The curious rediscovery of films once thought to be lost – or possibly to have never even existed.
One of the delights of the World Wide Web is that on rare but welcome occasions, long lost TV or film footage can mysteriously turn up from nowhere without any prepared fanfares or announcements – mostly on YouTube of course, though sometimes, footage that was thought never to exist in the first place can be thrust upon the world to the astonishment even of hardened archival or cultural historians. One such example is the behind the scenes footage taken during the filming of a Laurel and Hardy silent short, Should Married Men Go Home?, in 1928, featuring the comedians joking on the golf course location, with a number of alternative takes of various sequences from the film. Very little material existed previously of Laurel and Hardy during the filming of any of their productions; only fragments of home movie-type footage were known to exist, so it was a real historical find when this turned up out of the blue in 2012. More recently, an entire lost episode from the second series of the cultish puzzle-cum-quiz show The Adventure Game was posted last year, made in 1981 but missing from the BBC archives, and in decent condition as well.
There was, however, one short film I knew about, but until recently, did not have its existence confirmed officially by the IMDb website until as late as December 2020, even though the BFI featured it on their website for years beforehand. It had also been subject to a review in numerous editions of Leslie Halliwell’s Film Guide, but after Halliwell’s untimely death in 1989, it vanished from view from editions by other authors thereafter sans any explanation. The title of this elusive, mysterious film was given as The Gentleman in Room Six, a 1951 release date, with a brief description of the plot, producer, writer and director. But it was a film barely mentioned at all on the internet, until a question popped up on one forum in 2018, asking “Hitler in a Cheap Hotel – What Is This Movie?”. Was this a figment of the imagination by Halliwell or the BFI, or a deliberate hoax? Did the film exist but simply vanish as so many obscure films were fated before and since?
Answers given by various individuals, however, seemed to confirm its existence after the original questioner claimed to have seen the film at the end of a video distributed by Something Weird, who specialise in this sort of obscure, low-budget, grade Z exploitation/grindhouse movies. The feature that preceded it on this VHS tape, Cuban Confidential, was not an American film noir type movie, but a philosophical, existentialist drama from Cuba itself, made in the mid-Fifties in the latter stages of the Battista regime. Further research showed stills and even a review from a Czech website that appeared to confirm its existence, but the film itself remained stubbornly elusive from any appearance on YouTube, or indeed anywhere else.
Yet the personnel involved on The Gentleman in Room Six had considerable cinematic pedigree. The director, Alexander Hammid, an Austrian-born Czech, was renowned for his work in experimental, avant-garde cinema and documentaries, most notably with his wife Maya Deren on Meshes of The Afternoon in 1943. It was the debut film of writer Sydney Carroll, who later worked prolifically on many TV productions and wrote the screenplay for the celebrated Paul Newman film The Hustler, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
One of the cast members was German-born Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, a homosexual actor who fled the Nazi regime and ended up in Hollywood by the mid-late 1930s, inevitably playing Nazis as most exiled German actors did in this period, most significantly in Casablanca in an uncredited but eye-catching role as the would-be suitor of a young French woman desired by the Vichy French police chief (Claude Rains). The most notable contributor was cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who had collaborated with Hammid several times previously, shot all of the anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo’s films before his early death in 1934, and later worked with such directors as Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Jules Dassin and Otto Preminger, winning an Academy Award for Kazan’s On The Waterfront just four years later.
So with such a prominent roster of names at its disposal, why did the film dissolve into anonymity for so long? Like his wife Deren (whom he later divorced), Hammid had no interest in the Hollywood production machine, preferring to work on experimental and documentary filmmaking around New York, eventually winning an Academy Award for best documentary short in 1964 for To Be Alive!
The Gentleman in Room Six appears to be Hammid’s only attempt at a conventional fictional narrative film, and a project he himself appeared to disown, but incredibly, after being belatedly acknowledged by IMDb at the end of last year, a copy turned up on YouTube in May this year, albeit of poor quality, perhaps derived from the Something Weird VHS copy as stated above, with rather too many jumpy edits within. So, having watched this rediscovered rarity, was the wait worth it? Well, not quite perhaps, as the film is shot in a dismal-looking hotel room set in South America, where an increasingly paranoid, irrational individual is visited by three associates, whom he eventually abuses and dismisses despite their willingness to befriend him. Shot in a subjective camera style, the man involved is revealed to be Adolf Hitler (the actor who played the role is not certain; it is not von Twardowski, or the unknown Norma Winters, though it could be the marginally better-known actor Daniel Ocko, who also plays one of the visiting guests), quite a daring supposition just a few years after the end of WWII, but oddly prescient as many senior Nazis really did flee to South America after the Third Reich’s defeat, protected as they were by the fascist military dictatorships that scarred the continent in this era and for decades after. So it was rewarding to find this film that never was after being seemingly unavailable if never extant for decades, unremarkable in itself, but perfectly watchable.
The coda to this film is rather interesting though; its producer, former actor and Sussex-born George K. Arthur (real name Arthur George Brest) soon returned to Britain and made some highly acclaimed short films after this one: The Stranger Left No Card (1952; dir Wendy Toye), written again by Carroll, which won an award at Cannes; The Bespoke Overcoat (1955; dir Jack Clayton), won an Academy Award for best short subject, and On The Twelfth Day (1955; directed by Toye again), was a much-acclaimed operatic version of the Twelve Days of Christmas with added dancing. These films are much more readily available and well known than Arthur’s first foray into producing, though very little is known about another short film he produced in 1953, A Prince For Cynthia, directed by Muriel Box, which appears itself to be a lost film, as The Gentleman in Room Six was presumed until its unexpected reappearance this year. Let us hope somewhere along the line, this will make its presence felt out of the blue as said obscurity has. Could we ask the BFI for their help, perhaps?
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