Survey Finds 70% Of American Silent Movies Have Been Lost To Time Or Neglect

mary pickfordIn what now looks like a prescient move, silent screen legend Mary Pickford paid for the preservation of her films, ensuring that most of them endured. The effort spared 40 of her movies from being among the casualties of time and neglect that are represented in a new survey by the Library of Congress. The report, The Survivial Of American Silent Films: 1912-1929, has found that 70% of feature-length silent films made in America have been completely lost. During the period the study voyage dans la lunecovers, 10,919 silent feature films of U.S. origin were released and only 14% of those still exist in their original 35mm format. Of those, 5% are incomplete and 11% are only available in foreign versions or lower-quality formats. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called the state of America’s silent film heritage an “alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record.” Martin Scorsese weighed in about the findings, saying the report was “invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture.” Scorsese’s Hugo was a tribute to the silent era, incorporating Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune, which the Cannes Film Festival screened in an impressively restored version a few years back. It was also at Cannes that eventual Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist began its career, a throwback to the time before the talkies.

the artistContributing factors to the staggering loss of silent films are the vulnerability of nitrate film stock to fire and deterioration, and the industry’s practice of neglecting or destroying prints and negatives, the Library of Congress says. Among some of the notable films considered lost in their complete form are Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927); The Patriot (1928); Cleopatra (1917); The Great Gatsby (1926), and all four of Clara Bow’s feature films produced in 1928, including Ladies Of The Mob. Meanwhile, only five of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features survive and 85% of films by Hollywood’s first cowboy star, Tom Mix, are lost.

An inventory database of information on the surviving films is here. The idea is to help raise awareness so that films that may exist abroad can be repatriated. Of the more 3,300 films that survived in any form, according to the study, 26% were found in other countries. The study also recommends a collaboration with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles; coordination among American archives and collectors; a campaign to document unidentified titles; and building audience appreciation by screening more silent features.

“Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost. It also gives us hope that others may be discovered. The research presented in this report serves as a road map to finding silent films we once thought were gone forever and encourages creative partnerships between archives and the film industry to save silent cinema,” Scorsese added.

Comments (26)

  • Duh, well, in the absence of BOTH sound AND color, who cares? Now maybe if some dashing young entrepreneurs were to say colorize and dub in audio folks would want to see them. Sadly, however, we are in era where it ain’t cool to care or value things beyond their price tags.

    Comment by Ned Turner — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 1:56am PST  
    • Serious film lovers care. Your failure to understand what these films mean to the history of film does not mean that other people experience a similar failure.

      Comment by Geraldo — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 2:19pm PST  
      • I think Ned was being sarcastic.

        Comment by cadavra — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 4:13pm PST  
  • Not surprising to many film buffs since it’s already known that most films from that era are gone forever, but that 70% figure is still upsetting. Humans are often better at preserving what’s left of the ancient world than they are at maintaining the legacy of the recent past. Silent films wither and disappear. NBC tapes over early Johnny Carson episodes of the Tonight Show. NASA erases or dubs over the original Apollo 11 video. Heck, even the seemingly infinite internet isn’t big enough to contain some of the earliest examples of digital culture (not that I’m equating the GeoCities with the pyramids of Egypt!).

    Comment by Mr. Majestyk — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 2:48am PST  
  • Not to be completely heretical, but I’m not alarmed by this. Preservation of the original films themselves is a costly endeavor and designed for historians, academics and deeply immersed film buffs. I celebrate the classics and we have certainly restored and protected the masterpieces. But is everything a masterpiece? Aren’t five Will Rogers films enough for future generations to appreciate the heritage of the art form? It seems we’ve saved many of the classics and that’s what really matters. I’m more concerned with the slow death of truly independent filmmaking. We deserve a business model that celebrates that medium and brings it to movie theaters. We’ll certainly rue the day when we realize Iron Man is what will define our era, not a seminal film that explored human behavior from a gifted storyteller.

    Comment by Addie DeWitt — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 5:23am PST  
    • ” It seems we’ve saved many of the classics and that’s what really matters.”

      How can you say that when most of what’s lost hasn’t been seen in a half century or more? Who’s to say some of the lost Clara Bow or Tom Mix films wouldn’t be considered their best work today?

      Comment by DanInNYC — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 7:05am PST  
    • This would be somewhat akin to saying something like historians or archaeologists should only focus on elites or monumental structures and tombs, rather than studying and learning about the common people, their homes, their lives, etc.

      It is unrealistic to be able to study, research, and save every film (as it’s impossible to historically or archaeologically research everything), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and find ways to maximize our ability to save or learn from as much as we can.

      Comment by Rogers — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 9:55am PST  
    • Many classics HAVE been lost. There are lost performances by John Barrymore. The film about the Titanic’s sinking — starring an actress who survived the shipwreck, wearing her actual clothes from that night and as close as we’d get to her account — that’s gone too. “Metropolis” was only reconstructed many years later though an enormous stroke of luck.

      Comment by hap — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 4:33pm PST  
  • Although this is a different topic, there is also the problem of early television and radio being deemed orphaned or in an arbitrary copyright hell. Corporations “own” classic television and radio and don’t allow reproduction for scholarly or documentary purposes. That’s a real nightmare. I’m shocked that the number of lost silent films is 70%.

    Comment by benten32 — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 6:11am PST  
  • I understand that not every silent era film is the equivalent of the Mona Lisa but it’s our history. I have the entire Keaton and Chaplin collections on dvd so I’m good.

    Comment by apk — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 6:41am PST  
  • With all due respect to Mr. Turner, most film lovers would be appalled at the suggestion that someone colorize and add sound to these films. Art should not be tampered with. It’s a shame; but not surprised.

    Comment by David Fell — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 7:57am PST  
  • Hollywood needs to throw some more money into preserving our cinematic cultural history.

    Comment by Martin A. — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 8:19am PST  
  • Well, I’m willing to take some heat, but here goes: who really cares? I mean, beyond some elite group, whoever they are, no one gives a rip about Clara Bow or Tom Mix or any of their movies. Who has the time? Ok, if someone wants to preserve them so that fewer and fewer film students have to sit through them (like I did), then I say, “more power to ya.” But lets not act like every last person who loves the arts (and I do) is shedding any tears over this.

    Comment by Greg — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 8:25am PST  
    • Oops. Has, not had.

      Comment by Mr. Majestyk — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 1:05pm PST  
  • The destruction of silent film and early film history, coupled with the “I could care less comments”, expose the great depravity of the many people who are involved with or supposedly care about the film industry. Unfortunately, studios and companies only care about profit and therefore preserving these silent works (even if its part of their OWN history) is not on the agenda due to the lack of potential money-making opportunities. What disturbs me more is the “who cares” attitude of commenters and other supposed film buffs. And some of these people are the ones who are in production companies and studios deciding what films should and shouldn’t be made. So, you’ve got the same people making garbage films and destroying the very history of this medium at the same time. It shows you how those in power regard cinema – just a mere product to make money, nothing more and nothing less. And people wonder why the quality of cinema has declined – it’s not a secret, most of those in power just don’t care about it!

    Comment by Truth — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 8:33am PST  
    • Look, I feel for you. But, honestly, how can anyone care about every movie ever made? I mean, don’t we have to be even a little selective? I don’t know how much it costs to preserve a Tom Mix film. But, at some point, money is going to be an issue. For what it’s worth, I certainly don’t expect my grandchildren to make any effort to preserve “The Country Bears” in a hundred years or so. Some movies are worth preserving, and some just aren’t.

      Comment by Greg — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 9:05am PST  
  • I am surprise they didn’t mention “Greed”

    Comment by Kelly — Wednesday December 4, 2013 @ 9:08am PST  
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