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A silent gem rescued from the great beyond

November 20, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

FOR 75 years, "Beyond the Rocks," a 1922 melodrama starring silent screen superstars Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, was considered lost. Just a fragment of the actors' only on-screen pairing still existed, and for decades, archivists, fans and restorers had hoped the rest would be found.

"Beyond the Rocks" finally did resurface five years ago in the Netherlands, thanks to an eccentric collector. The restored version premiered this year at the Cannes Film Festival, and on Nov. 29 it will be screened at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater as part of its rediscovery series, "Lost and Found."

In 1922, it was rare for a film to pair two superstars. "That was a much later development," says academy programmer Randy Haberkamp. "I have been hard-pressed to think of any other movie from that era that had that big star power. Both were at the peak of their powers. She was huge, and he had done 'The Sheik' the year before."

The Paramount release, directed by Sam Wood from a novel by Elinor Glyn ("It"), is about the unrequited love between the handsome Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino) and the beautiful Theodora Fitzgerald (Swanson), who is forced into marriage with a much older wealthy man to help her poor father.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Film accompanist -- The last name of piano accompanist Michael Mortilla was misspelled as Mortillo in Sunday Calendar's Cine File article about the restoration of the silent film "Beyond the Rocks."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 27, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Accompanist's name -- The last name of piano accompanist Michael Mortilla was misspelled as Mortillo in last Sunday's Cine File article about the restoration of the silent film "Beyond the Rocks."

The story of the film's restoration involves a man in the Netherlands who'd amassed 2,000 rusty cans filled with nitrate films. "He was an eccentric figure," says archivist Giovanna Fossati, who supervised the restoration at the Nederlands Filmmuseum. "He was a collector in the broader sense of the word. He collected everything. I don't think film was his thing -- that's probably why he wasn't aware he had such an important film."

When the man died, his family offered his films to the museum. Archivists quickly realized there was no reliable information on the contents of the cans. "It took us a long time to open them and identify them. It took us a few years, and now we are doing it with the whole collection."

Initially, they were finding interesting fragments in the cans. "We had the impression at first there were not complete films in the collection. Then we came across one reel of 'Beyond the Rocks.' When a film is missing and the only thing that is existing is one minute and you find a complete reel, you are always very happy. And then we found a second and then we found the third. By the beginning of 2004, we had ... found the whole film."

The academy's Margaret Herrick Library supplied a 32-page "continuity script" of the film that included brief descriptions of each scene.

"But because this collector kept his collection spread over several locations, some of the reels were in more human places, so we have two very bad fragments [of decomposition] you see in the film," Fossati says.

Digital decision

BECAUSE the Filmmuseum had a sponsor funding the restoration, "we decided to restore this film early on using digital technology," Fossati says. "It is more expensive, but it does have a lot of advantages. You can do things digitally that you can't do with traditional photochemical duplications. There are a few things that computer software can handle very good, like stabilizing the frame."

But digital restoration isn't perfect. For example, the computers read fingers, dogs' tails and fence posts as scratches and remove them from the frame. "It is very much in the experimental stage," Fossati says. "Most of the time we spent digitally restoring a film, we were correcting the computers' mistakes."

Milestone Films, a company specializing in film discoveries, is distributing the film and will bring it out on DVD next year.

Milestone's Dennis Doros admits that "Beyond the Rocks" was trashed by critics in 1922. "What looked old-fashioned to them and over the top in '22 looks charming in 2005," he says, adding that the film was an acting breakthrough for Valentino.

"He was way over the top in 'The Sheik,' " Doros says. "He was rolling his eyeballs. But a year later, in 'Beyond the Rocks,' he was a modern dancer. Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks are ballet; Valentino and [Buster] Keaton are modern dance.... They move so beautifully. They are always part of the ground, which is modern dance. Valentino is a gorgeous mover."

The academy won't be presenting "Beyond the Rocks" with its newly recorded avant-garde orchestral score by Henry Vrienten, nor with the sound effects track. Instead, accompanist Michael Mortillo will provide an improvised score on grand piano.


'Beyond the Rocks'

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29

Price: $3 to $5

Contact: (310) 247-3600,

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