By Josh Cattermole
I’m a film collector, and in 2021, I saw a sales listing online for some old movies of unknown provenance, which were being stored in the back of an old van in Mansfield, in Central England. I looked through the reels, which were in canisters and biscuit tins, and I was excited when I realized that they contained a previously “lost” film — but not just any lost film.
What I’d found was something of a “holy grail” of movie history.
The old biscuit tins in this old van in Mansfield held the only known copy of The Gold Diggers, unseen for nearly a century.
The Gold Diggers was the seventh highest-grossing film in 1923, so, in other words, a smash hit. This lost film was the source of one remake and numerous sequels. Shakespeare invented the romcom, but The Gold Diggers reinvented for the modern era with its mix-up, happy ending plot.
The movie is quite a fun piece, showing a bunch of girls trying to play some old guys to help out their friend, who wishes to marry the nephew of one of the old men. This is all set in the backdrop of the Roaring 20’s, which gives a fantastic insight into the era. That period is a favorite of mine, especially the costumes and various props of the time.
As for me, I’m just a normal guy. Got a day job, keep myself busy. I love pretty much anything to do with history, especially the hands-on stuff, so antiques are the best. Films, like I say, are a direct link to the people of the past, and it couples well with my old projector to show films as they would have been shown over a century ago.
My film collecting and preservation work started for me when I came across a small toy projector on eBay, as well as my first piece of film. I just worked my way up from there, sticking to silents as talkie films require more complex machinery to run the films.
But generally I keep to myself. I just keep my head down and keep on hunting. Often the magic of looking for these lost films is the fact that they may turn up anywhere, and it could be any film. There are so many lost films that it is a total lottery what may be found. I mostly trawl eBay to see what people are listing, ranging from house clearances to old collectors passing on. I’ve managed to find a range of subjects, including sports films, newsreels, comedy shorts and even 19th-century films from the earliest days of cinema.
As time has gone on, I have made many friends and contacts; they sometimes pass tips on to me, which I do for them at times. We nitrate collectors are often very busy with our own projects and lives, so we cannot always be on hand to take on another project. Also, because nitrate is flammable, we have to take storage into consideration. We can’t just have them lying about the house, because accidents could happen.
As for my own restoration, The Gold Diggers, all I can only really infer about the history of the print from the facts is that it got put away after its screening run. Central England would be, for such a film, pretty much the end of the distribution chain for silents. Also, the end title of the print, as it came to me, had a date code of 1930, which was for an unknown Universal film. It shows that the film was still screening, and in use, in 1930, and the less-than-pristine sprocket holes on the print show that it was quite worn out by then.
And, of course, talkies were coming in by 1930, so there would be no commercial value to show the film anymore, and the original distributor, after seven years, would not really want it back. So it likely got put away in the attic or a storeroom at whatever theatre it was last shown at.
Sadly, when the reels came to me, the film was incomplete, although the film itself was in surprisingly beautiful condition. The missing reels will have gone long ago, and the seller told me that he got it from a cleared- out house of some old gentleman. Perhaps a private collector; or more likely a random person who, perhaps, had relatives who took the film from the theater as a souvenir when it closed. Additionally, the film was mixed in with a reel of some 1920s newsreel footage, likely of the same provenance.
It’s always a thrill to find these films, especially as they are direct links to the past, and a world which is, in many ways, completely alien to us in the 21st century. I have an old projector, so I can view them myself and get a better appreciation for them, as opposed to just peering at the frames through a magnifying glass. The Gold Diggers was tricky, as there are always people breathing down your neck, wanting a known picture like this to be finished NOW, and that I should donate it NOW. Of course, it’s so incredibly complicated, and it is so easy for somebody sitting at home at their laptop to gloss over all of the hoops that need jumping through to get the film in a viewable condition of good quality. And, of course, that costs a great deal of money.
But I digress. My favorite finds are the really early films, anything before the Great War especially, pre-1914 for us here in the UK. I especially love colored films, or the early magic-trick films. The stuff from the earliest days, from when it was an emerging art form that was a novelty. Also, I am a historian interested in British history; that period covers the peak of the Empire, and some of my film finds can give fascinating glimpses into this historical period.
It’s a tricky question to answer what lost film I’d most like to find. Sure, another big title would be cool, but often that adds so much more pressure. Personally I would like to find more of the very early films, which shed light on the original emergence of cinema. Some lost early colored films would really be fantastic. Though, in truth, any lost material is fantastic, and beggars can’t be choosers.
All I know is that there are more out there, and I’ll keep looking.
Josh Cattermole is a historian and film restorer, currently working as an archaeologist in the UK.