This year’s Silent Film Festival marks a significant event in history for silent film buffs. The festival lasted the night of Feb. 27, and all day Feb. 28, showing many restored films, but none with so miraculous a story as the film designed for the event’s culmination: “Bardelys the Magnificent.”
Saturday night, this timeless romantic comedy enjoyed its first showing in the United States since its opening tour, a span of at least 80 years. David Shepard of Flicker Alley Films brought “Bardelys” from Europe for its American debut.
“Topeka isn’t what you would call a cultural center, but this is an extraordinary event,” said Shepard. The uniqueness of the movie is not really in the film itself (although it was witty and entertaining), but in the efforts expended to restore it.
“Bardelys” is a tale of a Don Juan-esque French nobleman who is forced into a bet about wooing a certain lady for a wife, and amidst court intrigues, treason and mistaken identities, the Marquis de Bardelys finds himself in a world of trouble. The film was supposed to be a great hit when it was first debuted by MGM in 1926; it was based on the book by Rafael Sabatini, and paired actor John Gilbert with director King Vidor. Both Gilbert and Vidor were great MGM favorites, and had just made a successful movie, “The Big Parade,” a year earlier, which predicted triumph for “Bardelys.” Too bad the triumph was trumped by movies with sound, which came out in 1927.
In 1936, the film rights for the book came due, and MGM had two options: to renew the contract, or destroy all known films of “Bardelys.” Since silent features were out, the company burned the film. It seemed as though that was yet another great film lost forever. Then, just two years ago, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of the Paris-based Lobster Films stumbled onto reels of film that turned out to be the lost “Bardelys.” They contacted Shepard about the find, and then began facing the problems that went with it.
The biggest complications were that an entire reel-worth of film was missing, the titles were all in French, and, even if these obstacles could be mounted, none of these men had the rights to the film. Shepard set to work, exhausting his resources to find whatever pieces remained of the original movie. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had about 250 still frames left from the original shooting of the movie, which were used to fill in the holes left by the missing reel. Then, the original titles were tracked to the library of the University of Southern California. Finally, it was discovered that Sony had bought the rights to the movie, which they handed over to Flicker Alley and Lobster Films, free of charge.
With these difficulties solved, next came the issues with the film itself. It was nearly impossible to comfortably view the film in its original format, so it was put on DVD, where Shepard and his crew used what he called “digital magic” to make it less objectionable. That is how the film came to be shown here in Topeka at the festival, accompanied by live music provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Next week, the orchestra is recording a sound track for “Bardelys,” which will be played on the DVD being released by the end of the year.
Apart from his work, Shepard has an evident love of silent film. He loaned several of the restored films shown this weekend.
“I loaned them because films are only alive when they’re in front of an audience, not sitting on a shelf in a can,” said Shepard.
He believes the importance of silent films is found not in their medium, but in the story they communicate.
“A work of art has validity independent of its technical resources,” said Shepard.
Shepard said there are bad silent films just as there are bad modern films, books and paintings.
“Not every work of art is a masterpiece,” said Shepard. “In time, the bad sink, and the good rise to the surface. We can always appreciate sincere, creative, resourceful work.”