Publicity still for Forgotten Faces

Seventy-five percent of Hollywood’s silent film output is lost forever, dumped in the ocean, burned as scrap, or consigned to some other form of ignoble oblivion. Every discovery and restoration, then, arrives as a miraculous gift. Such is especially the case with the 1928 crime melodrama Forgotten Faces, one of the highlights of this year’s Capitolfest, the annual showcase of classic film in Rome, New York. It was never lost, just banged up and lying idle, until the Library of Congress initiated a restoration that was completed in the last few months. According to the Library’s James Cozart, the screening was its first in 35mm since the silent era.

Forgotten Faces, directed by Victor Schertzinger, is historically significant as one of producer David O. Selznick’s early features at Paramount. “My first real production,” he called it, following a few Westerns he didn’t care for. Paramount player Clive Brook stars as “Heliotrope” Harry, a gentleman thief tossed in jail for killing his wife’s lover. Before turning himself in, Harry leaves his baby girl on the doorstep of a rich, childless couple. Desperate to keep his lush of a spouse Lilly (Olga Baclanova) away from their girl, he tasks his former partner Froggy (William Powell) with making sure the kid turns out OK. Once Harry is out of the clink, he impersonates his daughter’s butler to protect her from Lilly, who will stop at no underhanded trickery to get her hands on the girl’s money.

The convoluted plot was adapted from the short story “A Whiff of Heliotrope” by Richard Washburn Child, first published in Heart’s magazine in 1919. Even in 1928 the material was considered musty, with the New York Times review declaring it “sentimental and old.” What makes the film hit home are its somber performances and the eloquence of its late silent-film style. With its mobile camera, ingenious transitions, and expressionist lighting, Forgotten Faces demonstrates the influence of F.W. Murnau, who had arrived at Fox in 1926. Though the film’s an obscurity today, it has had its champions. The London Daily Express critic George A. Atkinson placed it on his list of the top 20 American films of 1928, and Andrew Sarris includes it on his “Directorial Chronology” of the significant films of 1928 in The American Cinema.

The opening sequence is a crane-shot stunner which begins with the camera perched at the top of a well-appointed private casino den. Slowly it lowers closer to the action, catching the craps table mid-game, as well as the ornate jewelry decorating the players. Then everyone stops, raising their arms all at once. In the same continuous shot, the camera turns toward the doors, revealing Harry and Froggy standing there with guns ready. This teasing, tense use of off-screen space would be used a couple of years later by Fritz Lang in M, when the kangaroo court freezes and reaches for the skies when the cops interrupt their trial of Peter Lorre.

Another sequence, in which Harry kills his wife’s lover, exhibits similar off-screen sophistication. Brook’s face is clenched in silent rage, his gun hidden below the frame line. Suddenly a plume of smoke rises from beneath him—indicating a shot has been fired. It’s an infernal and disturbing composition, one that expresses the demons festering underneath Harry’s sophisticated veneer. Brook underplays throughout, his aristocratic aquiline face battling mightily to remain unperturbed. In the March 1931 issue of Screenland, Brook chose it as his favorite role up to that point, topping his turn in Sternberg’s Underworld (27).

The tour de force of Forgotten Faces is a long take occurring near the climax, beginning on a monumental staircase that Lilly climbs, packing a revolver to plug Harry. The set must have been enormous, as the crane ascends with her to vertiginous heights. The house is sliced in half like an opened dollhouse to display Lilly’s ascent, as she exits the stage-bound melodrama of the plot and enters pure artifice.

Who was responsible for the visual invention on display? Schertzinger had been working as a director since the late 1910s, with his first credit being the baseball comedy The Pinch Hitter (17). But he was trained initially as a musician, growing up in Philadelphia as a violin prodigy who performed in concert halls at the age of seven. Thomas Ince hired him to compose incidental music for his Triangle Film Company, including his epic Civilization (16); Schertzinger would also write the music for the American Songbook standard “I Remember You” (lyrics by Johnny Mathis). He was a proselytizer for the union of film and music, telling Motion Picture News in 1916 that movies were “evolving its own form of musical expression. It may take time, possibly years, but when it comes the music of pictures will be a noble and worthy sister of the music of the operatic and concert stage. But it will be distinct—it will be different—a form of art as inspiring as that from which it springs—the motion picture.”

The next year Schertzinger would become a director, and he elaborated on the continuity between the métiers to Motion Picture World in 1918: “The photo-play, which has become distinctive art, is developed much along the same lines as a musical composition. The composer is given inspiration for his music by some theme, and in the developing of this he conveys to the ear of the listener an impression of his own mental picture. So it is with the photo-play . . . The composer must use the variations of tone, the divisions of time, the modulations of volume, the crescendo, the diminuendo, etc. The director has at his command the diversity of scenery, the various modes of expression in living beings, the effects of lights, the contrasting of locations and character, etc. But in the picture as in music there must be harmony.”

The filmmaker achieves this kind of harmony in Forgotten Faces, in concert with his actors, the young Selznick, the cinematography of J. Roy Hunt, and the vital uncredited art director. Viewing it in a luminously restored 35mm print at the Capitol Theater—a movie palace that opened the same year as the film—was a rare, vanishing pleasure, smuggled straight from the expressive peak of the silent era.