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Silents: Before and After, Part One

Today's guest blogger is Eric Grayson,a film historian and preservationist who lives in Indianapolis.

For the next two weeks, the IMA will be presenting a series of unusual silent films.  Each night a double feature will be presented.  Following a “before and after” theme, the first film will be an original silent, while the second is a related version, altered in some way.

Tonight, April 5, the main feature will be The Matrimaniac (1916) with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Constance Talmadge.  IMA regulars will remember Fairbanks from his starring role in last year’s showing of The Mark of Zorro (1920), accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.  Zorro was the first of Fairbanks’ swashbuckling hero roles.  Up until that time, he had generally played an athletic, go-getting young man out to win the heroine.

The Matrimaniac is a film in that earlier Fairbanks tradition.  As Jimmie Conroy, Fairbanks tries to marry his young love (Talmadge), while her father tries to put a stop to the whole thing, giving a long and merry chase.  As with most Fairbanks pictures, the plot is secondary to the breathtaking stunts.  The Matrimaniac was a huge hit in 1916, and, indirectly, it helped Fairbanks become popular enough that he left the studio, Triangle, to pursue more money elsewhere.


This detail did not deter Triangle at all.  Struggling financially, they decided to release a new film called The Missing Millionaire the next year, starring Fairbanks.  A clever writer and editor collaborated to re-cut the footage from The Matrimaniac.  They created an entirely new story, changing all the character names and reordering the footage.  It was released as a new picture to an unsuspecting public.

When Triangle went bankrupt later that year, its films were scattered to the winds.  Matrimaniac survived, but the commonly available version was shortened by several minutes.  The version shown on April 5 will be a newly restored print with about five minutes of restored footage.

The Missing Millionaire has been unavailable until a couple of prints surfaced a few years ago.  It has never been released on commercial video.  This showing will probably be the first screening of the two films together.  There are records of two or three other Fairbanks films reissued in this way, but so far, no prints of the altered versions have been rediscovered.

Silent films are especially malleable as an art form.  They can be changed and reshaped at the whim of an editor.  Their narrative structure is different, more like a book or a visual poem.  They were intended to be an artistic performance, with an audience on a big screen, with live accompaniment.  More than any other sort of film, silents are ideally a shared experience.


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