Tag Archives: movies

Lost Treasures


A small proportion of classic movies remain in circulation and in our memories. Most are quickly forgotten. And some simply go missing. How could an old movie go missing? Well, it’s not very difficult: a temperamental, perfectionist director may demand the original be buried; or a fickle movie studio may wish to hide and remove all traces of last season’s flop; or some old reels, cast in nitrates, may just burn, literally. But, every once in a while an old movie is found in a dusty attic or damp basement. Or as is the case of a more recent find — film reels in a dumpster (if you’re a Brit, that’s a “skip”). Two recent discoveries shed more light on the developing comedic talent of Peter Sellers.

From the Guardian:

In the mid-1950s, Peter Sellers was young and ambitious and still largely unseen. He wanted to break out of his radio ghetto and achieve big-screen success, so he played a bumbling crook in The Ladykillers and a bumbling everyman in a series of comedy shorts for an independent production company called Park Lane Films. The Ladykillers endured and is cherished to this day. The shorts came and then went and were quickly forgotten. To all intents and purposes, they never existed at all.

I’m fascinated by the idea of the films that get lost; that vast, teeming netherworld where the obscure and the unloved rub shoulders, in the dark, with the misplaced and the mythic. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that as many as 50% of the American movies made before 1950 are now gone for good, while the British film archive is similarly holed like Swiss cheese. Somewhere out there, languishing in limbo, are missing pictures from directors including Orson Welles, Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. Most of these orphans will surely never be found. Yet sometimes, against the odds, one will abruptly surface.

In his duties as facilities manager at an office block in central London, Robert Farrow would occasionally visit the basement area where the janitors parked their mops, brooms and vacuum cleaners. Nestled amid this equipment was a stack of 21 canisters, which Farrow assumed contained polishing pads for the cleaning machines. Years later, during an office refurbishment, Farrow saw that these canisters had been removed from the basement and dumped outside in a skip. “You don’t expect to find anything valuable in a skip,” Farrow says ruefully. But inside the canisters he found the lost Sellers shorts.

It’s a blustery spring day when we gather at a converted water works in Southend-on-Sea to meet the movie orphans. Happily the comedies – Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You – have been brushed up in readiness. They have been treated to a spick-and-span Telecine scan and look none the worse for their years in the basement. Each will now premiere (or perhaps re-premiere) at the Southend film festival, nestled amid the screenings of The Great Beauty and Wadjda and a retrospective showing of Sellers’ 1969 fantasy The Magic Christian. In the meantime, festival director Paul Cotgrove has hailed their reappearance as the equivalent of “finding the Dead Sea Scrolls”.

I think that might be overselling it, although one can understand his excitement. Instead, the films might best be viewed as crucial stepping stones, charting a bright spark’s evolution into a fully fledged film star. At the time they were made, Sellers was a big fish in a small pond, flushed from the success of The Goon Show and half-wondering whether he had already peaked. “By this point he had hardly done anything on screen,” Cotgrove explains. “He was obsessed with breaking away from radio and getting into film. You can see the early styles in these films that he would then use later on.”

To the untrained eye, he looks to be adapting rather well. Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good For You both run 29 minutes and come framed as spoof information broadcasts, installing Sellers in the role of lowly Herbert Dimwitty. In the first, Dimwitty attempts to strike out as a go-getting entrepreneur, peddling print dresses and dishwashers and regaling his clients with a range of funny accents. “I’m known as the Peter Ustinov of East Acton,” he informs a harried suburban housewife.

Dearth, it must be said, feels a little faded and cosy; its line in comedy too thinly spread. But Insomnia is terrific. Full of spark, bite and invention, the film chivvies Sellers’s sleep-deprived employee through a “good night’s wake”, thrilling to the “tone poem” of nocturnal noises from the street outside and replaying awkward moments from the office until they bloom into full-on waking nightmares. Who cares if Dimwitty is little more than a low-rent archetype, the kind of bumbling sitcom staple that has been embodied by everyone from Tony Hancock to Terry Scott? Sellers keeps the man supple and spiky. It’s a role the actor would later reprise, with a few variations, in the 1962 Kingsley Amis adaptation Only Two Can Play.

But what were these pictures and where did they go? Cotgrove and Farrow’s research can only take us so far. Dearth and Insomnia were probably shot in 1956, or possibly 1957, for Park Lane Films, which then later went bust. They would have played in British cinemas ahead of the feature presentation, folded in among the cartoons and the news, and may even have screened in the US and Canada as well. Records suggest that Sellers was initially contracted to shoot 12 movies in total, but may well have wriggled out of the deal after The Ladykillers was released. Only three have been found: Dearth, Insomnia and the below-par Cold Comfort, which was already in circulation. Conceivably there might be more Sellers shorts out there somewhere, either idling in skips or buried in basements. But there is no way of knowing; it’s akin to proving a negative. Cotgrove and Farrow aren’t even sure who owns the copyright. “If you find something on the street, it’s not yours,” Farrow points out. “You only have guardianship.”

As it is, the Sellers shorts can be safely filed away among other reclaimed items, plucked out of a skip and brought in from the cold. They take their place alongside such works as Carl Dreyer’s silent-screen classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, which turned up (unaccountably) at a Norwegian psychiatric hospital, or the vital lost footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, found in Buenos Aires back in 2008. But these happy few are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of movies have simply vanished from view.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still from newly discovered movie Dearth of a Salesman, featuring a young Peter Sellers. Courtesy of Southend Film Festival / Guardian.


Computers in the Movies

Most of us now carry around inside our smartphones more computing power than NASA once had in the Apollo command module. So, it’s interesting to look back at old movies to see how celluloid fiction portrayed computers. Most from the 1950s and 60s were replete with spinning tape drives and enough lights to resemble the Manhattan skyline. Our favorite here at theDiagonal is the first “Bat Computer” from the original 1960’s TV series, which could be found churning away in Batman’s crime-fighting nerve center beneath Wayne Mansion.

[div class=attrib]From Wired:[end-div]

The United States government powered up its SAGE defense system in July 1958, at an Air Force base near Trenton, New Jersey. Short for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, SAGE would eventually span 24 command and control stations across the US and Canada, warning against potential air attacks via radar and an early IBM computer called the AN/FSQ-7.

“It automated air defense,” says Mike Loewen, who worked with SAGE while serving with the Air Force in the 1980s. “It used a versatile, programmable, digital computer to process all this incoming radar data from various sites around the region and display it in a format that made sense to people. It provided a computer display of the digitally processed radar information.”

Fronted by a wall of dials, switches, neon lights, and incandescent lamps — and often plugged into spinning tape drives stretching from floor to ceiling — the AN/FSQ-7 looked like one of those massive computing systems that turned up in Hollywood movies and prime time TV during the ’60s and the ’70s. This is mainly because it is one those massive computing systems that turned up in Hollywood movies and TV during the ’60s and ’70s — over and over and over again. Think Lost In Space. Get Smart. Fantastic Voyage. In Like Flint. Or our person favorite: The Towering Inferno.

That’s the AN/FSQ-7 in The Towering Inferno at the top of this page, operated by a man named OJ Simpson, trying to track a fire that’s threatening to bring down the world’s tallest building.

For decades, the AN/FSQ-7 — Q7 for short — helped define the image of a computer in the popular consciousness. Nevermind that it was just a radar system originally backed by tens of thousands of vacuum tubes. For moviegoers everywhere, this was the sort of thing that automated myriad tasks not only in modern-day America but the distant future.

It never made much sense. But sometimes, it made even less sense. In the ’60s and ’70s, some films didn’t see the future all that clearly. Woody Allen’s Sleeper is set in 2173, and it shows the AN/FSQ-7 helping 22nd-century Teamsters make repairs to robotic man servants. Other films just didn’t see the present all that clearly. Independence Day was made in 1996, and apparently, its producers were unaware that the Air Force decommissioned SAGE 13 years earlier.

Of course, the Q7 is only part of the tale. The history of movies and TV is littered with big, beefy, photogenic machines that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Sometimes they’re real machines doing unreal tasks. And sometimes they’re unreal machines doing unreal tasks. But we love them all. Oh so very much.

Mike Loewen first noticed the Q7 in a mid-’60s prime time TV series called The Time Tunnel. Produced by the irrepressible Irwin Allen, Time Tunnel concerned a secret government project to build a time machine beneath a trap door in the Arizona desert. A Q7 powered this subterranean time machine, complete with all those dials, switches, neon lights, and incandescent lamps.

No, an AN/FSQ-7 couldn’t really power a time machine. But time machines don’t exist. So it all works out quite nicely.

At first, Loewen didn’t know it was a Q7. But then, after he wound up in front of a SAGE system while in the Air Force many years later, it all came together. “I realized that these computer banks running the Time Tunnel were large sections of panels from the SAGE computer,” Loewen says. “And that’s where I got interested.”

He noticed the Q7 in TV show after TV show, movie after movie — and he started documenting these SAGE star turns on his personal homepage. In each case, the Q7 was seen doing stuff it couldn’t possibly do, but there was no doubt this was the Q7 — or at least part of it.

Here’s that subterranean time machine that caught the eye of Mike Loewen in The Time Tunnel (1966). The cool thing about the Time Tunnel AN/FSQ-7 is that even when it traps two government scientists in an endless time warp, it always sends them to dates of extremely important historical significance. Otherwise, you’d have one boring TV show on your hands.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: The Time Tunnel (1966). Courtesy of Wired.[end-div]


Alfred Hitchcock was a pioneer of modern cinema. His finely crafted movies introduced audiences to new levels of suspense, sexuality and violence. His work raised cinema to the level of great art.

This summer in London, the British Film Institute (BFI) is celebrating all things Hitchcockian by showing all 58 of his works, including newly restored prints of his early silent films, such as Blackmail.

[div class=attrib]From the Guardian:[end-div]

Alfred Hitchcock is to be celebrated like never before this summer, with a retrospective of all his surviving films and the premieres of his newly restored silent films – including Blackmail, which will be shown outside the British Museum.

The BFI on Tuesday announced details of its biggest ever project: celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.”

One of the highlights of the season will be the culmination of a three-year project to fully restore nine of the director’s silent films. It will involve The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock’s first, being shown at Wilton’s Music Hall; The Ring at Hackney Empire, and Blackmail outside the British Museum, where the film’s climactic chase scene was filmed in 1929, both inside the building and on the roof.

Stewart said the restorations were spectacular and overdue. “We would find it very strange if we could not see Shakespeare’s early plays performed, or read Dickens’s early novels. But we’ve been quite satisfied as a nation that Hitchcock’s early films have not been seen in good quality prints on the big screen, even though – like Shakespearean and Dickensian – Hitchcockian has entered our language.”

The films, with new scores by composers including Nitin Sawhney, Daniel Patrick Cohen and Soweto Kinch, will be shown the London 2012 Festival, the finale of the Cultural Olympiad.

Between August and October the BFI will show all 58 surviving Hitchcock films including his many films made in the UK – The 39 Steps, for example, and The Lady Vanishes – and those from his Hollywood years, from Rebecca in 1940 to Vertigo in 1957, The Birds in 1963 and his penultimate film, Frenzy, in 1972.

[div class=attrib]See more stills here, and read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (1935), often hailed as the best of four film versions of John Buchan’s novel. Courtesy of BFI / Guardian.[end-div]