Hidden treasure in a film can: notes on our Technicolor rediscovery

Archivist Jane Fernandes offers detailed notes on the remarkable fragments of rare Technicolor film that she recently discovered at the BFI National Archive.

Jane Fernandes
Updated:

Watch the early Technicolor discoveries from the BFI National Archive

As a conservation specialist at the BFI National Archive, I come across many different types of film on a day-to-day basis. Often, I’m preparing films for screenings, or to be digitised, but sometimes more in-depth inspections are needed to determine the condition of a film.

These inspections can be very labour intensive, so sometimes a film may not have been looked at for many years – or possibly never had a detailed inspection at all.

In other words, you never quite know what to expect. And, of course, you always hope to find something special, but rarely do.

Recently, however, to my delight I found something very interesting indeed.

The film I was inspecting was the 1926 two-strip Technicolor film The Black Pirate, a swashbuckling pirate tale starring Douglas Fairbanks. At the beginning and end of some reels, I discovered several short fragments of other films. They had apparently been used as additional leader – a frequent practice to assist in threading the film through machinery, although usually blank film is used.

The Black Pirate has been in the BFI’s collection since 1959, but these fragments had not been recognised before, perhaps because of the difficulty in researching documents, books and journals by hand to help identify them.

These days, research is so much easier thanks to the internet and digitised records, but even so I had to hunt through many books and documents to try to work out what these fragments of film belonged to.

My interest in Technicolor and early Hollywood helped. I have spent many hours watching films starring actresses such as Mary Pickford, Clara Bow and Louise Brooks – and many hours reading books about them too.

And so I instantly recognised Louise Brooks and her characteristic bobbed haircut as soon as those few frames of what I’d discover were seconds of a lost 1926 film called The American Venus flickered into view.

Louise Brooks in a fragment of The American Venus (1926)

Louise Brooks in a fragment of The American Venus (1926)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Since this discovery was made public via the BBC and on the BFI’s YouTube channel, we’ve had many fantastic comments and queries. In an attempt to answer some of these, I’ve put together the following notes.

The found fragments

The American Venus (1926) – This is a possible costume test or an unedited shot of Louise Brooks. The American Venus was an early film role for Brooks who hadn’t yet starred in such iconic titles as Pandora’s Box (1929). Survival: incomplete, some sections in other archives.

The Far Cry (1926) – Likely a shot from the finished film featuring Blanche Sweet and John St Polis. Sweet was a rival of Lillian Gish, but never quite gained the same popularity. She didn’t transition to sound films well and only appeared in one film after 1930. This shot would have appeared in the last reel. Survival: incomplete, few frames in other archives.

Mona Lisa (1926) – Shot set-ups featuring Hedda Hopper. As the 1930s began, Hopper’s popularity as an actress declined, so she turned to writing as a means of income. Her work as a gossip columnist is widely known, and she’s been portrayed in many fictional works, most recently in the television series Feud, in which she is played by Judy Davis. These shots were quickly identified because the name ‘Rennahan’ was listed on the clapper board, referring to Technicolor specialist and cinematographer Ray Rennahan. Rennahan was the cinematographer on Mona Lisa, but is perhaps best known for his work on Gone with the Wind (1939). Survival: non extant; no other archives hold material.

The Fire Brigade (1926) – Likely shots from the finished film featuring May McAvoy and Charles Ray. May McAvoy went on to star in Warner Brothers’ first sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927). The Technicolor section appeared in reel six, which is where these shots would appear. Survival: almost complete in another archive.

Dance Madness (1926) – Surprisingly, this film was not Technicolor but instead completed in black and white. The Technicolor company kept exceptional records, which don’t mention an attempt to make this film in Technicolor. It’s likely the sets and costumes from the film were being used to test the Technicolor cameras for another production. This has happened before: for example, costumes and sets from 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad were used to test cameras for The Black Pirate. The survival of Dance Madness is unknown, so this is an interesting discovery, even though it’s a test.

Billie Dove Test (1926) – Costume and camera tests for Billie Dove, lead actress in The Black Pirate. Billie Dove previously starred in Wanderer of the Wasteland from 1924, which was also shot in Technicolor.

The Mysterious Island (1929) – An early costume or camera test of Karl Dane. The film began shooting in 1926, but production problems meant the film wasn’t completed until 1929. Dane himself also suffered many personal setbacks after his initial success in Hollywood in films such as The Big Parade (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). Dane came from Denmark (his birth name was Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb) and his accent was considered too thick when sound films were introduced. His height was also a problem: at six-foot-four he towered over his co-stars, making framing difficult. Sadly, he stopped being offered film work and, after several failed financial ventures, Dane took his own life. Recently his work has been rediscovered and appreciated again, culminating in 2008 when the Danish Film Institute held a Karl Dane Retrospective. For years The Mysterious Island was thought to be lost, but in 2013 a largely complete Technicolor print was discovered in Prague. Survival: almost complete in another archive.

Unidentified (1925/26) – Two still unidentified pieces are marked with the dates 1925 and 1926. The medieval costume scene is possibly a test for The Black Pirate. Since the BFI’s release of this footage on YouTube, a viewer identified the woman shown as Miriam Cooper. Cooper was married to Raoul Walsh, a friend and director of Douglas Fairbanks, so she may have been standing in for a costume test or possibly even trying out for the role herself. The man in the shot (unidentified) is wearing a necklace that was also featured in a previous Fairbanks film, Robin Hood (1922).

Miriam Cooper in an unidentified fragment

Miriam Cooper in an unidentified fragment
Credit: BFI National Archive

The other unidentified costume test is still unknown. Another YouTube viewer correctly recognised the man holding the clapper board as J. Henry Kruse, who worked as an assistant at Technicolor. The clapperboard reads ‘Miller. F.N. Test’. A YouTube viewer suggested that F.N. may stand for First National, which I had considered when first identifying these pieces. Miller may refer to Technicolor consultant Arthur C. Miller. Miller consulted on the First National Technicolor film His Supreme Moment (1925), which is from this period, so it’s possible this is a costume test for that film. His Supreme Moment featured Far Cry star Blanche Sweet, though, unfortunately, the film is thought to be lost.
  

Unidentified costume test

Unidentified costume test
Credit: BFI National Archive

A note on Technicolor processes and the digital scanning

All the pieces found within The Black Pirate were process II Technicolor, also known as the cement process. Unlike the later three-strip process known as process IV, made famous by films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), process II had a single negative in the camera, rather than three. A prism within the camera would split the entering light, separating out the red and green.

These were successively captured on a black-and-white negative, which had to run through the camera twice as fast as normal. To make the positive image, all the green frames were printed onto one strip of film and all the red frames onto another – hence why it’s sometimes known as two-strip Technicolor. To make the final print, the two pieces were dyed and then cemented together to make the final positive image.

Technicolor II film and printing process

Technicolor II film and printing process
Credit: BFI National Archive

Process II had a lot of problems in projection, such as warping due to the cement, as well as problems with unstable dyes, which caused fading. Technicolor process III was much more stable. It used the same negative process as process II, but was imbibed with dye on one piece of film instead of two dyed separations cemented.

Differences in Technicolor processes from left to right: faded process II, process III and process IV

Differences in Technicolor processes from left to right: faded process II, process III and process IV
Credit: BFI National Archive

To scan the films, I followed the printing process steps, attempting to simulate it digitally. If I had the separation matrices, I could scan each of them, but where I had negatives, I had to scan the whole negative. Then in editing I’d individually cut and rotate all the images that appeared upside down.

I digitally dyed each separation, using a surviving Technicolor process II positive as a reference. I then overlaid the red and green, as if they were cemented. Underneath the images I created the illusion of a light source, representing projector light. The result is an approximation of what the films may have looked like in colour.

Further discoveries

In an attempt to find more Technicolor footage in the archive, two previously unidentified pieces of process III Technicolor were also found:

Paris (1929) – These scenes feature opera singer Irène Bordoni and dancers. Survival: incomplete; a few frames of picture and the complete soundtrack survive in other archives.

Sally (1929) – This scene features Marilyn Miller. Miller also played the title role in the original Broadway musical. Survival: incomplete. The BFI holds a different scene of this film, which were discovered in 2015, but it’s mostly lost in colour.

Marilyn Miller in Sally (1929)

Marilyn Miller in Sally (1929)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Around the same time last year, the BFI also acquired some Technicolor process III fragments from 1929 musicals, which were discovered in a shop in Chingford. These also turned out to be rare examples:

Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) – This scene features Winnie Lightner and Helen Foster. Lightner had a short but memorable career in musicals and comedies and also appeared in the 1929 revue film The Show of Shows. Gold Diggers of Broadway was a Vitaphone film, which is a sound-on-disc system. In other words, the soundtrack was on a record, which was played at the same time as the image. As the soundtrack exists separately for Vitaphone films, it can often survive even when the film is lost. The BFI held the complete soundtrack for Gold Diggers of Broadway on tape (copied from the discs), which my colleague Mike Kohler was able to provide as a digital element. Many musicals from this period were Vitaphone films, including Paris, The Show of Shows, Sally and On with the Show! (1929). Survival: incomplete. The BFI also holds some other scenes from the film as do other archives.

An example of a Vitaphone projector held in the Museum of Moving Image, NY

An example of a Vitaphone projector held in the Museum of Moving Image, NY
Credit: BFI National Archive

On with the Show! (1929) – This very small fragment shows a wedding scene and a man on stage. Survival: incomplete. The film survives in black and white but is largely lost in Technicolor.

The Show of Shows (1929) – A few short pieces from the finale number ‘Lady Luck’. The BFI holds a partial black-and-white sound copy of this film. Using this as a basis, I inter-cut the pieces of Technicolor. After putting the clips on Youtube, some people suggested that Ann Pennington may be featured dancing. However, notes found online suggest that Pennington scenes were cut from the final film. Survival: incomplete. Survives in black and white; the BFI hold some other Technicolor scenes.

The Show of Shows (1929): Technicolor process III

The Show of Shows (1929): Technicolor process III
Credit: BFI National Archive

Technicolor fragment from The Show of Shows (1929) alongside the black and white copy

Technicolor fragment from The Show of Shows (1929) alongside the black and white copy
Credit: BFI National Archive

All of the Technicolor process III clips were scanned as they exist, with no colour corrections or brightness/contrast adjustments, in an effort to show the film exactly as it appears. There may be some minor fading, but Technicolor dyes tend to be very stable. The more orange/red colour is a characteristic of the two-colour process, rather than the result of fading. Considering these films are almost 90 years old, the colour is quite remarkable.

What a wonderful find these fragments are. Hopefully, there will be more discoveries like this in the future. It’s possible that other Technicolor negatives from the time of The Black Pirate may have similar fragments used as leaders.

That said, there were only around 34 films shot using the Technicolor process II, making them rare – and surviving negatives are even rarer, with possibly only five in existence. Once Technicolor process III was introduced, companies saw films shot using the old process as less valuable as they were likely to be screened less. This led to the sad destruction of many process II films, which were often melted down to reclaim the silver, a valuable element found within the film.

It’s possible that The Black Pirate was only saved from this fate as the negatives were held in Douglas Fairbanks’ private collection.

Positive elements – such as Gold Diggers of Broadway – can be more common and may still exist. New discoveries are still being made, so there is still hope of finding lost films.

You never know what treasure you might find hiding in the next film can.

Read more

  • BFI National Archive

    BFI National Archive

    We care for one of the greatest collections of film and television in the world.

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.