When the subject of lost films comes up, there are a number of movies that top just about everyone’s list. For some, it’s the Lon Chaney feature “London After Midnight”, others want to see uncut versions of Orson Wells “The Magnificent Ambersons” or Erich Von Stroheim’s "Greed", but my choice as the lost film I most want to see is F.W. Murnau’s “4 Devils”.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (his real last name was Plumpe, he took the name Murnau after the German town Murnau am Staffelsee) was considered one of
“4 Devils” was based on the story “Die Fire Djaevle: excentrisk novella” published in 1895 and written by Herman Joachim Bang. An earlier film version appears to have been made in
A kindly old clown rescues four children (Charles, Adolf, Marion, and Louise) from the brutal tutelage of a circus owner and brings up the quartet himself, training them to be acrobats. Years pass, and the children form a successful trapeze act known as the Four Devils. Charles and Marion are engaged, but while at the Cirque Olympia in
It is known that 4 different endings for the movie were originally shot. The first, showing that Charles and Marion die in the fall at the film’s climax, was previewed on July 2nd and questionnaires were filled out by members of the audience as to their reaction of the motion picture. 49 of these sheets exist in the Murnau archive at the
It was decided in early 1929 that approximately the last 2 reels of “4 Devils” should be re-shot with talking sequences to cash in on the sound revolution that was starting to take over the industry. The part talkie version was premiered on June 10th, 1929 in
As for reviews, Variety said “4 Devils” was "an elegantly produced, photographed, and directed picture by Fox, of high value regular release quality, and missing the super height class only because it is missing any one big kick." Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times singled out the director’s work, “It is, however, the unfaltering manner in which Mr. Murnau attacks his scenes that is responsible for this picture's greatness. One forgets the actors and thinks of the characters.” and “one could go through the whole list of players congratulating one after another, and they probably all know that they owe a great deal to that artist among directors, F. W. Murnau.”
So what happened to “4 Devils”? In 1937, a fire destroyed nearly all the pre-1935 camera negatives held at the Fox Film archive in Little Ferry,
“I think that Mary Duncan had the studio print since 1948 or 1949 is a fact, as
this is documented in the Fox files. So part one of this story is not an urban
legend. However part two seems to be one. The story has variants including her
throwing the film into her pool, or sticking a match to it. All quite
unbelievable, considering that anyone working in the industry in the1920s knew the
films were nitrate and could be dangerous if not handles correctly.”
While we may not be able to enjoy the “4 Devils” today, I certainly recommend Janet Bergstrom’s excellent documentary "Murnau's 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film" which will be included as an extra in the “Murnau, Borzage & Fox” DVD box set scheduled for release on December 9th. This documentary contains much more information about the production, a very thorough overview of the Murnau film, and is filled with rare photographs and memorabilia. The box set will also contain two coffee table books, one being on the "4 Devils". Not to be missed.