March 12, 2013

Lost films, sawdust arena (the Wellington connection)

In the pantheon of lost films, FW Murnau’s 4 Devils (1928) is definitely up there. No print is known to exist – anywhere (see this link for background and some stills). Or could a print be lurking around in suburban Wellington? Things just as strange as that have happened. Remember when John Ford’s lost silent Upstream and other films showed up in the Film Archive in Wellington three years ago? (A reminder). I was scrowling through the National Library’s amazing Papers Past resource of old newspapers, searching under “Murnau”, and among the notices for screenings of Sunrise and bits of casting news from Hollywood, there was this. It was in the Evening Post, November 18, 1929 (link):
KILBIRNIE KINEMA
Through the medium of F.W. Murnau’s screen visualisation of “4 Devils,” a Fox production, which embodies a complete circus performance, the public gains an insight into one of the great circuses of the world. It is a drama of great beauty and power superimposed on a background of the sawdust arena. “4 Devils” is to be shown at the Kilbirne Kinema to-night, and has a notable cast of players, including Janet Gaynor, Charles Morton, Mary Duncan, Farrell Macdonald, Nancy Drexel, and Barry Norton. An interesting gazette and farcical comedy will also be screened.
According to legend, Mary Duncan either lost or destroyed the last remaining print of 4 Devils during the 1930s. Readers of a Wellington newspaper on an afternoon in November 1929 would have had no idea that a tram ride to Kilbirnie could have put them in front of a film that would turn out to be so rare – the Holy Grail of lost films, even – decades later. According to this resource, the Kinema closed in the 1960s (the Evening Post doesn’t exist anymore, either).

Other cinemas where 4 Devils played are also lost to history. In July 1929, it was at the Strand in Auckland. In November 1930, and this was possibly the end of the road, it played Akaroa (and you have to see the imaginative newspaper ad). But not all cinemas are lost: in June 1929, it played the Paramount, and the Paramount still stands – and still shows films. The reason why 4 Devils is as likely to be in Wellington – or in an attic in Akaroa – as anywhere else is because New Zealand was the end of the film distribution line and prints were often not sent back. They were archived, lost or destroyed.