LYON — Audiences attending the Grand Lyon Film Festival at the Institut Lumiere this week got a look at something that continues to be unseen by moviegoers for the much better part of a century: an alternate version of Buster Keaton’s 1922 two-reeler “The Blacksmith. ”
As first reported here in July, the particular noted Argentinian film collector plus historian Fernando Martin Pena found out the film, containing 5-6 a few minutes of different and previously undocumented scenes, in a collection of 9. 5mm film prints purchased on eBay by his friend and fellow collector Fabio Manes.
Which was just the beginning, however , of exactly what has evolved into a fascinating film-preservation detective story. Shortly after making his discovery, Pena reached out to France archivist and restoration expert Serge Bromberg, whose Lobster Films has brought hundreds of works of early cinema back from the brink of annihilation. Bromberg in turn began searching for the 35mm copy of “The Blacksmith” that would match the editing of the Pena/Manes version, eventually uncovering a single in the archives of France’s Center National de la Cinematographie, in a collection deposited there by the one and only Bromberg himself.
Only, this 35mm version contained an urgent bonus: yet another minute of video never before seen — or, a minimum of, not seen in a really long time. In this additional minute, Keaton’s hapless blacksmith character and his hulking boss (played by the actor-director’s regular foil, May well Roberts) briefly interrupt their madcap chase to gaze at the lighted silhouette of a woman undressing behind a shaded window. According to Bromberg, this somewhat racy gag (by 1920s standards) was likely cut from the 9. 5 mm version so as not to offend the sensitive sensibilities of home-viewing audiences, for whom that primarily European reduced-gauge format was designed.
Bromberg’s 35mm print was shown to Lyon audiences on Wednesday morning like a surprise following a screening of the 1931 Czech film “From Saturday in order to Sunday. ” It previously screened earlier this month at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, where Pena was also presented with a special citation.
If it sounds incredible that a leading authority such as Bromberg could have been sitting on his own alternate “Blacksmith” print for decades without actually realizing it, the answer is quite easy: because no one, Bromberg included, understood the film existed (unlike the particular long-sought original cuts of “Greed, ” “The Magnificent Ambersons, ” et al. ), no one wanted it. Indeed, it was by comparable chance that, in 1952, on the grounds of a house that formerly belonged to Keaton and ex-wife Natalie Talmadge, acting professional James Mason uncovered a vault containing decaying prints of many Keaton films, including the copy of “The Blacksmith” that has since become the only known version of the film.
By comparing the two versions in recent months, Bromberg and other historians (including the film locations expert David Bengtson) have determined that the Pena/Manes discovery represents a substantial reshoot of “The Blacksmith, ” done several weeks after the completion of principal photography as well as a preview screening in New York. It is now believed that Keaton intended the particular reshot film —which features more locations and fewer repeated gags than the first version — since his final cut, and that it was the version widely distributed in 1922, making its disappearance between then and now all the more puzzling.
“One of the wonderful things about cinema is that there are still mysteries like this to be solved, ” says Bromberg. “Now we will investigate further plus hopefully learn more. ” Indeed, in a further wrinkle, Bromberg has already found out a third version of “The Blacksmith” in the collection of former 16mm film distributor Blackhawk Films containing the scene set in a haystack that appears in neither of the 2 other versions. Lobster now plans to restore all three versions and eventually make them available on DVD.