Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost

Library of Congress: 75% of Silent

Org urges plan to 'repatriate' lost pics; Scorsese calls silents 'essential to our culture'

A study from the Library of Congress reveals for the first time how many feature films produced by U.S. studios during the silent film era still exist, what condition they’re in and where they are located.

To no one’s surprise, the news is bleak. Only 14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format, according to the report, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality.

The report was authored by film historian and archivist David Pierce under commission by the Library’s 25 year-old National Film Preservation Board. It was published by the Council on Library and Information Resources.

By focusing on the titles that survive in leading archives and private collections throughout the world, the study is intended to complement existing data on specific films that have been preserved and restored and that are commercially available. An accompanying inventory database identifies the silent-era film elements known to have survived, as well as their locations within collections throughout the world.

“This information will make it possible to develop a nationally coordinated plan to repatriate those ‘lost’ American movies and ensure that they are preserved before higher losses occur,” says Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. The library hopes that the report will spur collaborative repatriations on a large scale, and that stakeholders will prioritize projects and help address financial concerns.

Billington says the report finally confirms the anecdotal information about lost pics that has long been available, especially about films made by the most celebrated U.S. filmmakers. It enables the Library to authoritatively report that “we have lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century.”

The repatriation proposal is one of six recommendations offered in the study. It also suggests that studios and rights holders collaborate to acquire archival master film elements of unique titles. For example, many of the films preserved by MGM in the 1960s are not yet held by any American archive, it notes.

It also encourages the coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats (particularly 28mm, 16mm and 9.5mm). It claims that the largest cache of unexplored surviving titles is the 432 U.S. silent feature films that survive only in 16mm.

Finally, the report suggests that initiatives be launched to document unidentified titles in the hands of American and foreign film archives and to encourage the exhibition and rediscovery of feature films held by the general public and the scholarly community.

The report received a thumbs up from film preservation advocate Martin Scorsese, whose film “Hugo” — along with Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” — was a tribute to the silent film era. “This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” said Scorsese.

Billington called the report a model for the type of fact-based archival research that remains to be conducted on all genres of American film beyond the scope of silent-era feature films. He says the same level of scrutiny remains to be applied to all historically significant audiovisual media produced since the 19th century, including sound recordings and radio and TV broadcasts.

Under Billington’s leadership, the Library has worked diligently to win repatriation of missing silent films held in archives around the world. Examples include a “mother lode” of some 200 missing silent films that have been stored for more than 80 years by the Russian film archive Gosfilmofond. The Russian archive is thought to contain the largest cache of lost U.S. silent films outside the U.S.

Three years ago, the archive presented the Library with digitally preserved copies of 10 previously lost U.S. films. The cache included 1923 pic “The Call of the Canyon,” directed by Victor Fleming; the 1924 film “The Arab,” helmed by Rex Ingram; and two films featuring actor Wallace Reid.

“The silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternative form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed,” the study notes. “Few art forms emerged as quickly, came to an end as suddenly or vanished more completely than the silent film.”

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  1. katze says:

    Reblogged this on Bibliokatze and commented:
    Erschreckend dieser Verlust an Kultur

  2. Ichi says:

    Otaku no Culture; “While some of the best products from this list have survived to be appreciated by audiences today, there is a whole lot more that is gone for good”

    The percentage of lost films makes it impossible to say the best products survived. The one that survived where probably the most popular (greater number of prints equals more survival chance).

  3. John Brain says:

    I am really hoping that all the silent films of child star Jackie Coogan can be rescued. About 4 or 5 of his previously “lost” titles were re-discovered in the Russian film archives. I hope they are complete and in good condition. Next year would have been Jackie’s 100th birthday, and I would love to see some of his previously lost titles shown as a tribute for the occasion. Preserve that nitrate please, if you have some languishing get it to one of the national film archives for preservation. Thank you.

  4. Mark says:

    Wait – how can they “repatriate” the movies, if they’ve been lost? I’m not understanding this, exactly.

  5. Toonleap says:

    Wish I had a time machine when this things happens. It is a shame.

  6. newscale62 says:

    We are increasingly becoming a culture where history is less relevant to the whims of society. That is, unless it is information that can be used by corporations to control the rest of society.

  7. The majority of films of this era were not produced in the U.S. but in France and other European countries. When taken globally (and not part of a nationalistic American research project) the survival rate of silent films is closer to 10%, if that. It is interesting that the majority of film producers mentioned in the comments here are also NOT American. It’s kinda funny, actually, that the idea of “American Film” that this LOC study presumes and promotes (at least as described by Variety) would not have made much sense to the producers or audiences of the silent era. Oh well… History be damned.

  8. Koen M says:

    Probably most of these movies are still under copyright. That’s the real reason they became forgotten and are rotting away.

    • cadavra says:

      Actually, no. All films made prior to 1924 are in the public domain. So only about five years’ worth of silents are still copyrighted–and some of them are PD as well. They are rotting away because they were believed to be of no value after their original runs–a mentality that lasted well into the 1970s. The only time Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers ever worked together was a scene that was shot for RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, but when the film ran long, Blake Edwards removed it and decided to save it for a future one. Later, when looking for it, he was told that “all the trims” had been thrown out. And since Sellers had died in the interim, it could not be re-created.

  9. Jim says:

    I was just watching “Safety Last” on blu ray starring Harold Lloyd and thank God that Harold’s granddaughter, Susan, Rich Correll and his friend, Dave, saved over 200 films of Harold Lloyd including his silent classics, “Safety Last,” “The Freshman,” and “Speedy.”

    • Howard B. says:

      @Jim:
      Harold Lloyd deserves a lot of the credit too.
      Like Chaplin, he maintained his own archives, retained rights to the bulk of his work, and saw to it that the preservation he initiated would continue.

  10. Reblogged this on Otaku no Culture and commented:
    The report by Variety and author Paul Harris certainly brings tears to my eyes as I love classic films, especially the early films by Walt Disney and Georges Méliès. As I grew to love the products from the era, I found a deep appreciation for the films out of Germany, namely The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. While some of the best products from this list have survived to be appreciated by audiences today, there is a whole lot more that is gone for good.

    The news that not many silent films have survived to this day is not altogether surprising, but the fact that many products from other artists during this time exist anymore is all the more sad. In what this article suggests, hopefully the proposal to repatriation any film deemed “lost” can be found buried at some foreign film archive in Russia or wherever they may be located.

    Every cloud has a silver lining, and hopefully, in this case, it means more than just the chemical used to make the film stock; but also in what can get projected to the silver screen just one more time to digitize the movie for preservation once and for all.

    The original article is as follows:

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