Not seen since its general release in 1929, the film “Why Be Good?” has been rediscovered, after restoration of existing film and soundtrack materials.
But how did this film get lost throughout time? Let’s take a trip down “memory lane.”
According to The Vitaphone Project, Warner Bros. Pictures acquired competing studio First National Pictures in 1928. This allowed First National to use Warners’ “Vitaphone” sound-on-disc process for future releases.
The film featured Colleen Moore, and utilized the Vitaphone sound recording process for sound effects, along with a synchronous hot jazz score. Yet there was no spoken dialogue in the film, only caption cards were used in between scenes when the characters were “talking.”
When the museum decided to donate her Warner features back to the studio, the museum neglected her First National films. As a result of MoMA’s negligence, the films had disintegrated due to improper nitrate film storage methods.
Moore would spend the rest of her life searching for complete copies of her First National features, she died in 1988.
Another reason of how “Why Be Good?” became a “lost” film was also because of the soundtrack discs.
In the documentary, “Keepers of the Frame,” film historian Mark Cantor noted that most Vitaphone productions had their soundtrack discs separated from the film, or vice-versa. This was common for most sound-on-disc features and short subjects after their general release.
At a 1994 festival of restored Vitaphone shorts at New York’s Film Forum, Ron Hutchinson, founding member of The Vitaphone Project, announced to the audience that he acquired the Vitaphone soundtrack discs to Moore’s film, which was considered “lost” at the time.
Hutchinson and attendees of the festival were surprised when film historian Joseph Yranski proclaimed, “No it’s not! I know where it is!”
The film was stored in Italy at Cineteca Italiana di Milano, and would be reunited with its Vitaphone soundtrack, some 20 years later.
The film made its broadcast premiere on Turner Classic Movies on Sept. 28.
“Why Be Good?” is a brilliant example of one of the last studio “silent” features, in a period when the industry transitioned to sound motion pictures. If you’ve never seen any silent film before, this is the one to watch.
“Why Be Good?” is now available on DVD (online purchase only, through Warner Archive)
1926 Vitaphone demonstration film, “Voice From The Screen“ (transferred from a safety copy w/soundtrack, via Prelinger Archives/Internet Archive)
Warner Archive Podcast on “Why Be Good?” (begins at 22:27, recorded in October 2014)
Questions/comments about silent film, Vitaphone, different sound film formats or “Why Be Good?” Drop a line at the comments section!