The Discovery and Restoration

"The Discovery" by Elif Rongen-Kaynakci, Film Collections Department, Nederlands Filmmuseum

We couldn't believe it. Because we do see unique prints, that's not that exceptional. But this is really sought after, so that is the difference. When we realized that this was the film with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino that everybody was looking for, then yes, we were really excited.

We found this film in a collection that was left to us in 2000 after the death of a private collector. It's a very big collection - I'm afraid, more than 2000 cans of films. Unlabeled. No list. Nothing. When they moved to the vault, they were scrambled. When this collector was alive, there were rumors that he had some lost Dutch films from the silent period. So we heard this, and because of this, actually we wanted to get this collection. We had no idea what he had - he didn't have any connection to the Filmmuseum when he was alive. This collector was a hobbyist, a collector in the general sense. So he collected everything.

Actually, the very first two cans were found by other people who were making a very quick registration. They were working so fast they were not identifying the films. And as you can see, this is the Dutch version, so the title is not in the film. It doesn't say "Beyond the Rocks." Also, the first parts found were from the middle part of the film, so they didn't really recognize it as such. And then when we started looking a bit further, we noticed the names "Captain Fitzgerald," and luckily for us, Gloria Swanson is called Theodora in the film. And we were so lucky because the Dutch version keeps the name Theodora intact, because sometimes they change the names Identifying the film then is very easy because then we typed it in the Internet, Theodora Fitzgerald, a film from the 1920s and it just came up. We couldn't believe our eyes, because it said "Beyond the Rocks." It was a big surprise for us.

"A Race Against the Clock: The Discovery and Restoration of 'Beyond the Rocks'" by Jente Posthuma

More than four years ago, in the archives of the Filmmuseum, the first fragments of the long-lost a classic "Beyond the Rocks" (Sam Wood, 1922) turned up in the estate of a Dutch film lover. Hundreds of rusty film cans had to be opened, and it was several years before the six remaining rolls of film were found. At the end of 2003, the last missing pieces appeared, and the Filmmuseum could start on the restoration.

Henny Vrienten composed a new score. The Haarlem film collector had six buildings packed with mementos. And even then there was a lack of space. Until his death in 2000, the man slept between columns of film cans filled with extremely flammable nitrate film. The collector, described by his acquaintances as "a little suspicious of character," had a habit of dividing the reels of the longer films in his possession between different storage depots. As a result, those who inherited his estate found themselves with a collection of incomplete films. After the death of the collector, the Filmmuseum was given more than 2000 rusty film cans - the contents of one storage depot - without any information about its contents. So a long process of stocktaking had to start.

Can after can was pried open, and one reel of film after another emerged. Some films were still in a reasonable condition. Others were in an advanced state of decomposition. It was still an enormous surprise to find that this mountain of rusty film cans with no name contained one of the most coveted films from the silent film era, a film that historians had been looking for 75 years. And in addition, the fact that this Dutch version of "Beyond the Rocks" was virtually complete and had not been irreparably damaged is nothing short of a miracle, certainly in view of the collector's storage methods.

In "Beyond the Rocks," the first male sex symbol in film history, Rudolph Valentino and the greatest Hollywood star of her era, Gloria Swanson, appeared for the first and last time together in a film. "Beyond the Rocks" (or "Gouden boeien," the Dutch title which translates to "Golden Shackles") is a melodrama about the impossible love between Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino) and Theodora Fitzgerald (Swanson) who marries a much older millionaire for the sake of her father. After many vicissitudes - Valentino saves Swanson twice from a precarious situation - the two lovers finally get each other.

The chance that the film would ever be rediscovered was incredibly small and only getting smaller. Film conservators are in a race against the clock. "If 'Beyond the Rocks' had been found a couple of years later, the whole film would probably have been damaged by decay," says Giovanna Fossati, conservator at the Filmmuseum. "Now, the film is still in reasonable condition. The celluloid is affected, but the images are still visible. There are only two places in the film where it is seriously damaged. These scenes can unfortunately not be repaired."

In the film-restoration laboratory Haghefilm in Amsterdam, Fossati worked for several months on restoring "Beyond the Rocks." "Normally speaking, restoration starts with investigating other material, for instance other film copies are used as comparison. In the case of 'Beyond the Rocks,' this phase was omitted. There was no other film material to compare it with."

What the Filmmuseum was able to trace after a worldwide quest is a list of the original English intertitles and a 32-page "continuity script" including brief descriptions of each scene. These were stored in the archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. The list of intertitles and the continuity script were very important in answering the question of whether the Dutch copy was cut in the same way as the American original. "As happened quite often, the Dutch intertitles turned out not to be literal translations of the English. The Dutch version has less double entendres, metaphors and such like." Fossati also thinks that the Dutch copy must have been a cheaper distribution print. "The Dutch title cards look simple. They didn't have frames or illustrations and the number of colors in our version is limited. While in the continuity script, there are clear references to a variety of tints and combinations of colors."

The film was cleaned, repaired and duplicated. An attempt was made to approach the original colors on the new print as much as possible. Cables, scratches and patches were removed digitally. That is very expensive, but it provides results that are impossible with photochemical restoration. "We try not to remove what is known as the 'inherent characteristics' of a film," says Fossati. "A silent film was for instance never entirely stable. In order to preserve this historic element, we did not make the picture completely stable during the restoration."

How humbly should a conservator be with respect to history? This is a question that has fascinated film restorers for dozens of years. May a conservator stray from the original, for instance to make a film more accessible for a contemporary audience? "There are all kinds of ideas about the way in which one should treat silent films," explains Fossati. "Some people say you should not only be faithful to the original form of the film, but also to the circumstances in which it is screened. For this reason, old film theatres are precisely reconstructed. Others use old films to make an entirely new version, with new colors and modern music. At such a moment, you are a beyond the domain of restoration, you become a kind of producer. I think that you should first save the original for posterity, and only then can you start work on a new version."

In the case of "Beyond the Rocks," a decision was taken to make a new version of the film, with a new soundtrack. Such a version does demand a variety of technical changes. For instance, the speed of the film has to be adapted to the speed of a modern film projection, which has been 24 frames a second since the introduction of sound film. Because "Beyond the Rocks," like many silent films, originally had a slower projection speed, the film had to be "stretched" by repeating frames. Fossati said, "There is also a lot of debate among restorers about stretching old films, but it is necessary if you want to screen the film as a sound film. And the audience will hardly notice anything. In certain conditions, if you look closely, you might just see something of it."

While Fossati was busy restoring "Beyond the Rocks" ("in the coming months I will live in the film"), Henny Vrienten was already working on the new sound score. "Ideally you should first make a final cut and only then work on the music," Fossati admits, "but there was no time for that. We wanted to screen the film during the Biennial." So Vrienten had to make do with a provisional version. "The version that we gave Vrienten had to be exactly the same length as the final product, otherwise sound and vision would not remain synchronized. An early stage, we had to decide exactly where the intertitles should be and how long they should stay on the screen." That same problem emerged during restoration of the silent film "Zeemansvrouwen" ("Sailors' Wives," Henk Kleinman, 1930), which was premiered during the first Filmmuseum Biennial in 2003. This film was also stretched, and Vrienten also composed the soundtrack for this film. "The first time that we saw the new sound print of "Zeemansvrouwen" projected, I was very surprised, because everything was perfectly synchronized. In the case of "Beyond the Rocks," I didn't yet dare hope for that. It was very risky!"

In fact, it worked to perfection.

Return to the "Beyond the Rocks" page