When the Clarence Brown Film Festival takes place this fall, audiences will have the rare chance to see one of Brown's most renowned silent films, which had ostensibly gone missing for over 50 years. This rediscovered and restored version of The Signal Tower has been screened in only two other places in recent years: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. We are pleased to bring this film to Knoxville with live musical accompaniment by Roger Miller of the Anvil Orchestra.
In The Signal Tower, Brown combined melodrama and thrills in the story of a railroad signalman who reckons with professional hazards and family peril in the remote California woods. Biographer Gwenda Young considers this to be the first film in which Brown puts a complicated woman center stage.
It first appeared in theaters across the country, including in The Strand on Knoxville's Gay Street, in 1924 on professional grade 35mm prints made of flammable nitrate film stock. Shortly thereafter, Universal Pictures created prints in the smaller 16mm film format using non-flammable acetate film stock for presentation in homes and other non-theatrical venues.
After silent films fell out of fashion, but before television and deliberate revivals of vintage movies provided a market for older titles, a devastating percentage of American silent cinema was lost. Volatile nitrate prints decayed in improper storage conditions or went up in flames, or were deliberately destroyed to vacate warehouses, salvage the silver in the photographic emulsion, or as a safeguard against piracy and conflagration. As is the case with all too many films from the early years of cinema, there were no complete surviving original prints of The Signal Tower to be found when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival searched film archives worldwide in the late 2010s for source material to restore and reissue the film.
Luckily for cinephiles, one of the 16mm copies found its way into the collections of Photoplay Productions, the professional enterprise of acclaimed film scholar and collector Kevin Brownlow. This print included the entire film; even better, it had original color tints applied to the black-and-white photographic images intact. Festival staff were able to use Brownlow’s print as their restoration source, and even refer to a second 16mm print located in another collection. After the 16mm print was scanned, the high-quality files underwent digital image restoration to mitigate signs of damage or aging that accumulated on the film during its near-century of existence. The restored digital version was then transferred back to an enlarged photographic film negative, which was then duplicated to brand-new 35mm prints on a modern polyester film base that is not susceptible to fire or decomposition.
The 35mm print that will be projected at the Tennessee Theatre has only previously been exhibited at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art. Especially at a historic venue like the Tennessee Theatre, with the vintage grandeur of its decor and opportunity for live music accompaniment, the traditional film exhibition is key to resurrecting the larger-than-life spirit of old Hollywood in a way that a digital screening just can’t reproduce. Roger Miller of acclaimed silent film accompanists Anvil Orchestra will premiere a live score he created for this event.
While the exact nature of the image sourced from the 16mm print of The Signal Tower can never truly recreate the original exhibition experience, audiences are fortunate that any elements of the film beat the odds to join the mere 25% of American silent cinema known to survive. And previously lost early films do turn up at a modest but steady rate. Who knows what cinematic treasures may reveal themselves, perhaps even right here in Knoxville, over the next fifty years?