AFI Catalog Spotlight: The Recent Discovery of a Lost Silent Film – American Film Institute

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AFI Catalog Spotlight: The Recent Discovery of a Lost Silent Film

Roughly 75% of American silent films are believed to be lost forever, according to a report by the Library of Congress that used the AFI Catalog as a primary source,[i] but every once in a while this statistic is reconsidered as incredible discoveries are revealed within and outside of archives. One such finding – which is being compared to the discovery of a Picasso[ii] – was made recently at a parking lot auction in Omaha, where a filmmaker purchased a stack of movie canisters for $20 not knowing what was included in the collection. Upon closer inspection, Gary Huggins found a 1923 short film with an early appearance by silent superstar Clara Bow, a picture that was widely undocumented and believed to be lost. This month, THE PILL POUNDER will be screened for the first time in 101 years at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. In celebration of this occasion, and in honor of the momentous discovery that brings THE PILL POUNDER back in front of an audience, AFI is shining a spotlight on the film and the work of the AFI Catalog to provide rich information about its legacy.

THE PILL POUNDER was filmed in March 1923, mainly in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as in Queens, NY, and was released theatrically on April 22, 1923, as a two-reel, 20-minute comedy, according to new research by the AFI Catalog.[iii] At the time, Clara Bow was virtually unknown, having performed bit parts in several features; THE PILL POUNDER was her first known short. Under the direction of the prolific Gregory La Cava, who would go on to have over 150 titles in his filmography, including the critically acclaimed hit MY MAN GODFREY (1936), the stars of THE PILL POUNDER were Charles Murray (a former vaudevillian), and Raymond McKee, along with the famous English comedienne and Ziegfeld Follies performer Kathleen Martyn. The story follows a druggist (Murray) who hosts a “card parlor” in the back room of his pharmacy for gambling. Aside from cheating at a poker game, the druggist mixes up labels on his medicine bottles and mistakenly believes he has administered poison to his customers, frightening a 17-year-old Clara Bow.

In its synopsis of the movie, the Exhibitors Trade Review noted that Clara Bow was “perhaps the most promising of the young actresses,”[iv] an understatement considering the vast fame and influence Bow would achieve in her short career, both as a performer and as a cultural icon. Exactly three months after THE PILL POUNDER was released, Bow left her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, for Hollywood to begin her path to stardom. As noted by her biographer, David Stenn, Bow transcended her role as a movie star to young women of the 1920s, who were trying to change the way the world had typecast femininity as domestic servitude. Onscreen and off, Clara Bow represented a new wave of feminism, one in which women could hold down jobs, cut their hair short, show off their legs and take part in the swinging nightclub scene that had previously been reserved for men.[v] Newly liberated and independent, women congregated at movie theaters and relocated to Hollywood itself, looking for opportunities to emulate their role models. Clara Bow – known as “The It Girl” after her starring performance in the film IT (1927) – reigned for a time as the queen of the box office and was a formidable draw for audiences, proving that women were a critical component of the economy that could no longer be discounted.

Although THE PILL POUNDER is not the oldest known surviving Clara Bow film (that honor goes to the feature DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS, which was released nationally in March 1923 after several screenings in 1922), it is significant in that it offers the world a more expansive view into her work and her cultural impact. Its discovery offers hope that other films included in the 75% of lost movies may rise to the surface to give viewers a glimpse into our nation’s heritage. The dearth of information about THE PILL POUNDER speaks to the importance of AFI’s work to document short films, as they have been widely overlooked in the historical narrative and provide critical insights into America’s cinematic legacy.

Clara Bow, herself, was nearly lost to history for a time, receiving little coverage in books and scholarship before David Stenn’s 1988 biography “Runnin’ Wild.”[vi] While Bow was able to transition from silent films to sound without the challenges faced by other stars, despite her thick Brooklyn accent, she was not enthusiastic about the new technology. She decided to cut her career short in 1933, after suffering several emotional breakdowns and marrying Nevada politician Rex Bell, with whom she bore two sons. Her retirement was far from idyllic, however, and she attempted suicide when Bell campaigned for Congress, hoping to avoid a return to public life. Bow spent her final years in near solitude after leaving the care of a psychiatric hospital, and died of a heart attack at age 60. But Clara Bow has remained a favorite of classic film fans, and recently her name became a popular search term on the Internet as another superstar, Taylor Swift, named a song on her upcoming album after the silent actress. Millions of Swift fans will now be introduced to the icon who sparked a generation of free-thinking, liberated women a century ago, and with the discovery of THE PILL POUNDER, they will be able to see her shine onscreen at the cusp of her stardom.

[i] David Pierce, The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929. (Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress, September 2013).

[ii] Dan Kelly, “Like ‘a Missing Picasso’: As Swifties ponder Clara Bow, KC Man Finds Her Lost Film.” The Kansas City Star, March 17, 2024.

[iii] American Film Institute, The Pill Pounder.

[iv] “The Pill Pounder,” Exhibitors Trade Review, Volume 13, Number 25 (May 19, 1923) p. 1220.

[v] Kelly, “Like a ‘Missing Picasso.’”

[vii] David Stenn, Cara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1988).

Watch Clara Bow in DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS (1923):

Watch Clara Bow in IT (1927):

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