15 Long-Lost Movies That Were Plucked from Obscurity
It’s easy to think of film as immortalizing people — there they are, up on the big screen, young and beautiful forever.
The truth is, though, that enormous amounts of films end up lost and forgotten. Incredible, era-defining work ends up wiped, rotting or sitting in a dusty box in an attic, labeled wrongly and in a format nobody can play. We think that in this modern age of digital everything and damn near unlimited storage that we’ve moved beyond such issues, but if you try watching something on YouTube from before about 2010, it looks like it was filmed with a shoe, and millions of us have CD-Rs filled with precious memories and computers with no CD drives.
Sometimes, someone is rooting through a big box of old crap and stumbles upon an old film reel that turns out to be an incredibly important part of cinema history. The performances, ideas and dreams of these long-gone people get to be seen again, and thankfully there are movie historians and academics who can contextualize it all — otherwise however modern and exciting and provocative and futuristic anything seemed at the time can seem like just so much other jittery old shit.
Poring through these archives to sort the pieces of history from the pieces of shit is a huge, neverending job — there are cupboards in basement offices in Hollywood that nobody’s touch in 75 years that might contain masterpieces, but who has the combination of time, money and expertise to look?
The Rocket-in-the-Moon’s-Eye Guy’s Greatest Hits
Most of the earliest films by Georges Méliès (of A Trip to the Moon fame) were long assumed lost, but several have turned up either mislabelled, packed away in dusty-ass archives or in the forgotten collections of outrageously old people.
Bing Crosby and Acid: What a Combo
Film collector Robert Martens found a long-forgotten reel of When the Organ Played “O Promise Me” — a Bing Crosby-narrated collection of psychedelic images intended to treat shellshocked veterans in World War II — in his grandfather’s collection.
Black American History, Left in a Box for 120 Years
A silent, 29-second 1898 film showing the first screen kiss between two African Americans — in an era where that was incredibly controversial — was found in an estate sale in 2018. It is now in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
A-Listers’ B-Movie (the B Stands for ‘Bear’)
More recent and less prestigious, Grizzly II: Revenge is an in-name-only sequel to 1978’s Grizzly, filmed in 1983 but only released in 2020. It stars a pre-fame George Clooney, Laura Dern and Charlie Sheen, all of whom die extremely quickly.
My Bum Is on the Dickens
A one-minute 1901 film, found mislabeled deep in the British Film Institute’s archive, is the first Charles Dickens adaptation ever, one scene from Bleak House starring Tom Green (not that one, no mooses are humped in it, it was 1901).
The Zombie King’s ‘Old People in a Park’ Epic
George A. Romero is best known for his zombie movies, but he also made a deeply odd, extremely disturbing movie about elder abuse. The Amusement Park was never properly released, languishing in obscurity for 50 years before its 2018 rediscovery.
The Lion in the Permafrost
A 1965 MGM California vault fire meant the loss of many historically significant films. One of these, 1917’s Polly of the Circus (featuring the debut of the MGM lion) was eventually rediscovered in 1978 — buried, amazingly, in the Yukon permafrost.
The Award-Winner Abandoned on a French Shelf
1927’s Wings was the first ever winner of the Best Picture Academy Award — preceding the “Oscar” nickname — but was considered lost for decades. A copy was rediscovered in Paris, painstakingly restored at a cost of $700,000 and rereleased.
Citizen Kane’s Unfinished
Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind began production in 1970 and was never finished despite hundreds of hours of footage — there were numerous fallings-out, and it sat in a safe in Paris until being completed in 2018.
Thomas Edison produced the first screen adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910. It went missing for decades, preserved only in still-image form, and was rediscovered in the 1980s by a movie historian in his mother-in-law’s collection of old reels.
Earliest Anime Unearthed
The first piece of anime is of huge historical significance, but shrouded in mystery — the three-second film shows a boy writing “motion picture” in kanji and bowing, dating from around 1907. It was found in an old crate of crap.
Captain Kirk’s Universal-Language Sci-Fi Epic
The Esperanto-language movie Incubus starring William Shatner — briefly seen during Blade: Trinity — was thought lost following a fire, but a dusty copy with French subtitles was found in Paris in 1996 and painstakingly restored. Turns out it’s shit!
The Evangelical Oscar-Winner
Marjoe, a portrait of evangelist preacher Marjoe Gortner, won the 1972 Best Documentary Oscar. After its acclaimed release, it was lost for three decades, until the co-director was working in the same processing lab during a clearout, and rediscovered the print.
Ouchy Pouches: The Ozsploitation Horror with Real ‘Roo Deaths
The master negative of super-violent controversial Australian horror movie Wake in Fright, which features real kangaroos being killed, was long thought lost, eventually discovered in a warehouse in a box marked “for destruction.”
‘Star Wars’ First Spin-Off, Kinda
The 25-minute short Black Angel screened before The Empire Strikes Back in Europe, directed by Star Wars art director Roger Christian. After this, it was thought to have been destroyed, but a print was found in an L.A. archive and restored.