[Yes, this has absolutely nothing to do with the mission statement of this blog, but I'm really jazzed about it, so sue me. Also: In slightly different form, I originally posted it at the website of Box Office magazine back in 2010. -- S.S.]
Okay, in terms of film preservation discoveries, it doesn't rank with the missing footage from Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis that turned up in a Buenos Aires basement in 2008. And no, the eight hours MGM cut from Erich Von Stroheim's 1924 masterpiece Greed remain missing, the Holy Grail of film preservationists since time immemorial.
Nevertheless, via the real-life cinema detectives over at The Serial Squadron, now comes news that the more-or-less "lost" film that I, personally, have most longed to see over the years has, in fact, been found. And is finally out on DVD.
I refer, of course, to the absolutely astounding 1940 Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu, starring the criminally underrated Henry Brandon as the definitive screen Fu.
I've been writing about this flick for ages, but in case you're new here, suffice it to say that DOFM is a corker. Directed by Republic's great William Witney and John English team, then at the height of their powers, and featuring a terrific cast besides Brandon (let's hear it for that great neurotic presence Dwight Frye), it's on most critic's short list for the Top Five All-Time Cliffhangers, and with good reason; slick even by Republic's standards, it's perhaps the only chapterplay out of Hollywood that feels -- both in terms of the screenwriting and the whole mise-en-scene -- like a feature film.
As for the whole "lost" deal: the original film elements of the serial were destroyed in an accident at Republic (most likely in a fire, although there's some dispute over this) in the late 60s or early 70s; as a result, the only versions available for screening since then -- including numerous videos, ranging from VHS bootlegs of dubious legality to the 2004 DVD released by VCI Entertainment -- have derived from soft-looking second generation 16mm sources of at best barely adequate quality. I myself first watched DOFM in 1988 on an appalling bootleg from an outfit called Stokeley's Serials, an experience that was reminiscent of viewing a film projected underwater while wearing grimy sunglasses.
Now, however, the good folks at Serial Squadron -- who have done truly remarkable yeoman restoration work on such presumed lost serial classics as the original 1938 Lone Ranger -- have discovered a heretofore unsuspected copy of DOFM in the hands of a private collector. According to Squadron honcho Eric Stedman, it was duped at Republic, legally, from the original elements shortly before they were destroyed, and by somebody with a high level of technical expertise who really knew what they were doing. It has now been transferred to the digital domain, and I am here to tell you that it looks like, if not a pristine 35mm print, than at least a damn good one.
Be still my beating heart. So -- here's the restored first chapter to whet your appetite. The DVD looks better, of course.
In any case, you can order a copy -- and absolutely should, if I'm any judge of horseflesh -- at the Serial Squadron link above. And tell 'em PowerPop sent you.