Rare early colour footage of Louise Brooks found by the BFI

The BFI has announced the discovery of a cache of extremely rare Technicolor film fragments from the 1920s held by the BFI National Archive, including previously unseen footage of Louise Brooks dancing in colour. This tantalising glimpse of Louise Brooks comes from The American Venus (1926), her first credited film role, and is one of the only images we have of her in colour. The feature is believed lost with the exception of footage from the film’s trailer, held by the Berkeley Art Museum and the Library of Congress. It is thought that this extremely short extract discovered by the BFI may come from a costume test.

The fragment from The American Venus (1926) was found alongside material from The Far Cry (1926), The Fire Brigade (1926) and Dance Madness (1926) within a copy of The Black Pirate (1926), donated to the Archive by The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1959. In the same print of The Black Pirate, there is also a test shot for the historical drama Mona Lisa (1926) starring Hedda Hopper, the legendarily acerbic Hollywood gossip columnist for the LA Times, who was recently portrayed by Judy Davis in award-winning TV series Feud. The fragment shows Hedda Hopper as Mona Lisa in repose, one assumes about to be painted by Leonardo da Vinci. No other material from Mona Lisa is currently held by any film archive.

Other extracts from a number of early Technicolor musicals were discovered in a batch of 1950s cinema ads for a local television shop in Chingford, North East London, that were donated to the BFI National Archive last year. All dating from 1929, these fragments comprise footage from Sally, which only exists in black and white, a previously lost section of Gold Diggers of Broadway, as well as short clips from Show of Shows and a trailer for On With The Show! In addition a short extract donated by one of the BFI’s curators in 2007, has now been identified as Paris (1929).

These discoveries were made by Jane Fernandes, Conservation Specialist at the BFI National Archive. Work was undertaken at the BFI’s conservation centre in order to give an approximation of what the colour would have been like from the colour process it was filmed in. Many of these lost fragments were discovered attached to heads and tails of film reels. Potentially coming from test shots, trailers, alternative takes and outtakes these short sequences may not have appeared in the final complete films or have been used for promotional use.

The importance of these rare fragments cannot be stressed enough. As Bryony Dixon, BFI’s Curator of Silent Film explains, “Everybody loves Technicolor but so much film from glamorous 1920s Hollywood is lost; when it turns up, however fragmentary, it’s exciting. What to do with tiny clips that are only a few seconds long? Imagine an Egyptian vase shattered into pieces and the shards scattered across museums all over the world. You can imagine that one day you might be able to see it whole again. It’s like that with films; only an international effort by film archives like the BFI can bring the pieces of the jigsaw together. For now we have the shards but we can dream of seeing Louise Brooks’s first film or a lost Hedda Hopper in colour.”

James Layton, MOMA’s Film Department Preservation Manager adds, “Only a few Technicolor musicals from the dawn of sound survive complete and entirely in colour, whilst some only exist in poor quality black and white copies. It is always a cause for celebration whenever previously lost colour footage turns up. These excerpts provide fascinating glimpses at these films’ pioneering use of colour, which we could only guess at before.”

Together, with other similar recent discoveries, it is hoped that some of this colour footage can be reinstated into surviving black and white copies to be made accessible for future audiences.

The BFI releases Pandora’s Box (1929), starring Louise Brooks in her most iconic role, at BFI Southbank and in cinemas across the UK from 1 June.

An edit of the early Technicolor discoveries is available to view on the BFI’s YouTube channel, with a voiceover by Bryony Dixon.

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