On 5 February 2017, the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra presented the world premiere of the digital restoration of Three Days to Live (1924). Once thought to be lost, a 35mm tinted nitrate copy of the film was recently discovered in the archive’s collection during a routine check. It’s notable for being one of the earliest known films to include the work of Frank Capra, who is credited as Titles and Editor. It is also thought, according to biographer Joseph McBride, that Capra was assistant director to Tom Gibson.
The screening was accompanied by a detailed introduction by Sally Jackson, the NFSA Film Curator responsible for the project, as well as a live piano accompaniment by Mauro Columbis. The film is missing its last reel, with the final frame suggesting an ending constructed from contemporary reviews. The day after the screening, we spoke to Sally Jackson about the process of restoring the film, its place in Frank Capra’s filmography and more.
Can you tell me how Three Days to Live first came to the NFSA, and how it was discovered in the collection?
It came into the collection in 1975 from a film collector, and in 1975 the National Film and Sound Archive didn’t actually exist. So, it was part of the National Film Archive which was part of the National Library. At that time there was no formal process for collecting like there is now, and so quite often they were relying on the goodness of strangers. So they built relationships with film collectors in particular. And this came from a film collector who was very generous—they’re not always generous. He negotiated, not necessarily on our behalf, but with other film collectors, to let them know that we’re not as bad as a big institution can be seen to be. And so he fostered those relationships and came back to the people who were working at the archive at that time. It was an ongoing relationship, and many films were donated to us here. Film collectors tended to be from all walks of life, but we’ve found that the majority of them have worked in the industry, quite often as projectionists, or some element of distribution, or elsewhere in exhibition. Film prints tend to get left behind in cinemas. It’s not the same now, but they’re meant to be returned to the company that they hired them from. But they don’t always do that. So that’s how that side of the collection often gets built—by people holding onto things, not wanting to get rid of them. Either they might have a passion for it, or they can’t bear to see something destroyed. And they end up giving it to us. So that’s how it came into the collection.
So, how we discovered it here recently. Every couple of years we make a list of titles for preservation. Preservation is a 1:1 copy, warts and all. And there’s a whole variety of ways things are preserved now. We still do film to film, and we do digital preservation. But to get to that we make up a big list, pulled out of our database, of films that we only have one copy of, or films that were preserved so long ago that we can do a better job now. Part of my job is to go through and look at the titles, and we never seem to get to the end of those that need to be preserved. So, this one came up amongst a whole lot of others, and what I like to do is go through all the titles, the ones that I know aren’t Australian, or I don’t recognise as Australian, I look through them to see if there’s an Australian connection.
You’d be surprised. Everyone thinks that now, now Australians are infiltrating the film industry overseas, but no, we’ve been doing it right from the beginning. I was fascinated to read, and I actually only found this out the other day, after Capra finished Three Days to Live and that whole suite of four films, he then went to work for Mack Sennett. And some of the films he was directing were starring a comedian called Billy Bevan. Billy Bevan was Australian—he was born in Orange. He went overseas and became a slapstick comedian in that time. So the Australian connection is kind of everywhere. But this film, Three Days to Live, didn’t have an Australian connection that I could find. But I thought let’s bring it in anyway, let’s have a look and see what the credits say, because I could find next to no information. And there was Frank Capra’s name, and I thought, “Hmmm.”
“Could there be two of them?”
I was thinking yes, could it be? And I have to admit not knowing much about Capra’s early career. So I didn’t know if this was a known film. And when I looked it up, there was nothing except in Joseph McBride’s Capra biography [Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992)]; at the back he’s got a filmography and he lists it. And there’s a couple of pages on his career at that time. It’s sketchy but that was enough for me to think, “OK, this could be real.” So, I started to explore. But that’s essentially it. It’s like, “I don’t know what this is, let’s have a look at it.” So we bring the film in, put it over a bench—we can wind through it and look for any identifying marks. And credits are clearly identifying marks.
From that point was it difficult to convince others that it was a project worth undertaking?
No, it wasn’t really. As soon as we knew there was a Capra connection and that we couldn’t find it in other archives—we couldn’t find it on release, we found no 16mm prints; quite often 35mm prints were reduced to 16mm just for the home and the educational market. We found nothing. So we knew that we had something special. And we did discuss whether we would do it or not, but when I started to delve into it further and we realised it actually had a place in Australian film history, coming in at a time when, it must have been quite horrible, there was very little Australian material being made at the time. There was one comment I read by an Australian film distributor that said, “Any Australian film that is going to be screened now has to be of top quality.” And it goes on to say some of them are, some of them aren’t. But yes, it came in at that cusp of when everything was changing. It’s a bit like the 35mm/digital thing that we’ve just gone through, that whole awkward do-we-or-don’t-we. Are we still screening 35mm? Are we still preserving on 35mm? Cinemas changing over, films only available digitally. And as we have seen recently, it’s all being unpicked. Kodak are bringing back 35mm stock, cinemas are ticking over on their projectors again. So, I think the two can run side by side.
You mentioned yesterday that the Frank Capra archive wasn’t aware of the film?
Yes. It wasn’t myself, it was a colleague here. The team that I work in is Film, and then there’s Documents and Artefacts. We have a separate Film team, and a separate Film Documents and Artefacts team. But we also work together. So, if we’re doing something, then they will go out and see if they can find any posters or supporting material for it. And if they’re doing something, we look to see if we have a film that will support it. It was someone else in the team who put feelers out to see, and she found that archive. I think I’d come across it when I realised that there was nothing there that I could quickly access—I didn’t follow it through. So [my colleague] followed it through, and got a response back saying, “We don’t know anything about this film, and we don’t think he had anything to do with it.”
They have his papers, so it depends what’s in his papers. And if he didn’t include it as part of his work—most of his early work, when I say early I mean before he was a name, there’s very little that exists. But as I also said yesterday, one of the things I’m very much hoping is that now we’ve identified it—without those opening titles we would have no idea what that film was, and it would only have been preserved, never restored. So, I’m hoping that in an archive elsewhere they will see the film, we have feelers out for it to be picked up in America, obviously, and other film festivals. I’m hoping that they’ll recognise the film, because they can see it now, and go “Oh yeah! We’ve got a reel of that.” So, that’s how it works. That’s why there are so many different versions of Metropolis.
It’s interesting, I’d never really thought of that as being one of the purposes of restoring something—as a call to find a missing element of it.
It’s a consequence of doing it. It’s something that happens subsequently, but it also becomes a reason for us to do it. Well, the main reason is because it’s a significant title. And you know there would be a significant interest in it. We’re very pleased with the audience numbers, because that indicates that there is absolutely an interest in it, to get a Capra audience out. As every place in Canberra who puts on events of some kind knows, it’s very hard to get Canberrans out. We’re very pleased.
It was great! So, the final frame suggests an ending constructed from contemporary reviews. What was that process like?
Yes, when we wound it over on a bench—we can’t screen nitrate, when it’s got decomposition in it it’s too fragile for us to be able to project it even in a small way. So we had to wind it over a bench, and because at that time feature films could be four or five reels, and because the film ends with a clinch, with Hadi the slave girl and Bob in a clinch. When I saw that I thought, well, that’s the end. That’s the two people who’ve come back together. Because at that stage we had no real idea of what the story was. We had the intertitles but it still wasn’t making much sense without the pictures. But when the first scans came back from Haghefilm in the Netherlands, it was very clear that it wasn’t the end. So we decided, we’ll just let it go to black and the film will always be introduced, we’ll just say there’s no end reel.
But when we watched it back it was like, “We can’t do that to audiences, that’s just terrible.” Because it says nothing. So reading through the reviews, the best information about the film was in the Australian trade journal “Everyone’s”, which is of the period. So it was from the JC Williamsons themselves, they wrote up a synopsis and the idea was to attract exhibitors to hire the film. It had quite a bit of information in it. Some reviews from around the world, but mostly Australians. Where the film had been held over, because sometimes it was only one night, and sometimes it would be there for a couple of days—where there had been the chance for it to actually be reviewed, and not just a blurb built up from a press release, they talked about what happened in the end, the final hand-to-hand battles and that sort of thing. They do mention that the Rajah is killed, he’s shot at the end. But I didn’t find that out until we had done this. So my guess, from having watched this film now a lot is that it’s actually the female lead who kills [the Rajah], I think she shoots him.
I can see that happening.
Like I said, with Mauro’s score, I was able to see the film in a different way and actually relax into it. It’s quite a strong film. I don’t think it’s amateurish or hokey. But maybe that’s because I don’t want it to be that. She [Ora Carew] has that moment when she’s in his lair, and he’s offered her all these riches. And she says, “No, I’m not going to have them.” But then at one moment she walks back and she looks at them and goes, “Oh, I don’t know!” I’m going to have to go back and have a look at some of the scenes, because you know how early in the film where she gives her father the jewels and he goes and sells them? I’m now wondering if they’re not her jewels in that casket. And she sees it and this is what sets her off.
It did seem odd, that repeat of the jewel offering.
That’s the first time that I’ve thought that that might be what actually happens. Because he’s the one who’s been tearing them all apart. So it seems that that may well be.
You were talking yesterday about how the film have some distinctive Capra elements, such as a strong female lead.
Yes, it does, but I don’t think we can lay that at his feet because he wasn’t the director and he didn’t write the script. Although, McBride, and even in Frank’s autobiography, he does say that he was pretty much the driving force for what was going on at that time in Paul Gerson productions, but we’ll never know. I think we can lay the story that we see through his editing, and through the intertitles, because he was responsible for writing those words, that he is responsible for the film that we see. He may have increased her role through editing, cut out the scenes where she’s weak, but we have no idea.
But yes, the whole moral dilemma, that’s something that he explored over and over again, the constant battle with temptation. I think they’re very strong themes of his, whether he brought that to that movie or that’s just part of that development phase, I couldn’t tell you.
It was a little bit like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, with the Oriental man holding the white woman captive.
Yes, it was, I suppose that’s not an untypical thing for films of that time. Or for films of any era. But I think it’s her moral dilemma, you know, “My men have crumbled, they’re supposed to look after me, and I’m about to have this wonderful new life, and I’ll be rich, rich, rich!” And it’s not looking like it’s going to turn out that way, so she has to do something. Ora Carew was known to be quite a strong actress, and I understand from the three other films made at the same time, that she was going to go on and be one of the big stars of the period. But that wasn’t the case. I can’t remember why it wasn’t the case, but at the time she was having a very public divorce with her husband. But yes, her career doesn’t seem to have gone on much longer after that. It was a new name for me, not like one of the other majors that we’d recognise.
I guess if there’s anyone who would be similar it would be Barbara Stanwyck, picking up that strength. But she’s incomparable. You can’t say that Barbara and Ora are interchangeable, they’re not. But there’s that same strength, “I’m not going to wait around, I know what I want.” Especially in Forbidden, which is one of my favourites, where she’s determined she’s not just going to be a typist, she’s going to work her way up, and that’s what she does.
You mentioned yesterday that Frank Capra’s then wife Helen Howell is in the film. Is she the slave girl?
Yes. They got married just before the film went into production. He says that his family liked her more than they liked him, she loved his family. And he goes on to say that, “Well, she did like to slum. And she liked cheap wine.” It wasn’t a happy marriage, I don’t know how long it lasted, but I think it was over quite quickly. He doesn’t really talk very much about any of his early stuff, except to say “And then I went on to do this, then I went on to do that.”
You also worked on the restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang, was that a very different process?
Yes, it was. All we have left is a tiny amount of fragments, and then we located almost another ten minutes in England, at the British Film Institute. So we brought that over. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because it’s so significant, you know, so everyone has an idea of what it should look like. So, essentially what we have in the collection is a whole lot of separate fragments that have come from a whole lot of sources. And every time we put it back together, we put it back together pretty much in the same way. This time we had to insert the new scene. And we use documentation that was created at the time. There was a printed synopsis with every scene, so we were able to put it together that way. But then there is a scene in there which doesn’t fit anywhere, where they’re sitting on their horses talking to each other. They’re clearly working out where they’re going to go. And where it sits as part of a fragment, it doesn’t make any sense. We have no idea where it belongs. So for us as an archive, we would not move it, because we don’t know where it’s supposed to go. And that caused people a whole lot of problems. They said, “Oh, no, that belong there,” or “No, it belongs here!” So there’s argument, which is fantastic, but until we have more of the film, or a better idea where it goes it will stay in this awkward spot because we can’t remove it.
So we did two versions, one which was just putting it back together and the second version where we inserted stills and other bits of pieces we’ve got to broaden the film out. And that was harder than you think. There is a still in there, which we had an argument about, whether it belonged, whether we should put it in there or not. They released a series of postcards, and large stills for sale, so we have a series of those. There’s a scene where one of them is up a telegraph pole to cut the wires, which was definitely a scene and there are several different photos of all that. But I included the one which was a close-up. I had this argument with our director at the time, and he was saying, “Well, we shouldn’t put it in because close-ups weren’t invented. It’s wrong for the era.” But it also extends the scene. So in the end, he let me leave it. And I have regretted it, actually. I should have listened to his greater knowledge. That’s a decade ago now. But yes, there’s all this weighing up for us, as a film archive in that we’re not here to change things, we’re not here to make it better, by manipulating what we think should have been. It’s about maintaining the integrity of the original. There’s a little bit of movement in that. But if you know the scene is wrong, and you know where it’s supposed to go, we would put it back where it’s supposed to go.
Are there any other major lost films of the early Australian silent era that you’d love to find?
Yes, so much of it is lost. You know the book by Pike and Cooper [Reference Guide to Australian Films 1906-1969 (1981)]? I mean you can start at page one.
So everything is lost, pretty much?
Yes, pretty much. It might exist in tiny weeny fragments. We have in the collection films that are unknown, just like I’m hoping in other archives they have unknown films that match Three Days to Live, or any other of the restorations that we’ve done. So, at some stage, those films that are unknown will be discovered. They will be named. And one of the ways to do that is to match them against the stills. We have stills and documents for lots of these, but the actual bits of film, no we don’t. That’s the deal.
For me personally, the one thing that I would really like to get, because I know it’s impossible, is, when Frank Hurley went down to the Antarctic and the ship Endurance got stuck in the ice. And all of the film that he had filmed at that stage went down with the ship to the bottom of the icy ocean. Now, it would’ve been in metal cans. Yes, it would be rusty. So, you know, I suppose it is impossible that it’s survived. But stranger things have happened. That’s what I would like to find. All the footage, he wouldn’t have been able to replicate it, but that’s what I would like. There were also his stills, his glass negatives or photographs that he’d taken. Those sorts of things. But yes, any Australian silent film would be wonderful. I don’t care which one it is. Just one of them!
The film season Lost Horizons – Frank Capra’s America continues throughout February at the National Film and Sound Archive.