LYON — Audiences attending the Grand Lyon Film Festival at the Institut Lumiere this week got a look at something that has been unseen by moviegoers for the better part of a century: an alternate version of Buster Keaton’s 1922 two-reeler “The Blacksmith.”
As first reported here in July, the noted Argentinian film collector and historian Fernando Martin Pena discovered the film, containing 5-6 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.
That was just the beginning, however, of what has evolved into a fascinating film-preservation detective story. Shortly after making his discovery, Pena reached out to French archivist and restoration expert Serge Bromberg, whose Lobster Films has brought hundreds of works of early cinema back from the brink of extinction. Bromberg in turn began searching for a 35mm copy of “The Blacksmith” that would match the editing of the Pena/Manes version, eventually uncovering one in the archives of France’s Centre National de la Cinematographie, in a collection deposited there by none other than Bromberg himself.
Only, this 35mm version contained an unexpected bonus: yet another minute of footage never before seen — or, at least, 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, Joe Roberts) briefly interrupt their madcap chase to gaze at the illuminated 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 delicate 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 as a surprise following a screening of the 1931 Czech film “From Saturday 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 like Bromberg could have been sitting on his own alternate “Blacksmith” print for decades without ever realizing it, the answer is quite simple: because no one, Bromberg included, knew the film existed (unlike the long-sought original cuts of “Greed,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” et al.), no one was looking for it. Indeed, it was by similar chance that, in 1952, on the grounds of a house that formerly belonged to Keaton and ex-wife Natalie Talmadge, actor 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 John Bengtson) have determined that the Pena/Manes discovery represents a substantial reshoot of “The Blacksmith,” done months after the completion of principal photography and a preview screening in New York. It is now believed that Keaton intended the reshot film —which features more locations and fewer repeated gags than the first version — as his final cut, and that this 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 and hopefully learn more.” Indeed, in a further wrinkle, Bromberg has already discovered a third version of “The Blacksmith” in the collection of former 16mm film distributor Blackhawk Films containing a scene set in a haystack that appears in neither of the two other versions. Lobster now plans to restore all three versions and eventually make them available on DVD.