Worcester native Ed Lorusso brings silent movies back into the picture

Marion Davies stars in the 1921 film, "Enchantment."
Marion Davies stars in the 1921 film, "Enchantment."

Worcester native Ed Lorusso has been quietly making quite a name for himself since taking on a new project after retiring from a career that included being a college professor and a writer.

He's been busy restoring neglected silent movies and producing them for DVDs as well as selling them to entities such as Turner Classic Movies and showing the films at various venues and festivals.

Lorusso, who now lives in Belgrade, Maine, and is also a film historian and composer, just successfully launched his 22nd Kickstarter campaign to help fund his latest restoration project, "The Awakening of Ruth," a 1917 film starring Shirley Mason. The campaign on the online crowdsourcing platform began Jan. 1 with a $3,000 goal, and was funded within a few hours with over $5,000 coming in from more than 180 backers. Lorusso will be getting to work on restoring the film, and will be announcing another Kickstarter project in the spring.

"The Awakening of Ruth" takes place on "a fictional island off the coast of Massachusetts," Lorusso said. Ruth, played by Mason, is a "wild child" on the island who has a brief romance with a a man sailing a yacht who promises to return but never does. Ruth's father dies and she is visited by a minister and a doctor who send her to New York City to pursue musical studies. However, "Romantic complications arise."

Originally from Brooklyn, Mason (1901-1979) appeared in over 100 silent films, but not many people may have heard of her these days.

Marion Davies (1897-1961) might be a name that's more familiar to some. She was a silent movie actress and also made some early sound movies, and was the mistress of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Lorusso has restored nine of Davies' silent films and written a book, "The Silent Films of Marion Davies."

All through January, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring Davies as its "Star of the Month" for the first time. The screenings have included three of Davies' films that Lorusso has restored and sold to TCM - "Beauty's Worth" and "The Bride's Play" (both made in 1922) and "Little Old New York" (1923). The films were shown Jan. 3/4.

"Little Old New York" will also be screened Feb. 25 at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka in their salute to 100-year-old films.

Meanwhile, Lorusso has helped rescue the 1919 US romantic drama film "The Valley of the Giants" starring Wallace Reid and Grace Darmond. Filmed on location in northern California, this tale of a lumberman battling to save the redwoods on his family’s land has not been widely seen in over 100 years. The film was considered lost until a print was discovered in the Gosfilmofond Archive in Moscow in 2010 and it has recently been re-released with titles Lorusso translated from Cyrillic.

Lorusso's restoration is scheduled to be screened at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles on Feb. 11.

He noted Reid, the No.1 box office star of the day, was injured in a train accident during the filming of "The Valley of the Giants" and administered morphine for pain so he could continue. By the time the shoot wrapped, he was addicted. He died of complications from his addiction 100 years ago on Jan. 18, 1923.

The Blue-ray cover for the film, "Buried Treasure."
The Blue-ray cover for the film, "Buried Treasure."

Lorusso has been restoring silent films since 2014. "It's been an interesting journey. It's been a good retirement project. Coming from absolutely nowhere I've gotten to work with really talented people," he said.

His restorations have also included composing or hiring composers to write and play a musical score, and he even designs the covers for DVD versions. Almost all his projects are available on disk through Grapevine Video and Undercrank Productions.

Lorusso received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Maine and a doctorate in modern American Literature from the University of New Mexico. He taught modern American and British literature at the University of Maine, University of New Mexico, and Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado. Later, he worked at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico as a technical writher and managed some of its outreach educational groups before retiring and moving back to Maine.

But his personal journey began in Worcester where he was born and raised. He was a member of the first graduating class from Doherty Memorial High School in 1967. Lorusso had been attending Classical High School, but it closed the year before so he had his senior year at the new Doherty High.

Lorusso has a brother who lives in Oxford and he keeps in touch with former classmates on the Doherty High School Facebook page, but other than that he doesn't have much local contact anymore.

"The last time I drove through Worcester I didn't even recognize any of it," he said. A new Doherty High School is being built," he noted. "All the schools I went to are no longer schools, that's how old I am."

After graduating from Doherty High School he spent a year working for The Evening Gazette (now part of the Telegram & Gazette) as an office messenger while also attending the then Worcester State College (now Worcester State University) before moving to Maine.

"It was an eye-opener," he said of The Evening Gazette and characters there such as the late editor Kenneth J. Botty.

Also eye-opening was Lorusso discovering the world of silent films, something he said he had always been interested in.

The American silent feature film era lasted from about 1912 to 1929 with nearly 11,000 feature films produced, although more than 70% are believed to be completely lost and gone forever

"They're nice little stories. They're beautifully photographed. And it's fascinating to see what the world looks like in 1917," he said of many of the movies he's seen and/or restored.

On location (many of the films were shot outside) you often see dirt roads and farms, he said. "It's interesting to see what the world looked like at that point."

"Valley of the Giants" was filmed in northern California. "It's this incredibly primitive wild countryside where there are no roads. It's a world that's long gone. Everything is accessible now, but there were a lot of places that were really remote.

In films shot at urban locations such as New York City you get to see what the cities were like and the clothes people wore there, he noted. The intertitles of dialogue "give you clues to the use of language. It's all completely different," Lorusso said.

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As for the merit of the films, "as cinema they were believable in their day. You have to accept it for the time in which it was made," he said.

"One thing about silent films, they had to have a good story because you're not reliant on anything else."

Even a drama would have sense of humor, Lorusso said, and there were plenty of wide-ranging topics and story lines including the use of Ouija boards and the supernatural.

In "Little Old New York" Marion Davies plays a women who has to dress up and pretend to be her brother in order to inherit money, Lorusso said. "It's a comedy but it says a lot about what the perception of power is."

Lorusso finds and buys digitally preserved silent films in the public domain archive of the Library of Congress, which has the largest single collection of American silent feature films in the world.

Marion Davies stars in the 1923 film, "Little Old New York."
Marion Davies stars in the 1923 film, "Little Old New York."

At first, he was restoring the films at his own expense. "Then I discovered Kickstarter. I was talked into running a project on Kickstarter. You get the money up front to go and produce a DVD of the film," he said.

His first KickSarter project was the 1921 Marion Davies movie "Enchantment."

"I did it on a dare," he said. Then someone dared him to send the restored film to TCM. "I did." TCM bought it. All told, five of his films have been bought by and broadcast on TCM. His Marion Davies films on "Star of the Month" this month have been screened by TCM before, he said.

After Lorusso has bought a film from the Library of Congress, he downloads the digital file and works within the digital scan of the film.

"I don't work with 'film' film," he said, although there are preservers and restorers who do work with film.

Restoring a movie "can involve a lot," he said. Sometimes the film he is working on is in "incredibly pristine" condition, but other times there can be damage.

The opening credits might be lost, but Lorusso can create new credits and also add intertitles through the film if they are lost or damaged. There are programs for working digitally that may not have been designed with silent movies in mind but do work well in the restoration process, Lorusso said. A film can be cleaned up (picture quality), and Lorusso can control the speed of the film. If a film was tinted but has lost its tint, Lorusso can tint the film again.

As a composer he can write a score and record music to accompany the film. He also commissions composers for some of the projects.

"I get the digital file back (with the music), and there it is," he said of a restored film ready for DVD.

"I produce films I want to see that are not going to be produced by the big distributors," Lorusso said. "The films are out there in a way they never would be. Otherwise they'd be in an archive."

The Kickstarter amounts he seeks for a project are not usually huge (around $3,000 or so but usually bringing in about double) and help pay for obtaining the film from the Library of Congress, the technical editing, getting a composer, and some other matters and materials related to making a DVD.

He has become well enough known for what he does that "I have backers for projects," Lorusso said.

Kickstarter backers get a professional, hard-copy film version of the project.

Lorusso is also working with David Weiss at the Northeast Historic Film archive in Bucksport, Maine, to get new digital scans of a few old Maine films as part of his collecting the surviving films shot in the Augusta area 1919-21 by Edgar Jones and Holman Day (only six survive). These may get a festival screening in the future, Lorusso said.

"It's surprising how many silent films were made in New England," he said.

The island off Massachusetts in "The Awakening of Ruth" was actually an island off Maine, he said.

1917 was a "breakthrough year" for Mason. Her career would wind down at the same time as the advent of sound. On his Kickstarter page for "The Awakening of Ruth" he writes that Mason made "her starring all-talkie debut in a low-budget film for Biltmore Productions called 'Dark Skies'. The reviews were horrible although there was no mention of her voice being bad."

Davies' career lasted into the sound era but Lorusso's "The Silent Films of Marion Davies" is a detailed chronology of the 30 silent films she appeared in.

The DVD cover for the 1923 film, "Little Old New York," starring Marion Davies.
The DVD cover for the 1923 film, "Little Old New York," starring Marion Davies.

" 'Citizen Kane' destroyed her career," Lorusso said of Orson Welles' 1941 film widely believed to be based on Hearst. Many people also assumed the character Susan Alexander Kane was Davies, although Welles denied it.

Impressed by what he saw in Davies' acting, Lorusso has tried to put her back in public view with his film restorations. "It's been a relaunch of her career," he said.

Now, however, in terms of film rights and availability, "I've basically run to the end of what I can do with her films."

But clearly not the end of what Lorusso is doing with silent films.

"I sort of got hooked. There's always someone new to discover," he said.

"Nothing filmed in Worcester, though," he noted to the best of his knowledge.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester native Ed Lorusso brings silent movies back into the picture