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Buried in the can: 12 films that (almost) no one has ever seen

The Day The Clown Cried (Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Film is a business, a demanding art, and a form of popular entertainment, which makes unreleased films—especially those that were deliberately abandoned by their creators—into objects of perverse fascination. Anything unseen carries an aura of mystery. But with a movie that’s been locked away in a vault or written off for tax purposes, one can’t help but wonder how a group of people can put so much work into something meant for an audience, only to never let it see the light of day.

Here are a dozen unreleased projects that intrigue us; they range from the silent era to our modern blockbuster age. For the curious, our criteria were simple: the films had to have screened for a regular audience, and they had to have passed a major point of production. (The majority of filming for a live action film, or at least the recording of a voice cast for an animated production.)


1. A Woman Of The Sea (1926)

Josef Von Sternberg’s 1924 low-budget debut The Salvation Hunters was the original indie calling card film, by the original Holllywood enfant terrible. It brought the ambitious filmmaker to the attention of the major studios, and though Von Sternberg would go on to direct some of the best films of the late silent era (and made Marlene Dietrich into a global star once sound came around), his first years in Hollywood were a wash. The only early project he managed to get through without quitting or getting fired was A Woman Of The Sea, which marked the only time that Charlie Chaplin produced a film for another director. Also known as The Sea Gulls, this drama about an impoverished fishing community was meant as a vehicle for Chaplin’s longtime leading lady, Edna Purviance. The perfectionist Chaplin was ultimately disappointed in the completed 75-minute film, and opted not to release it, making it one of the most famous unseen films of its era.
Chance of recovery: Told by the IRS that they couldn’t write off a finished movie as a loss, Chaplin’s production company had to destroy the negatives for tax purposes in 1933. Though dozens of stills, schedules, and even a complete list of inter-titles were discovered in the mid-2000s, the likelihood that a positive print survived is next to zero. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


2. The Adventures Of Pinocchio (1936)

Animators at work on The Adventures Of Pinocchio. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Adventures Of Pinocchio could have been the world’s first cel animated feature, but like so many ambitious film projects undertaken in Fascist Italy (see: the next entry on this list), it collapsed under it own weight. Commissioned by Alfredo Rocco, one of the main economic strategists of the Fascist state, this adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s book completed 150,000 frames of animation before running out of money. Had it been completed on schedule, the black-and-white feature would have been released before Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Attempts were made to color and re-film the footage in 1940, the same year that Disney put out its own version of Pinocchio.
Chance of recovery: Despite the scale of the project and the amount of footage that was completed, all that appears to survive to this day is the script and a handful of stills. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. Knights Of The Desert (1942)

Benito Mussolini’s movie-mad son, Vittorio, was his father’s point man in the Fascist film industry. This put him at the front of its most ill-fated ventures, from a widely ridiculed partnership with Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang producer Hal Roach (which resulted in one of the era’s more indelibly bizarre propaganda newsreels) to the production of the costly flop Scipio Africanus. The younger Mussolini’s producing career ended with Knights Of The Desert, an adaptation of an adventure novel by the hugely prolific and popular pulp writer Emilio Salgari, which the dictator’s son co-scripted with a then-unknown Federico Fellini. The lengthy shoot in occupied Libya was a disaster from the get-go: filming was regularly interrupted by Allied bombing; actor-director Osvaldo Valenti and co-star Luisa Ferida (both later executed by Italian partisans) were addicted to cocaine; and broken supply lines sometimes left the crew without film stock.
Chance of recovery: Once Axis troops were forced into retreat, Knights Of The Desert became an embarrassment, and was left unfinished. Accounts differ as to whether filming had wrapped by the time Fellini—who had been brought out for rewrites, but eventually found himself directing—was forced to make an escape in a German plane. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


4 & 5. The Deep (1966-69) and The Other Side Of The Wind (1970-76)

Is there a better testament to the creative genius of Orson Welles than the fact that he rightly earned a place in the pantheon of great filmmakers despite leaving behind a body of work that is partly compromised or incomplete? The recently restored Chimes At Midnight was the last big narrative project Welles finished (followed by TV productions and documentaries, including the inexhaustible F For Fake), but hardly the last one he started. The two late-period productions that came the closest to completion were The Deep and The Other Side Of The Wind. The former was a thriller, adapted from the same novel as the 1989 movie Dead Calm. The latter is arguably the most mythologized unfinished project of the last phase of Welles’ career, a satire about Hollywood that starred real-life directors John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich as, respectively, an aging macho filmmaker and his young protégé.
Chance(s) of recovery: Shot sporadically off the coast of what was then Yugoslavia, The Deep was plagued by technical problems. Its climax was reportedly never shot, and any chance of finishing the soundtrack vanished with the untimely death of Laurence Harvey, one of the leads. Work prints of the film exist, but have never seen official release. As for The Other Side Of The Wind: While the project ran into constant money troubles (as did Welles himself), the footage is complete, and small edited portions have occasionally popped up in documentaries and online. Since Welles’ death, there have been several efforts to raise the money necessary to negotiate rights issues and finish post-production. In 2015, producers raised $400,000 in an Indiegogo campaign, but negotiations continue over the negative, which is locked in a film lab outside Paris. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


6. The Day The Clown Cried (1972)

Rumors about Jerry Lewis’ spectacularly ill-conceived Holocaust drama—about a German circus clown forced to lead Jewish children to the gas chamber as punishment for publicly mocking Hitler—have been circulating through Hollywood since the film was (barely) completed in 1972. Dismissed by co-writer Joan O’Brien as a “disaster,” the film was reportedly screened privately for a small group of comedians in 1979. The only one who’s talked about it publicly is Harry Shearer, who described the film as being like “if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz” to Spy Magazine in 1992. More recently, a German making-of documentary containing footage from the film surfaced online, further ensuring that Lewis will be asked about it at every Q&A he does for the rest of his life.
Chance of recovery: Last year, Lewis donated a collection of prints from his personal vault, including the only known complete copy of The Day The Clown Cried, to the Library Of Congress, under the condition that they not be publicly screened for 10 years. So, in 2025, the Library will be free to screen the film to a curious public—if it can untangle its complicated knot of legal rights in the meantime. [Katie Rife]


7. Conversations With Vincent (1994)

Tim Burton and Vincent Price on the set of Edward Scissorhands. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Tim Burton idolized Vincent Price since childhood. The godfather of American cinematic macabre was even the subject of Burton first animated short in 1982, simply titled Vincent. While the oddball director worked with Price on 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, he asked the legendary actor if he’d be willing to let Burton make a documentary about his life. Price agreed, and over the course of three days in April, Burton shot footage of Price at the Vincent Price Gallery in East Los Angeles College. Shot in black and white and given the working title Conversations With Vincent, production on the film stalled after Burton was immersed in the making of Batman Returns, and then was delayed further still following Price’s death in 1993. However, in December ’94 it was announced he was finishing up work on the film, and had renamed it A Visit With Vincent, saying it ran about one hour. But soon thereafter, the project withered on the vine, and was never released.
Chance of recovery: Supposedly, Burton decided the project was too personal, and shelved it. It’s unclear if he actually ever completed the doc, but it seems likely any assembled footage won’t be appearing during Burton’s lifetime. [Alex McCown-Levy]

8. The Magic 7 (1997)

Hailing from an era when the merest whisper of “saving the environment” could have Hollywood’s top-tier stars beating a globally conscious path to your door, Roger Holzberg’s animated TV movie is mostly notable for the excess of talent it managed to lure in. James Earl Jones, Michael J. Fox, Demi Moore, Ted Danson, Madeline Kahn, and John Candy all contributed voices or live-action acting to the special, originally conceived to run Earth Day 1997, complete with promos from globe-saving stars like Kevin Bacon, Olivia Newton-John, and Meryl Streep. But though Kahn and Candy recorded their characters’ dialogue before their deaths in 1999 and 1994, the film’s animation was never completed, leaving us with nothing but concept art images of characters like Candy’s villainous “Smokestack Sam” or the car-cowboy hybrid XLR8. And while it pains us to know we’ll never get to hear the movie’s soundtrack—featuring music from Kirk Cameron and Ice-T, according to IMDB—it’s the loss of Candy and Kahn’s vocal stylings that seems like the biggest waste.
Chance of recovery: According to Holzberg, all of the movie’s dialogue is still safely stored away, just waiting for some nostalgic, environmentally minded Candy fan to recycle it into something new. “If you know of anyone who has a creative idea for how to complete it as a film, TV show, or animated story book,” the writer-director said when we asked him about it, “We’re all ears.” [William Hughes]


9. Fencewalker (2008)

Conspiracy-obsessed SoCal surfer Chris Carter is best known for creating The X-Files, Millennium, and assorted series that promised to be like The X-Files and Millennium, but were nowhere as good. And then there’s Fencewalker, the reportedly autobiographical, late-1970s-set coming-of-age film that Carter filmed around his hometown of Bellflower, California in the summer of 2008, around the same time that The X-Files: I Want To Believe hit theaters. Described in vague terms as a departure from its writer-director’s best-known work and as “a personal project,” Fencewalker was made with a cast composed mostly of young actors (the biggest name involved was Xzibit, then fresh off Pimp My Ride) and has never seen the light of day.
Chance of recovery: Fencewalker’s IMDB page disappeared years ago, and Carter tends to give evasive answers when asked about the movie, which appears to be a sore subject. By most accounts, filming went off without a hitch, but Carter decided to abandon the project somewhere in the editing process. “I decided I wanted to rethink some things about it” is as clear of an answer as Carter has given on its fate, and it’s an answer he’s been giving for years. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


10. Dau (2008-2011)

On the set of Dau. (Photo: Ruskino)

Dau, the defining runaway film production of our time (if not all time), makes Heaven’s Gate look like an exercise in minimalist restraint. With just one somewhat well-received, semi-surreal solo directing effort under his belt, the Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky somehow pulled together the resources to create what’s been popularly described as a real-life Synecdoche, New York: a movie about an isolated Stalinist research community, shot under conditions that suggested a bizarre totalitarian state. Ostensibly a biographical drama about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Lev Landau, Dau filmed for three years in a neighborhood-sized set where much of the cast lived full-time in 1950s conditions. Microphones were hidden everywhere and everything from canned food and cigarettes to the plumbing were produced to period specifications.
Chance of recovery: Last year, Russian’s Ministry Of Culture successfully sued to withdraw the millions in funding it had provided for Dau, which has now been in post-production for over five years. It should be noted that Khrzhanovsky’s team has been describing the film as “nearly finished” since at least 2012. It seems the only thing harder than making a maddeningly over-ambitious project is letting it go. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

11. The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg (2009)

The dense resume of the prolific, multi-tasking, not-really-retired Steven Soderbergh ranges from superbly entertaining blockbuster heist movies to experimental exercises, so it should be no surprise that it includes at least one unreleased project. The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg was filmed in 10 days while Soderbergh was in Australia to direct a play at the Sydney Theatre Company, and is said to focus on a group of actors working on a production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Its cast included The Babadook’s Essie Davis, and Cate Blanchett, who was then the Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director.
Chance of recovery: “My whole thing was that it has to be unavailable.” Soderbergh, not one to mince words, has repeatedly stated that The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg will never be released on any platform, though all of the members of the cast have a copy. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]


12. Empires Of The Deep (2014)

Consider this another testament to the folly of misguided rich men believing they can do anything. Empires Of The Deep was the brainchild of real estate billionaire Jon Jiang (a.k.a. Jiang Hongyu), a film meant to be China’s answer to Avatar and proof the country could compete with the U.S. in the global blockbuster market. Instead, the project ballooned into an unwieldy mess, plagued by endless rewriters, reshoots, a revolving door of directors, and the general impression that the man at the heart of it all didn’t really know what he was doing. (A New York Times piece assessing the production at the time includes such telling details as government officials demanding more Chinese elements, resulting in the producers being forced to “add a race of dragon people” to the story.) A film about mysterious creatures fighting for control of the massive underwater realm of the Earth’s oceans became a cautionary tale about squabbles for control of a film ruining the entire project.
Chance of recovery: After four years of work, it was announced in 2014 the film was complete and would be released in China in December 2015. That didn’t happen. Still, it seems unlikely this fiasco beyond even Waterworld-sized proportions won’t see the light of day in the coming years, if only to try and recoup a few bucks. [Alex McCown-Levy]


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