Finding Lost Sellers

In 1957, Peter Sellers was one of the stars of The Goon Show on the BBC radio network, but he aspired to be something more.  So, he made two short films that were supposed to show his capabilities as an actor on the big screen.

The two movies, each 30 minutes long, were called Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good for You.  They must have worked, because Sellers went on to a storied and brilliant movie career that included such classics as The Mouse That Roared, Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, a gaggle of hysterical stints as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther franchise, and his crowning achievement — the timeless portrayal of Chance, the Gardener in Being There.  Sellers’ stunning depiction of the dim-witted yet earnest and good-natured man whose vapid comments were treated as morsels of the greatest wisdom is one of the great acting turns in movie history, and with each passing year Being There becomes an even more compelling satire of the empty-suited, empty-headed culture of the age of TV.

It’s amazing, therefore, that the two short films that helped to launch Sellers’ career were lost and forgotten — and then turned up in abandoned film canisters that were retrieved only because someone thought the canisters themselves might be of value.  Eventually the contents of the canisters were viewed, their important place in film history was recognized, and now the two shorts are being restored and will be screened for the first time in decades at a film festival next spring.

Peter Sellers was a genius.  It’s extraordinary that his early work could be tossed on the dustheap and salvaged only by happenstance, but I’m glad it happened.  So many bits of cinematic history have been lost — and once they are gone, they are gone forever.