newest software gizmo that can stretch things in a psychedelic way, and here this guy has really gotten off subjecting us to it for 70 minutes.
As compelling as the Decasia images are, Morrison created an even more poetic state of mind in an eight-minute short he made two years later, Light Is Calling. Unlike the eclectic compilation of “found footage” featured in much of his work, Light Is Calling is made from a single short sequence from a 1926 silent feature: James Young’s The Bells.
Partly because the film’s flow of images is from a single sequence, and partly because of its slowed-down step printing, Light Is Calling unspools like a surreal, dream-like meditation on decay and loss, even as the viewer struggles to see the scene amidst the decayed nitrate images. The featured actors in this “remediation” of The Bells are Lola Todd, as the maiden who falls off a hay wagon, and Eddie Phillips, as the gendarme who rides to her rescue with his cavalry troops.
They are attracted to one another at first sight, and the film ends with the two hand in hand. These are the general visual and dramatic outlines of the scene, which is impossible to decipher otherwise. Here is Light Is Calling, with a pulsating score and haunting violin solo composed by Michael Gordon.
How is it that such corrupt footage is from a source so easily identifiable? Well, despite the condition of the footage in Morrison’s remediation, the film itself is not lost. In fact, it exists in complete form and is available on DVD.
You also can find it on YouTube, which is displaying it in nine parts. Part 2 includes the sequence with the lovers. It begins at 0:45 and ends at 3:35.
Light Is Calling was made from a decaying nitrate positive print. After viewing the uncorrupted scene, you may want to re-watch Morrison’s “remediation.” The practice of an artist appropriating pre-existing material from other media, or from his own medium, is of time-honored acceptance. One thinks of Warhol silkscreens, Rauschenberg assemblages, Kienholz rooms and constructs, and even Dada “readymades” in early work by Man Ray and Duchamp. In cinema, filmmakers like Morrison are rare. There is something about the sheer temporal flow of cinema, the visual record of its specific time and place, that resists the urge to reconfigure it. And in commercial cinema today, there is something even more resistible to true film artists about the thought of “remakes,” though the studios seem to view them, despite their uneven success rate, as cash cows.
My own feeling, as a gently aging filmmaker, is that I am becoming ever more engrossed with watching movies as time capsules, windows into a specific time and place. It’s a bit unsettling to have younger filmmakers refer to some of the treasured films I’ve photographed as “period.” Then, there are other movies, like Ordinary People, that seem unbound by the constraints of their fleeting moments in the cultural zeitgeist.
We filmmakers are movie magi who, as time passes, become custodians of the cinematic past, especially of other films that have mattered to us personally. I think it is one reason why so many of us become ersatz film historians as we age, seeing our own work not as standalone bravado, but as part of the flowing stream of cinema history.
In the end credits of Light Is Calling, I noticed the name of the cinematographer on The Bells: L. William O’Connell. It’s not a name many film historians will recognize. His career began in the middle of the silent era, in 1918. With his last credit, in 1952, he had photographed 180 movies. At his professional peak, in the early 1940s, he averaged at least a dozen credits a year. He photographed Shirley Temple movies, Charlie Chan, Will Rogers, and half a dozen Jiggs and Maggie movies. O’Connell will never be on any cineaste’s list of significant cinematographers, but he was an ASC member, one of a long list of journeyman cameramen who captured the culture of their time. Considering widespread indifference to deep cinema history in many quarters (even in some film schools), it is a wonder that so much has survived.
We think of the movies we saw in our youth as somehow locked into us as a personal touchstone of identity, something stronger than even a pop song can evoke. These films seem incorruptible, at least in our memories. So, there is an understandable anxiety about seeing beloved movies subject to decay, decomposition and disappearance. It’s what makes Light Is Calling so unforgettable, especially after you’ve seen the referent sequence from The Bells. On second viewing, I found the Morrison film to be not only an interesting study in photochemical decay and loss, but also a kind of spiritual transfiguration beyond its physical medium, a meditation on the body, on time, on the first pulse of love. Those dancing frames of nitrate corruption bubbling through and reconfiguring the actors offer a kind of lyrical Totentanz.
There are many ways for us to consider the at-risk movies that continue to be discovered in obscure film vaults and old basements and attics. Their crumbling physical condition is one way. The locked-in secret of our hopes and dreams is another,a dram-like time machine. To experience them merging into a new entity, as they do in Morrison’s “remediation,” is pure cinema magic.
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NEXT: “Peter Suschitzky and the Chiaroscuro Body”