A LOST film about Mary, Queen of Scots is to be screened for the first time in nearly a century. The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots has been rescued from decay and the restored version will receive its premier at Scotland’s silent film festival next month.

One of just a handful of films made about the tragic queen, it stars Fay and Ellen Compton, the sisters of author Compton MacKenzie, co-founder of the Scottish National Party.

It is Ellen’s only film role and the only intact silent film made by Fay, who went on to enjoy a lengthy career in cinema and on the stage.

Made by American director Denison Clift, it was shot in France, Scotland and England at many of the historic sites that featured in Mary’s life.

It was so prestigious it was screened as part of British Film Week in 1924, but the British film industry was on the verge of collapse and the movie sank into obscurity.

The copy that has been restored is believed to be the only one in the world and was beginning to decay when it was rescued by film historian Tony Fletcher and film restorer Bob Geoghegan, who spent long hours in his spare time attempting to clean it up.

“It’s an important find and almost certainly the only copy left in the world,” said Geoghegan. “It has not been screened since the early 1920s, so it will be quite exciting to see it at the film festival.”

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The screening will take place on March 19 at Hippfest in Bo’ness, and will be accompanied by music from cellist Wendy Weatherby, guitarist Frank McLaughlin and pianist David Trouton. Acclaimed storyteller Andy Cannon will provide live narration and historical context during the reel changeovers.

The film was sold to Fletcher by a collector for £20, but was already beginning to decay.

“It was in poor condition and had vinegar syndrome and film fungus, which was probably why it was given up for lost,” said Geoghegan. “Some films have one or other, but this had both.”

Normal cleaning did not get rid of the fungus which covered the film “like crazy paving” so he tried hand polishing a few frames and, finding that worked, he set out to hand polish the rest, not realising it would take six months.

“I have done it before but just with short films of about five or ten minutes, and never anything as long as this,” he said.

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Vinegar syndrome, which makes films warp, had also affected the reels.

“If you don’t get to it quickly and screen it digitally it becomes a solid lump and you can’t do anything with it,” explained Geoghegan. “We caught it just in time and by scanning it slowly we were able to save it. The picture was unstable and in some places we had to stabilise it frame by frame. That enabled us to get a reasonable copy and brought it back to life.

“Initially we did not think we would be able to do it. But we did tests and found by working diligently, we could bring it back visually to almost like what it was before. It was muzzy and indistinct and had what looked like tree roots all over it, then suddenly we could see it – it’s a revelation.”

Unlike the most recent film about Mary, this one does not pretend she ever met face to face with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

“This one is based on fact and uses the locations relating to Mary in England, Scotland and France, so it is an important film,” said Geoghegan.

Fletcher said it was one of only four films he was aware of that had been made about Mary and “probably the most accurate”.

“It is important because of the subject matter and I think it is better than Rob Roy, which was shown last year at the festival,” he said.

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“It’s not a cheap production and it looks like they have gone to the real locations to film it.”

He added that it was of interest because of the quality of the performances from the cast.

“Because it was an American director, the acting is less turgid than it possibly would have been if it was an English director,” said Fletcher.

“This is the final film before he went back to the States.

“He called it a Denison Clift Art Production so it was a step above many of his other films and was important enough to be shown during British Film Week in 1924.

“It was considered to be a prestige film but it coincided with the collapse of the British film industry in 1924, 1925 and 1926 when a lot of directors went back to the US or over to Germany.

“It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a very interesting film and lot of work has gone into it. That’s why Bob put the time and effort into restoring it.”