A Career Lost to Time: The Story of Valeska Suratt
According to Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation,"half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever." That means there are thousands and thousands of movies that will never be seen again by human eyes. Millions of hours of work and creative energy, flushed down the drain. In the world of lost film, certain movies have more notoriety than others. Namely, Tod Browning's London After Midnight from 1927 and J. Gordon Andrew's Cleopatra from 1917. But someone who never seems to be discussed is the French American actress, Valeska Suratt, whose entire career went up in flames within the course of a few hours.
If you've never heard of Valeska Suratt, I can't say I blame you, it's likely that not a single living person has seen a film of hers, at least in its entirety. She was born in Owensville Indiana on June 28th, 1882, to French immigrant parents. Around 1900, she began her career as a vaudeville performer in Chicago, later making her Broadway debut in 1906, she starred in musicals such as The Belle of Mayfair and Hip! Hip! Hooray! She quickly began accumulating fame for her immaculate fashion sense, known for her expensive gowns and stage costumes. Over the course of her stage career in New York, she garnered nicknames such as "Vaudeville' Greatest Star," "The Biggest Drawing Card in New York," and the "Empress of Fashions." her most famous outfit consisted of an $11,000 Cinderella cloak.
Aside from being a fashion icon at the time, Suratt was also known as a vamp, often being casted in projects where she'd play exotic or sexually provocative characters. She was often compared to fellow silent film actress, Theda Bara, who was typecast in similar roles to Suratt. Although, a number of Bara's 40 films are still in existence. In 1915, Suratt signed with Fox and made her film debut in Herbert Brenon's The Soul of Broadway. Over the course of her two year long career, she starred in eleven films, making her one of the most prolific actors Fox had at the time. Her last film appearance was in Carl Harbaugh's A Rich Man's Plaything from 1917.
Things seemed to be going will for Valeska Suratt and her career until 1920, when vaudville began to fall out of public failure, as well as the vamp style that Suratt and Bara had become known for. Things continued to spiral for Suratt in 1928, when she sued famed director, Cecil B. DeMille with the help of scholar, Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, after the pair claimed that DeMille had stolen the story for the film The King of Kings from them. After the case was settled in court, it seemed like Suratt has been officially blacklisted from Hollywood. With the decline of her career also came the decline of her sanity, after the trial, she disappeared, and was discovered years later living in a run-down hotel in New York City, broke and out of her mind. After learning of her desperate situation, writer, Fannie Hurt organized a benefit for Suratt and ended up raising about $2,000 for the actress. However, shortly after receiving the money, she disappeared again, being found a few weeks later, once again destitute after spending the $2,000 gambling. In a last ditch attempt to revive her acting career, Suratt tried to sell her life's story to a newspaper. Later on, the reporter claimed that in her manuscript, Suratt referred to herself as The Virgin Mary and the mother of God. Despite her many desperate attempts, Valeska Suratt never managed to revive her acting career and never appeared on screen or on stage again. She would end up passing away in Washington D.C. on July 2nd, 1962, shortly after her 80th birthday.
Out of the 11 films she appeared in, none of Valeska Suratt's movies still exist today, as if her career never actually happened. And that's all due to the famous 1937 vault fire at the 20th Century Fox film-storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey. The reason why there are so many safety procautions that need to be observed around physical nitrate film is because how incredibly flamable it is. There's a reason why Shoshanna from Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds chose to burn down her movie theater, because nitrate film burns three times faster than paper.
There will a lot of factors that caused the 1937 Fox vault fire, a combination of improper ventilation, high temperatures, and gases caused by the nitrate film ended up resulting in spontaneous combustion. The fire was so devastating, that it took a team of 150 men with 14 fire hoses to fully extinguish. Overall, more than 40,000 reels of negatives were destroyed. Although some films partially survived in fragments, it's estimated that over 75% of Fox's films made before 1930, are lost forever. When all of those reels went up in flames, so did the entire career of Valeska Suratt, and it's extremely unlikely that any of those movies will ever resurface.
It's crazy to think that no matter how many films you've seen, there will always be thousand upon thousand that you'll never get the chance to watch. So much film history that has been lost to time due to these vault fires which were very common before the age of film digitalization. There is so much work by great creative minds that will never be seen again because of the careless way people used to preserve film back in the day. What makes the story of Valeska Suratt so uniquely tragic is that towards the end of her career, it's clear how desperately she wanted to relive her glory days, to be held in the same high regard she used to in the 1910's. Perhaps she took solace in knowing that although she might never appear on screen again, her work will continue to be enjoyed for generations, something that unfortunately would never happen. Stories like Suratt's and the Fox vault fire of 1937 tell a cautionary tale of film preservation, and the lengths we must go to in order to keep film culture and history safe, so that lost films become a thing of the past.