A bit of local film history will unspool on Turner Classic Movies on Halloween night. “As the Earth Turns,” a 1938 45-minute silent film directed by a very young Seattle filmmaker named Richard H. Lyford (1917-1985), will finally make its television debut — more than 80 years after its creation.

The film, a creative science-fiction tale in which a mad scientist (played by Lyford) tries to bring peace to the world through climate-changing science, was shot in and around Seattle, its filmmaker just 20 years old. Though “As the Earth Turns” sat forgotten for many decades, it resurfaced through a serendipitous encounter: Seattle-area musician/composer Ed Hartman met Lyford’s grandniece Kim Lyford Bishop — the mother of one of Hartman’s percussion students — a few years ago. After watching a YouTube video in which Hartman layered his own music track on a Buster Keaton silent scene, Bishop mentioned that she was the estate owner of a film by her uncle and needed to do something with it.

“She asked, ‘Would you like to score it?’ ” Hartman remembered, in a recent interview. Asked if he’d heard of Lyford at the time, he laughed. “Nobody had heard of Richard Lyford! He’s the great unknown director of all time.”

Richard Lyford was just 20 years old when he directed, and starred as PAX in, “As the Earth Turns,” his 1938 silent film. (Courtesy of Ed Hartman)

Intrigued by the project, Hartman dived in: creating an orchestral score, incorporating newly found scenes, becoming producer of the film, directing a short documentary to accompany it (“It Gets In Your Blood,” about Lyford’s life and work). Appropriately, “As the Earth Turns” made its theatrical debut right here at home, at the Egyptian Theatre as part of the Seattle International Film Festival in 2019. Since then, it’s appeared at 123 film festivals, leading up to the Turner Classic Movies showing.

“We’re always interested in new discoveries and in showcasing lost films,” said Charlie Tabesh, TCM senior vice president of programming, in an email. “Not only is it a fascinating film with a wonderful score by Ed, but the director, Richard Lyford, went on to work on special effects at Disney. Ultimately it’s a small piece of film history that I think TCM viewers will appreciate.”

Lyford, who left Seattle as a young adult and spent most of his life in New York and Los Angeles, went on to a steady if below-the-radar career as both an independent and commercial filmmaker, including work in Hollywood, for the military and on the Oscar-winning 1950 documentary “The Titan: Story of Michelangelo.” But his early years stood out. Hartman said that before he was 20, Lyford had made nine films and written more than 50 stage plays, many presented in his family’s basement theater.

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“His really creative stuff was the stuff he did as a kid,” said Hartman, noting that despite Lyford’s range of accomplishments in his life’s work, “he never really got back to that narrative creative filmmaking that I think he would have loved to do.”

“As the Earth Turns” is the work of an exuberant, ambitious young man: Lyford wrote, directed and shot the film, and managed to corral a stable of actors and crew to capture his vision. You can see his fascination with the craft of filmmaking: Lyford experiments with miniatures and models (then used in Hollywood films, and a remarkable accomplishment for a barely-out-of-his-teens hobbyist), explosions, earthquakes and special makeup effects, all on a budget of next to nothing.  

A still from “As the Earth Turns,” a 1938 silent film directed by Richard Lyford. (Courtesy of Ed Hartman)

Much of the film was shot in Lyford’s family home in Mount Baker; Hartman noted that Lyford was remarkably good at making his house look like somewhere else. (“It’s an illusion, totally.”) Several exterior sequences were shot at Boeing Field, with one featuring both exterior and interior of a Boeing plane. And Gas Works Park makes an appearance, back when it was a gasification plant. Two actors climb a fence and race across the park; it was, Hartman said, not entirely acting — they were being chased by real-life security guards. “There were no (filming) permits, no Hollywood in Seattle,” Hartman said. “This was indie filmmaking before it was a thing.”

For Hartman, who’s been writing music for film and television for many years, creating the soundtrack was a challenge: He’s accustomed to working with directors who can tell him exactly what they’re looking for. But midway through the project, after talking with Lyford’s son, he discovered a piece of the puzzle: “I found out he had a playlist — he was putting records against these films, he had an idea of what he wanted … I felt like I was in the ballpark. My music is kind of period classical, a little bit of jazz, and those were exactly the kind of things he was interested in — Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, like that. That relieved me that I was not on a strange direction.”

Now the owner of Lyford’s film estate, Hartman’s at work on a screenplay about the filmmaker’s life, and hopes to find more of Lyford’s lost work. He’s thrilled for “As the Earth Turns” to make its TCM debut and find a wider audience, noting that the Orson Welles lost film “The Other Side of the Wind” emerged at approximately the same time.

“Welles and Lyford were almost identical in age, and they had a very similar trajectory,” Hartman said. “We know who Welles is and we don’t know who Lyford is, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. I think the life lesson Lyford gives us is most of us go through heavy, interesting creative things in our youth, and then life gets in the way.”

‘As the Earth Turns’

9 p.m. Oct. 31 on Turner Classic Movies as part of its Halloween Marathon and Silent Sunday Nights (followed by the 1926 film “Metropolis”). More information on the film: astheearthturns.com

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