La Fiera Domada (1916/1923)

Notes by Shahed Dowlatshahi

Left: Museum of Modern Art 35mm nitrate. Right: Museo del Cine 16mm acetate

Long considered a “lost film,” The Aryan is a 1916 western starring and co-directed by William S. Hart, produced and distributed by the Triangle Film Corporation. No complete copies are known to survive of the movie that was released in 5 reels and running about 50 minutes. However, as with some other presumed-lost films (such as the director’s cut of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), the only known copy has been found at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. Fernando Peña, with the assistance of Kevin Brownlow, identified the museum’s La Fiera Domada (The Tamed Beast) as a Spanish-language re-release version of the original. The Museo’s Andrés Levinson and Paula Félix-Didier will premiere the restoration-in-progress at the 11th Orphan Film Symposium on April 13.

Here’s a summary of the archival research and technical work with which I’ve been helping for the past month as part of my education at NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) master’s program. The symposium presentation will be a reconstruction from various available elements and a historical contextualization of it in light of the blatantly racist sentiments and title of the 1916 English-language release. (The latter obviously requires far more discussion than this short initial post can offer.)

The Museo del Cine’s Peña-Rodriguez Collection holds two reels of 16mm duplicating negative from an alternate version entitled La Fiera Domada. These are believed to have been made from a 1923 Argentine 35mm release print, but cover only 35 minutes or so of the original running time. The 16mm negs were recently scanned at 2K. In addition, the Library of Congress holds two fragments of The Aryan (with English intertitles), about 3 minutes of a 35mm negative element and a minute-long 16mm print. Only a few frames of the LOC footage are not found in the Museo del Cine copy but these 4 minutes are of better quality than the severely distressed images in La Fiera Domada.

Two other pieces of archival footage are currently being researched, both in imperfect condition. A Blackhawk Films compilation from 1959, The Saga of William S. Hart, has scenes from The Aryan. The Academy Film Archive confirms its Blackhawk Films Collection holds preservation elements of this. Scanning of the 16mm fine grain master positive is underway. (Thanks to the Academy, archivist Dino Everett at the University of Southern California’s Hefner Moving Image Archive, and Serge Bromberg, business partner with the late David Shepard, who owned the Blackhawk library.) Interestingly, the William K. Everson Collection at NYU contains information about Everson having programmed The Saga of William S. Hart when it was new. In his screening notes of October 1959, he remarks about The Aryan “how we’d like to see all of that one!” — confirming the long-lost status of the 1916 film even in the 1950s. In addition, the Museum of Modern Art, holds an extensive collection of Hart films made from original nitrate negatives lent or donated by Hart himself (Anne Morra, “William S. Hart: A Pioneer Cowboy,” Inside/Out MoMA blog, Feb. 2, 2016). The Aryan is not among them. However, MoMA holds a 35mm tinted nitrate segment of the film, 140 feet long, acquired from collector Anthony Comanda in 2011. It is not clear whether any of the Academy or MoMA footage is unique or duplicates LOC and Museo footage. We shall see. Meanwhile, the search for any footage from the film continues — and tips are appreciated.

Francisco Lezama edits an image of actress Bessie Love in THE ARYAN.
Francisco Lezama edits Bessie Love in Buenos Aires. (Museo del Cine)

Over the last few months Andrés Levinson and his team at the Museo del Cine, in cooperation with Dan Streible and NYU’s MIAP Program, have been working towards the presentation of a preliminary reconstruction of the film at Orphans 11. Levinson, Sebastián Yablon, and Francisco Lezama are currently integrating the LOC and Museo footage. Among the challenges is consolidating footage with different aspect ratios, speeds, and physical conditions into one edition. We continue to locate items relating to the film and to discuss how they will be integrated into the reconstruction and used to contextualize the presentation at the Orphan Film Symposium. These include original script or synopses in LOC’s Gatewood W. Dunston Collection relating to William S. Hart, 1914-1955; 16 stills from the Bibliothèque du Film at the Cinémathèque Française; a short story published in Picture-Play Magazine in May 1916, from Kevin Brownlow’s personal collection; and ephemera that historian Richard Koszarski has generously shared from his collection. Also helpful are a few decades-old but significant references by film pioneering critics. French writer-cineastes Louis Delluc and Jean Mitry, both of whom saw the film in the silent era, considered The Aryan a cinematic masterpiece!

Another challenge is the translation of the Spanish intertitles in La Fiera Domada. MIAP classmate Erica Lopez has been assisting with the translation and interpretation of these, which differ in meaning and arrangement from the English text in the original release. In fact, the story told in La Fiera Domada is quite different. This becomes apparent when comparing the 3-minute LOC fragment with the same sequence in the Museo version. As Levinson notes, in the English intertitles the heroine pleads with the “good bad man” to rescue her because he is “Aryan.” These are not translated into Spanish. They are simply cut out.

Questions faced by the team preparing this presentation are what to reconstruct? and how to frame this first public presentation? Will this be a composite of the incomplete La Fiera Domada with new English subtitles or intertitles? Or a reconstruction of The Aryan using available footage and photographs, anchored by La Fiera Domada? The current goal is to present La Fiera Domada, a version of the original American film highly modified in the early 1920s for distribution in Argentina, while utilizing material from Aryan fragments to fill in missing pieces. In any case, before anything is screened for our 2018 audience, the undeniable racism of the story and the charged word in it title require proper framing and discussion, such as is the case when screening problematic works such as The Birth of a Nation (released only a year before Hart’s movie) or Gone with the Wind in any context today.

Read about the NYU APEX program’s work in Buenos Aires with the Museo del Cine in 2015 and 2009. 

• Register for the NYU Orphan Film Symposium, April 11-14, 2018, at Museum of the Moving Image: The complete program listing is there too.