Carole Lombard's screen debut in 1921's "A Perfect Crime," when she was still Jane Alice Peters and all of 12 years old, has long been lost to history. Sadly, most movies from that era have shared a similar fate; according to film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, up to four-fifths of films issued before 1930 have either disappeared or are damaged beyond repair.
Sunday at 8 p.m. (Eastern), TCM in the U.S. will present a tantalizing glimpse at what's disappeared in a two-hour special called "Fragments." It contains clips of films that only survive piecemeal, taunting reminders of what we've lost. The special is produced by Flicker Alley, and features material from the Academy Film Archive, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. (It's similar to a presentation that was given at last year's TCM Classic Film Festival.)
What makes "Fragments" all the more frustrating is that among the celluloid victims on display here are several of the most notable names of pre-1930 cinema, including director John Ford and actors such as Emil Jannings, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Lon Chaney Sr., Theda Bara...and Clara Bow.
For much of the late 1920s, Bow was the biggest female star in Hollywood, a meal ticket for Paramount -- and yet, several of her hits are either lost or survive in bits and pieces. Among the latter is "Red Hair," and Sunday you'll see the only known color footage of Clara, in two-strip Technicolor. Bow's biggest contemporary "flapper" rival, Colleen Moore at First National, suffered similarly; in fact, when she died in 1988, she had outlived the last known copy of her breakthrough hit, "Flaming Youth." Both were victims of an industry philosophy that viewed its work as generally ephemeral, with little or no emphasis placed on preserving product.
Even an Academy Award wasn't enough to preserve a film; "Fragments" contains the only remaining footage of Jannings' Oscar-winning performance in "The Way Of All Flesh." (Jannings also won for "The Last Command," which survives intact.)
Bara's legendary 1917 portrayal of Cleopatra, long before Claudette Colbert or Elizabeth Taylor tried their hand at playing the legendary Egyptian queen, survives in a mere few seconds of film, and you'll see it Sunday.
But fragmentary film isn't solely a silent concern. Quite a few early talkies, including several embryonic musicals, survive only in segments, including the 1929 "Gold Diggers Of Broadway," entirely shot in early Technicolor but now diminished to a few fragments:
Diana Serra Cary, best known as “Baby Peggy” and one of the few surviving performers from silent times, will be interviewed to complement a fragment from her 1923 film "Darling Of New York."
The good news is that every now and then, films previously deemed completely or partially lost are found in places from New Zealand to Russia. So there's always hope. In the meantime, the battle remains to preserve the film we already have before it falls victim to the ravages of age and time. (Among the films that have been restored at UCLA are "Nothing Sacred" and several of Lombard's comedy vehicles for Mack Sennett.)
At 10 p.m., TCM's historical evening continues with "Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941," featuring 16 experimental works by early filmmakers. It includes a 1941 production of "Peer Gynt," featuring a 17-year-old from suburban Chicago named Charlton Heston; or how about future famed character actor Edward Everett Horton in the 1925 "Beggar On Horseback"? There are also pioneer dance and ballet segments dating back to the 1890s.