×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Library of Congress: 75% of Silent Films Lost

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.”

More Film

  • Too Old to Die Young

    Cannes: 2019 Lineup Includes Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar, Four Films by Women

    The 72nd Cannes Film Festival announced its lineup, boosting the number of female filmmakers in official selection to 13, four of whom will compete for the Palme d’Or, the highest number since 2011. The number of Americans is also up, including Terrence Malick (“A Hidden Life”), Ira Sachs (Isabelle Huppert starrer “Frankie”), and director Jim [...]

  • Cannes Unveils 2019 Official Selection (Watch

    Watch Cannes Lineup Announcement (Updating Live)

    The 72nd Cannes Film Festival is announcing the films chosen for “official selection” — including those competing for the event’s coveted Palme d’Or prize — in a press conference Thursday starting at 11 a.m. in Paris. The livestream of the press conference is available here. (Please note that the broadcast seldom starts on time.) Last [...]

  • Godzilla

    'Godzilla' Owner Toho Poised for Expansion in Hollywood

    Toho, the largest movie group in Japan, is expanding a subsidiary in the U.S. with a view to working more with Hollywood. The company said that its existing Toho International Inc. subsidiary has been injected with $14 million (JPY15.4 billion), through a share issue subscribed to by the parent company. The subsidiary has existed since [...]

  • View Conference Opens Registration for 2019

    2019 View Conference Opens Registration, Calls for Short Film Competition Entries

    Registration is now open for the 2019 edition of the View Conference in Turin, Italy. No speakers have been announced yet, but past conferences have featured some of the world’s top creative talents in visual effects, animation, gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. Last year’s edition featured composer Hans Zimmer, Paramount Animation topper [...]

  • Former professional boxer Bradley Welsh in

    Bradley Welsh, 'T2 Trainspotting' Actor, Shot Dead in Edinburgh

    Bradley Welsh, an actor in “T2 Trainspotting” and a former boxer, died after being shot in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Wednesday. He was 42. The Edinburgh Police Division reported an incident on Chester Street in Edinburgh’s West End neighborhood around 8 p.m. local time. They found Welsh seriously injured in the street and said he died [...]

  • Jim Gallagher Warner Bros

    Jim Gallagher Joins Warner Bros. as EVP of Marketing, Animation and Family

    Former head of DreamWorks Animation theatrical marketing Jim Gallagher has joined Warner Bros. Pictures in a newly created role as executive vice president of marketing, animation and family, announced today by Blair Rich, president of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Gallagher will develop innovative and strategic global campaigns for [...]

  • Timothy Olyphant Luke Perry

    Timothy Olyphant Recalls Working With Luke Perry on 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

    Luke Perry’s last role will be in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and his co-star Timothy Olyphant got a front-row seat to the late actor’s final performance. Perry, who died this March after suffering a massive stroke, had completed all of his scenes in the upcoming film prior to his sudden death. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content