Saturday, November 22, 2008

4 Devils (1928)

Janet Gaynor, Nancy Drexel, Charles Morton, and Barry Norton as the "4 Devils"

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 Germany’s top directors when in 1926 he was lured away to the United States by William Fox. Fox gave Murnau carte blanche to produce the films he wanted, time and expense was not a concern. The first film,Sunrise (1927), is recognized today as one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. A critical success at the time, the film was not so well received by the public and consequently the powers that be at Fox started to clamp down on Murnau and the funding would be controlled more closely on his next project.

“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 Denmark by Alfred Lind in 1911 and this version was shown at Cinefest in 2001 (hat tip to Eric Stott). Murnau started production on his adaptation in early 1928, with Ernest Palmer handling the cinematography. The stars of the film, and the characters they portrayed, were Janet Gaynor (Marion), Charles Morton (Charles), Nancy Drexel (Louise), Barry Norton (Adolf), Mary Duncan (the vamp), J. Farrell Macdonald (the clown). A synopsis from the American Film Institute catalog contains a pretty concise summary:

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 Paris, Charles becomes infatuated with a beautiful vamp. Marion learns of the affair and becomes distracted; working without a net for a dangerous finale, she falls. Marion is not killed, however, and Charles is brought to his senses by the near tragedy.

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 Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin and mention that the film should remain as it is regardless of the “down” ending. But the advice wasn’t heeded by Fox as the movie with the happy ending premiered on October 3rd 1928 at the Gaiety Theater in New York.

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 Los Angeles. Murnau had nothing to do with the newly filmed section and the scenes were directed by A.H. Van Buren and A. F. Erickson, the latter being Murnau’s assistant director during the movie’s initial production.

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.” Harrison’s Reports was not impressed, “It is hard to tell what success “Four Devils” will have at the box office, but as an entertainment it doesn’t seem to ‘click’ “. Harrison’s also gave a short review of the sound version and stated, “As far as entertainment quality is concerned, the part-talk version is not better than the silent version”.

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, New Jersey and “4 Devils” was probably one of them. Seeing as the film was released in both a silent and sound version you would think that it may have survived in some version, but that does not seem to be the case. The most substantial rumor is that star Mary Duncan had a print that she watched much later and was so upset with her perceived poor performance that she threw the film in the Pacific Ocean. While that story may sound far fetched, Martin Koerber (noted for being the restoration director on the 2001 re-issue of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”) wrote on the Association of Moving Image Archivists email list:

“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.


Eric Stott said...

The 1911 version of Four Devils isn't lost- I saw it at Cinefest in Syracuse some years back. It's primitive and not particularly impressive, almost no closeups.

Louie said...

Wow, do you know what year as I have a friend who saves all the programs since he has been going and I would love to see what they had to say about it.

Eric Stott said...

It was Cinefest 2001.

I don't recall the program saying much, but I thought it was a very drab film, even for the era.

Louie said...

Thanks Eric! I will change the blog to reflect the info.