The year 1923, a century ago, was really a remarkably good one for movies that have stood the test of time.
One of the most iconic film images in history — Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a clock, high above Manhattan — comes from 1923’s Safety Last, one of the most perfect films ever made.
Contrarians (correctly!) cite Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, a laughless and nearly Chaplinless drama, as the Little Tramp’s best film. The British Film Institute recently wrote about 1923’s ten best films, and they’re a strong bunch; you should watch them all.
A Lost Film Lives Again
Released in September 1923, The Gold Diggers, a romantic comedy,was the seventh highest-grossing film that year; itself based on a hit play that ran for two years on Broadway in 1919 and 1920 and toured the country for years after that, its immense popularity spawned one remake (now lost) and four sequels and both invented and popularized the term “gold digger” to refer to a woman who marries for money.
Despite its financial and critical success a hundred years ago, and its tremendous influence on popular culture, The Gold Diggers is not on the BFI’s list, nor on anyone’s list, of the greatest films of 1923; in part because it was lost for nearly a century.
Happily, Joshua Cattermole, a film collector, discovered a partial print of the film in Mansfield, in Central England in 2021, stored in the back of an old van. He has painstakingly and beautifully restored the film in the couple of years since. His restoration has been making the rounds of film festivals, including in London, San Francisco, Toronto and elsewhere, with a home release hoped for soon. The original written score also survives, which has been performed recently as live accompaniment to the festival screenings.
The Film that Invented the Romantic Comedy
You can watch the first few minutes of the restored Gold Diggers on YouTube, without music, for a taste of the pristine beauty of the print, and its historical value: the opening scene was filmed at the actual New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City, home of the Ziegfeld Follies back in the Jazz Age.
If The Gold Diggers, directed by Harry Beaumont, comes off as a somewhat familiar though charming romantic comedy, it’s probably because this is where a lot of these tropes originated. When rich boy Wally wants to marry New York showgirl Violet, he must first win his guardian Uncle Steve’s approval. The wealthy uncle, of course, suspects that gold-digging is afoot, so Violet’s fellow chorus girls Jerry, Mabel and Topsy hatch a ridiculous romcom plan: the three pals will pursue Uncle Steve and his cronies so relentlessly and aggressively that Violet will seem like a choirgirl in contrast.
The chorus girls never consider that a bunch of old rich guys might enjoy their appalling attentions, and so, of course, their ill-considered romantic schemes yield unintended though happy consequences, drunken prohibition-era misunderstandings abound in beautiful, gilded Jazz Age apartments, and Love blooms in quadruplicate.
That the film still lacks two reels is of course an impediment to our full enjoyment, but intertitles fill us in on what we’ve missed, and the incredible charm of the performers carries us along, giving us a good sense of why audiences a hundred years ago were so enchanted.
Anne Cornwall, who played Violet very lovably, had a lengthy film career that ran till 1959; she also lived a long and happy life. John Harron, who played Wally, starred in around 160 films into the mid-thirties, when he died of spinal meningitis, at the young age of 36. The showgirl chums were played by the appealing Louise Fazenda, Hope Hampton and Gertrude Short, who also boasted hundreds of film roles each during the silent era; happily, they each avoided tragedy and premature death.
It’s always exciting when someone finds a lost film. The Magnificent Bardelys, starring John Gilbert, surfaced a few years ago, and it turned out to be an amazing, stirring, hilarious and swashbuckling revelation.
On the other hand, Just Imagine, the 1929 musical sci-fi film would have remained a great lost classic if it had never been found.
But each time it happens, we have more hope for the future. If The Gold Diggers can turn up in the back of a van in England after a hundred years, then maybe there is hope for the complete director’s cut of Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, the original silent versions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Cleopatra.
And so many others.
Content by Oblivioni. Image: John Harron and Anne Cornwall in The Gold Diggers.