BELGRADE — Ed Lorusso may very well be Maine’s foremost expert on Marion Davies.

“Of course,” he said with a laugh. “What’s the competition?”

After retiring from a career in higher education, the 71-year-old Lorusso found his retirement passion: restoring silent films, many of which star Davies. He wrote “The Silent Films of Marion Davies,” a detailed chronology of the 30 silent films she appeared in, and fully restored eight of them. He’s working on a ninth, “Zander the Great,” a 1925 comedy and adventure.

Since 2014, Lorusso has worked to restore 17 silent films.

“I’ve always been interested in it,” Lorusso said. “It’s basically a lost era to us, the era of silent film.”

Originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, Lorusso received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Maine and a doctorate in modern American Literature from the University of New Mexico. Lorusso taught modern American and British literature at the University of Maine, University of New Mexico and Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado for more than two decades.

Silent films were popular from the late 1880s through around 1930.

“It’s an offshoot of literature,” Lorusso said. “Having taught American lit for years, it’s all connected. A lot of novels become films, so it’s interesting to see its very beginnings of film and how literature was used in film.”

Like any project, a silent film restoration starts with an idea and some funding.

Lorusso finds his silent films in the public domain archive of the Library of Congress. He gets a copy of the film, and if it’s in decent enough shape, he begins the restoration process.

Some films are in fantastic condition, he said, while others need a lot of work. In most projects, Lorusso improves picture quality, adds subtitles and designs a DVD cover and other materials.

“Sometimes they’re in surprisingly wonderful condition, but sometimes they’re pretty rough,” Lorusso said. “Every project is different.”

Lorusso raises money through Kickstarter, an online crowd-sourcing platform. He recently raised enough money to jumpstart his 17th silent film restoration project, “Zander the Great.”

Lorusso “has also been a keen supporter of other Kickstarter creators’ film restoration projects,” Kickstarter spokesperson Elise McCave wrote in an email. “We’ve always had a steady stream of restoration projects come through the site.”

In the case of the 1920 film “Dinty,” Lorusso translated the entire work from Dutch. The “Zander the Great” project received 266 backers, a career-high, and $7,256 in Kickstarter funding. If there’s enough money, he hires a composer to write a score for the film. Lorusso has a network of composers in places such as New York and Chicago.

“Sometimes it’s something I’ve already got, but sometimes it’s something where I need the money to launch it,” Lorusso said. “It pre-pays for the project, as opposed to trying to get the money to launch something before you can even start.”

Kickstarter backers get a professional, hard-copy film version of the project. He also keeps up with followers through his Silent Room blog.

MAVEN OF MARION DAVIES

Lorusso’s interest in Marion Davies stems from what she was not, as much as what she was.

“It’s somebody who’s been pretty much erased from film history,” Lorusso said. “I was just amazed at how good she was in these silent films.”

Marion Davies is held by Harrison Ford in a scene from the 1923 silent film “Little Old New York.” Photo courtesy of Ed Lorusso

Born Marion Douras, Marion Davies lived from 1897 to 1961. Educated in a religious convent, Davies started her career as a chorus girl. At age 19, she met 53-year-old newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and was his mistress until his death in 1951.

Hearst managed Davies’ career. She was the top-ranked female box office star from 1922-23 for her roles in “When Knighthood Was in Flower” and “Little Old New York.” Her legacy was tarnished a bit when Orson Welles released “Citizen Kane” in 1941, as viewers assumed the main character was Hearst and the character Susan Alexander Kane was Davies.

In a forward to Davies’ autobiography, Welles denied any connection between Davies and Susan Alexander Kane.

“That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion,” Welles wrote. “The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. Hearst built more than one castle, and Marion was the hostess in all of them. They were pleasure domes indeed, and the Beautiful People of the day fought for invitations.”

The cover art for “Little Old New York,” a 1923 silent film starring Marion Davies. Photo courtesy of Ed Lorusso

Lorusso restored “Little Old New York”, which starred Davies and debuted in 1923. He recently sold it to Turner Classic Movies, Lorusso’s fifth sale to the cinema giant, and it will release later this year. Projects on Turner Classic Movies are licensed for DVD and/or Blu-ray production.

ON THE BIG SCREEN

The motivation to contact Turner Classic Movies for the first time in 2014 came via a dare. Lorusso ended up selling the 1921 film “Enchantment,” another film starring Davies.

“They snapped it up,” Lorusso said. “I was shocked that Turner bought the project.”

Over a half-decade later, Lorusso and Turner Classic Movies maintain a strong working relationship. Lorusso owns the rights to the restored films. Turner Classic Movies licenses Lorusso’s work for a period of time.

“He’s a passionate film-lover who went to his own trouble and expense to restore, transfer and score silent films,” said Charlie Tabesh, head of programming for Turner Classic Movies. “It just really made sense and it’s a nice relationship.”

Tabesh said you can count the number of people like Lorusso, restoring silent films, on one hand. Lorusso also restores films before getting Turner’s approval, which is rare.

“He’s unique,” Tabesh said. “And, honestly, that makes it so much easier for us.”

Edward Lorusso, shown Wednesday at his home studio in Belgrade, uses a keyboard to compose and write musical scores for digitized versions of silent movies he restores. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

David Weiss, executive director of Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, praised Lorusso’s networking chops. They’ve been connected for over a decade.

“It’s not like Ed is not connected to the right labs and the right places,” Weiss said. “He does good work.”

LOCAL CONNECTIONS 

Lorusso moved to Belgrade 10 years ago, so his location inspired a desire to find local connections.

The 1917 film “On Dangerous Ground” starred Gail Kane, an actress who retired to the Augusta area. He will soon release a second short film from the Edgar Jones/Holman Day film company of Augusta, “Brother of the Bear.” The 1929 picture was filmed in Augusta and Belgrade. The 1921 film “Caught in the Rapids” was shot on the Kennebec River and is an extra on the “Zander the Great” release.

Edward Lorusso stands in the screening room of his Belgrade home on Wednesday. Among his many film projects, Lorusso restored a digitized version of the 1921 silent movie “Enchantment,” starring Marion Davies, seen in background. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

In the late teens and early 1920s, Edgar Jones and Holman Day produced short films from a studio in Augusta.

Although most are lost forever, Lorusso has found a few.

“They’re interesting because they’re filmed in Augusta, Belgrade, the Kennebec,” Lorusso said. “They’re unique time capsules.”


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