The lost film – Mamba review

Mamba – Starring Jean Hersholt, Eleanor Boardman and Ralph Forbes. Directed by Albert S. Rogell. By Jess Lomas.

Jess Lomas saw Mamba at a special screening held at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne. Heralded as the film archive discovery of the century, the film was preceded by a presentation from cinema historian Paul Brennan and restoration expert Jonas Nordin, who collectively resurrected this once thought lost film.

Today, with most people’s mobile phones capable of capturing video, and most studios capitalising on multiple special edition releases of their films on DVD, our culture is saturated with preserving every moment and every film. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when studios intentionally destroyed films, wiping their existence from film history… were it not for that sole 35mm print that found its way to Australia and lay dormant in Adelaide, waiting to be discovered.

This is what happened with Albert S. Rogell’s 1930 film Mamba (released by Tiffany Pictures, which closed its doors in 1932 due to bankruptcy). Starring Jean Hersholt, Eleanor Boardman and Ralph Forbes, the film was thought lost, with most of its original nitrate prints being used in the burning of the Atlanta depot fire in Gone With The Wind.

The film takes place on a settlement in German East Africa, pre World War I. August Bolte (Hersholt) is given the name Mamba by the locals, which translates to snake – a true testament to his unending drinking, smoking and womanising. He boasts that he can buy anything he wants and to prove it he buys a wife, Helen (Boardman), paying her father the princely sum of $200,000 to save him from ruin.

On their return trip to the settlement Helen meets Karl von Raiden (Forbes), an officer who falls for her, and soon she gives in to his charms. But as he steps in to defend her against her brute of a husband, WWI breaks out and the trio have more to worry about than their love triangle, such as the natives who have turned against the Europeans.

Having been amongst the first in the world to see this film in eighty years, I can only hope that the funding for its restoration is raised speedily, so more people can enjoy one of the earliest surviving – and complete – colour talkies. With an amazing colour range for such limited technology, and with foresight into future filming techniques, Mamba was ahead of its time and is a delight to watch.

Discuss: Did you catch Mamba at the Astor?

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