Film Historian Unearths Never-Seen Cut of Buster Keaton’s 1922 ‘The Blacksmith’

The Blacksmith Buster Keaton 1922

Film collector, curator and historian Fernando Pena figured he’d made the biggest discovery of his career when, back in 2008, he uncovered a complete print of the original, uncut version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” The 1927 German expressionist sci-fi epic had been gathering dust in the archives of Argentina’s national Museo del Cine.  But one month ago, Pena topped himself when he happened upon an equally remarkable gem: an alternate cut of Buster Keaton’s  “The Blacksmith.” If “Metropolis” was Pena’s Holy Grail of lost film finds, count “The Blacksmith” as his Shroud of Turin.

One of the many two-reelers Keaton made for producer Joseph M. Schenck, the 1922 film stars the silent comic as a hapless small-town iron forger, and includes such signature gags as Keaton doing battle with a giant overhead magnet, destroying a pristine Rolls Royce in the course of fixing a tire, and getting his foot stuck in the path of a speeding locomotive. In the version discovered by Pena, half of the film’s first reel (approximately 5-6 minutes of screen time) consists of entirely different, never-before-seen Keaton gags, while the ending of the film also differs slightly.

Because it was common practice in the silent era for films to be shot with two cameras placed next to one another, resulting in two separate negatives — one for domestic prints and one for foreign export — various alternate versions of silent films have surfaced through the decades. (A print of Keaton’s own 1928 feature “Steamboat Bill Jr.” containing noticeably different takes and camera positions was discovered in 2010.)

But “The Blacksmith” is a special case because the two versions of the film vary so wildly.

Pena made the find while examining a lot of 9.5mm film prints purchased on eBay in 2008 by his friend and fellow collector Fabio Manes. Originally developed in 1922 by the Pathe company in France, the 9.5mm gauge went on to become a popular home-viewing format throughout Europe. The print of “The Blacksmith” contains French intertitles. In theory, this means that all 9.5mm European prints of “The Blacksmith” could feature the alternate footage, but until now nobody noticed.

As with the uncut “Metropolis,” which had languished undetected for decades as it was moved around from archive to archive, Pena notes, “It’s something that has always been there, but no one was looking for it.”

Most notably, the extended gag sequence in which Keaton accidentally sprays oil all over one side of a beautiful white mare is missing from the Pena/Manes print, replaced by a sequence of Keaton leaving the smithy and driving through town, where he runs over his harried boss (frequent Keaton foil Joe Roberts), followed by a madcap pursuit. Also included is a brief additional interlude between Keaton and leading lady Virginia Fox.

So far, Pena has shared his discovery with noted film historians John Bengtson and Kevin Brownlow, the latter of whom wrote in an email to Pena: “I have not seen European releases of American films which differ in any more than the odd shot, extra title or varying camera angle. Half a reel is unprecedented.” The next step, Pena says, is “to get the film restored and made available again to audiences — where it belongs.”

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  1. These new scenes from The Blacksmith, as shown in this post, tell us how Buster Keaton made movies at and adjacent to his small studio in Hollywood, and when he covered over his open air filming stage.

    http://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/found-a-new-version-of-keatons-the-blacksmith-and-the-tales-it-tells/

  2. Pablo Conde says:

    Nicely put, Mr. Foundas. Fernando Peña is a passionate, dedicated film lover, who spreads his knowledge in many forms, from tv to carefully programmed exhibits. His two discoveries (Metropolis and this one) are a god sample not only of his talent as an archivist and film detective, but as someone that deserves all the attention. Congratulations, Fernando!

  3. Fantastic, can’t wait to see the new completed version. Love Buster Keaton.

  4. giobravo says:

    Awesome! I wanna watch it on TCM.

  5. Sean Eurich says:

    What a great find! Can’t wait to see it!

  6. Reblogged this on John Schroter and commented:
    Finding anything new from Buster Keaton is always great news.

  7. Rhonda Tucker says:

    Set this man to looking for London After Midnight and Masks of the Devil!

  8. Great! Now how about The Magnificent Ambersons and Lady from Shanghai?

  9. Tracy S. Wolfe says:

    Hallelujah! Now all we need to find is “A Country Hero”.

  10. Fantastic find. Wish I had time to scrounge every Film Archive for such rarities. This makes every Cinematheque buff dreaming to take a world tour looking into so many over-looked boxes in the basement…

  11. There is visual proof that some scenes in “our” American Kino-Lorber version of The Blacksmith were filmed several months apart. There are horseback scenes that were filmed looking north towards the Metropolitan Studio (Harold Lloyd’s future studio base) in the background. Between shots, buildings at a lumberyard pop up in the background, suggesting the shots must have been taken months apart, allowing enough time for the new construction. One theory is that Pena’s footage was filmed first, shipped overseas, found to be unsatisfactory, and then new substitute footage for the American market was filmed later. If this theory is true it would fit with the several month gap I describe. The footage that Pena found has a view looking east towards the Keaton Studio from a small vacant lot on Cahuenga across the street. The footage shows that the Keaton Studio former open air filming stage is already roofed over. Interestingly, the movie filmed preceding The Blacksmith was Cops, the only Keaton film that has NO interior scenes. Perhaps Cops was deliberately structured without any interior scenes to give the studio carpenters a chance to roof over the stage, since the roof had to have been built sometime after The Goat and before The Blacksmith. (A 1921 aerial photo of the Keaton Studio shows sets from The Goat next to the still open air filming stage.)

  12. DBenson says:

    The bit of Keaton trying to propose while running for his life is good stuff, and it makes the ending just a bit less random. Now the question is why does an alternate version exist?

    — Outtake gags assembled to replace a missing or damaged chunk of the European negative at the time of release. The introduction of the girl’s father, requiring an intertitle here, hints that he turned up earlier in some version of the film.
    — Trouble shooting the sequence a second time, requiring creation of a replacement bit (but I understand the studios would dupe the American negative if a camera copy didn’t exist)
    — Foreign markets (or particular foreign execs) sensitive about content, making an alternate version necessary. Interesting to speculate on what the complaint was about. Humiliating a horse?
    — Maybe this discovery is the actual release that went out everywhere. My understanding is that many existing American copies of Keaton films derive from Keaton’s personal collection. If this is true, it’s just possible that Keaton had a preview or other alternate version in his vault instead of the release cut. (this, at least, could probably be confirmed or refuted by contemporary trade reviews)

    It’s not only a great find for comedy lovers. It’s a nifty puzzle.

  13. itsjustmovies says:

    Very cool. I can’t wait to see the alternate scenes.

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