Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Treasure Island - "X" marked the spot?!

The history books have not been kind to Maurice Tourneur.  It is not the fault of the authors or cinema researchers; a large amount of Tourneur's films are lost today.  The only hints available for the films that have slipped through the cracks are from original reviews and original promotional items.  The world will probably never see THE LUNATICS (1913), his rendition of Edgar Allan Poe's The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, where inmates violently take over an insane asylum.  The world has also been robbed of his film, WHILE PARIS SLEEPS (1923), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. in the lead role as cinema's first ever mad wax figure sculptor.  In fact, Tourneur displayed an affinity for working with a wide range of genres, a gift for technical ingenuity and cinematic vision, but one of the running elements throughout his career were the sadistic, twisted themes he was inspired by on Paris' Grand Guignol stage.  So there is an implication that his lost films often revisit these concepts, even if the facts often remain frustratingly illusive.

After several years working extra roles in Hollywood, Lon Chaney, Sr. truly gained the film world's attention with his role in the film, THE MIRACLE MAN (1919).  As what would be known as a terrific working relationship between Chaney and director Tod Browning began, Chaney and Maurice Tourneur concurrently began to work together for a series of films, too.  In hindsight looking at these two artists' careers, they must have agreed on much in their world, from how they viewed worthwhile storytelling, to feeling that the studio system, and the Hollywood social circles, were not within their comfort zones.

Tourneur and Chaney worked together on VICTORY (1919), based on Joseph Conrad's novel of the same name.   This film is available on DVD and is an absolute must-see!  Chaney played a brutal and lusting pirate, and Tourneur created such dramatic tension and implied horror amongst beautifully lit and framed scenes.  If there is a single example of why it is a crime that any of the film collaborations between these two artists are lost, this film explains it all!   Directly following up this production, the two shot WHILE PARIS SLEEPS (1923), but the film was oddly shelved for several years until Chaney was established as box office gold.  Completing their working relationship together, Maurice Tourneur produced his own version of  TREASURE ISLAND (1920).  It is said, and photographs from the film prove, that Chaney appeared in heavy makeup, allowing him to be cast as multiple roles unrelated to each other.  This film hasn't been seen by human eyeballs in multiple generations.

A still from VICTORY (1919)
It is strictly conjecture to imagine if the two actually talked about Tourneur's personal experiences attending the Grand Guignol in his formative years in France.  While Chaney would forever be synonymous with the twisted faces and bodies he created for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925/29) and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), the majority of his roles would often be more complex than the gruesome, tongue in cheek gore being displayed in the Paris theatre.  Tourneur anticipated the horror genre, and the horror director, by decades, but was in no way limited to the subject.  He is also credited as filming one of the first gangster movies ever, and imaginatively exploring film language as D.W. Griffith's peer, if not technical superior.

Almost mirroring each other, Tourneur became frustrated with the constraints of the studio system, and departed for France midway through completion of the MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1929), and Chaney would socially withdraw from Hollywood by going fishing in the wilderness with his family saying, "Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney."

That's the back story on the cinematic relationship between Lon Chaney, Sr.  and Maurice Tourneur.  And then...  I was randomly searching on eBay and lo and behold, look at the auction I stumbled upon:

The following is the back and forth conversation I had via eBay with the auction's seller.  I've included dates and times so that you can get a sense of my anticipation:

From me on Dec-07-11 17:25:48 PST:

You don't still happen to have the film, in as bad quality as it was, in your possession, do you? There have been multiple version of the story filmed so I wonder if it was definitely this version of the version with Wallace Beery instead. Any info would be much appreciated! I'm a huge Maurice Tourneur and Lon Chaney, Sr. fan, and this film for this movie is somewhere between lost and really rare!


From them on Dec-07-11 05:43 PM:

I gave the film to a friend of mine. I was going to pitch it but he wanted it. I tried watching it but there was no sound and the quality was really really bad. I can't believe the price this poster is going for. It's just two guys bidding. They must be nuts!!!!

From me on Dec-07-11 19:15:57 PST:

It was a video? Or a film print? I really would love to see a copy of this!!! If you can ask your friend to contact me, or give me his/her contact, I'd gladly pay them for their time and effort for a copy!

And congratulations on the winning bid price of the poster!

thanks again! :)

From them on Dec-07-11 07:35 PM:

no it was a old film. we found these posters and that film in a house that we cleaned out. the film had a old rotten smell like old vinegar. it was horrible. i played it and it had no sound and the quality was poor so i was going to throw it out but he wanted it so i gave it to him

From me on Dec-07-11 19:43:11 PST:

I really would be willing to pay your friend money for the print! I'm a huge fan of the director Maurice Tourneur and one of the main actors, Lon Chaney, Sr. I would need to find out more information regarding the print, especially if this is nitrate.. you could both be handling dangerous materials! Please ask them to contact me!

From them on Dec-07-11 07:48 PM:

alright i'll tell him. i figured it was dangerous that's why i pitched it. i've heard stories about old movie houses burning down from that stuff

From me on Dec-07-11 19:58:32 PST:

Great! Yes, the number one thing is it is a safety issue for anyone near the thing! I used to work in a film archive and basically what he's storing is equal to dynamite! And please tell him I live in NYC and have some contact with various film houses and can possibly get it transferred to a safer film stock and have the nitrate film disposed of properly. As a film fan, I am desperate to see this film!

From them on Dec-07-11 08:02 PM:

alright i'll tell him

From me on Dec-12-11 14:49:15 PST


Just touching base. I've been in contact with a few film preservation people, but I'm hesitant to make any major actions or research before I hear from either you or your friend. There are multiple questions and possibilities, such as could this be the early 30s Treasure Island missing its accompanying sound discs (if it was even issued in that format), or definitely the Maurice Tourneur production. Also, If that's definitely what it is, is it complete or only a partial film. I've got a friend who can be easily be in contact with Lon Chaney's estate, and would like to present this to them, but as I said, I'm hesitant until I hear from you guys.

Thanks again!

From them on Dec-12-11 04:34 PM: 

I'm sorry for not getting back with you. I talked to my friend and he pitched out the film shortly after I gave it to him which was back in the summer. He heard the same thing I did about it being dangerous so he got rid of it. Thanks

From me on Dec-12-11 18:10:22 PST:

Oof! That is horrendous news! If if somehow turns out your friend thought he threw it out, but it's underneath something or, or, anything really! I know lots of people that would be extremely interested to see this film and probably pay the costly restoration fees!

From them on Dec-12-11 06:31 PM:

why would anyone want this? surely there are many other high quality copies out there. this wasn't even hardly viewable. it had no sound and you couldn't hardly make out any picture

From me on Dec-12-11 19:16:17 PST:

 Here's the official(ish) word on the matter:

I don't even know how much a thing like this would cost honestly. I just know I am, or was, serious about it not being lost forever to film students and historians. 

From them on Dec-12-11 07:19 PM:

so you're telling me that i had the only copy of this film to exist????

From me on Dec-12-11 18:57:45 PST:

It's not commercially available. Supposedly there are private collectors who go after things like this so they can boast to themselves that they have the only copy. So there might be a copy in the hands of someone, but these kinds of films deserve to be restored and shown to the world. Maurice Tourneur is a virtually lost filmmaker himself, he's never been given the proper credit for his innovations in the early years of film history because so much of his early catalog lost. Plus, this is a incredibly rare and interesting performance (or two) of a young Lon Chaney. Does this silent film from 1920 exist elsewhere? Maybe? But not that I, or the general public, have access to. The same is said about films like London After Midnight.

Again, I don't know to what extent of deterioration the film was in, but you'd be surprised what proper film restoration can accomplish. It would have taken major grants or investors, but not out of the question either since I've got a lot of contacts.

From them on Dec-12-11 07:25 PM:

wow that's interesting. i can't believe i had something that rare in my hands. me and a friend of mine cleaned out a house back in the summer and found these items. i figured the poster was worth something but i had no idea that film was worth anything. well i shouldn't say that i figured it might have been worth a little bit but had no idea it was that historically significant like you saying and i knew it was dangerous to be around is why i threw it away. wow that's amazing i wish i would have kept it now

From me on Dec-12-11 19:33:44 PST:

Drown our sorrows, indeed.
Same here!!! If it was truly what we think it was, (and it's possible it wasn't, or not in its entirety) I would have been proud to even just be involved with 'the find' for history's sake! I don't have a clue what the market value on such an oddity would be, but newsworthy for sure! And me, well I'm covered in tattooed portraits of Lon Chaney, Sr. from some of his many movie roles and couldn't be more honored to facilitate this film coming back into the world! Was the film multiple reels? Any idea who owned the house once upon a time? Was it an old film projectionist? I wonder what he could have in the basement or buried in the backyard?! haha

From them on Dec-13-11 06:55 AM:

it was a house in columbus ohio. my friend runs ads to do house cleanouts and we found this in the basement. it was a boxfull of film. i can't remember how many reels there were i only looked at one reel. it could have been on multiple reels or there could have been other film in there. wow im sort of bummed out now. i don't know if i want to tell my friend or not

From me on Dec-12-11 19:24:20 PST:
The only OFFICIALLY KNOWN copy, yes!!!!!

From them on Dec-13-11 06:56 AM: 

and i threw it in the trash. amazing


  1. "i don't know if i want to tell my friend or not" .

    Oh yes you do! I, and I'm sure others, will donate $25.00 for the sole purpose of getting this guys friend to track down whatever trash heap this film may have landed in. At least one reel isn't gummed and glued together, and I'll bet the promise of a couple hundred $$$ would get these guys moving.

  2. Prince of Wails, may I suggest you bring this situation to the attention of all those film preservation groups we know, AIF, Martin Scorsese, MOMA, etc.

    Yes "Treasure Island" may well be as lost as those reels that ignited in a Queens attic in the late 80s.

    But these guys are junk men, and they clean out buildings. And these junk men are PRECISELY the people we need to educate about, if not the cultural value of lost films, then how much reward money they can earn for being aware that those reels of films they may have thrown away can bring them.

    Lost films are not found in YOUR basement. They are not found in stores. At best they may be found at garage sales (lost episodes of Doctor Who). Occasionally in movie theaters (Georges Méliès) but the COLOR version of "Le Voyage dans la Lune" was found in a barn!

    Time is fast running out. I suggest an ad campaign directed at publicizing how lost films have been found abandoned, just like this, and a reward.

  3. woah...such idiots...but at some points it seems like a goof or a hoax...he keeps saying there was no sound as if he never heard of a silent film even after you going on & on about it...

  4. I thought so at times, too. Especially when they apparently knew enough about the type of projector to use, but not that there would be sound. But they did seem genuinely amazed at the 900 dollar ending bid on the original poster. Either way, I can't vouch for what the eBay seller wrote, just sharing what I experienced.