Most of America's Silent Films Are Lost Forever

Seventy-five percent of silent-era films have been lost forever to history, according to a new comprehensive study from the Library of Congress. 

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Seventy-five percent of the film made in the original silent-era have been lost forever, according to a new comprehensive study from the Library of Congress. The study is the first to quantify what has been anecdotally well-known among film buffs: that the historical record of American film production before the introduction of sound, between the years 1912 and 1929, is now just a faint shadow of the silent era itself.

Source: Library of Congress

The lost films aren't just obscure films only of interest to those doing deep research dives: they include Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927), Clara Bow's work from 1928, the 1917 silent production of Cleopatra, and the first adaptation of The Great Gatsby, released in 1926. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in the introduction to the study, "The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record."

The numbers back up Billington's word choice. The American silent era produced about 10,919 films. Just 2,749 of those are still with us in some complete form, either as an original American 35mm version, a foreign release, or as a lower-quality copy. That's just 25 percent of the silent era still available. A further five percent of films survive in an incomplete form, and the remaining 70 percent of work from the era is completely lost to history.

Source: Library of Congress

According to the study, many of the losses happened early on. Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox lost more or less the entirety of their silent film archives in a 1930s fire. Universal-International destroyed its remaining silent film copies in 1948. And those studios who opted to keep the material around usually did so cheaply — and poorly. Once the silent era gave way to sound, most studios put their silent film reels in storage.

But nitrate film deteriorates without proper preservation, meaning that the hasty, cheap, storage favored to make way for talking films was essentially an archival death sentence. Decades later, those nitrate originals were often discarded as damaged goods.

There were exceptions. Some archives and museums acquired negatives or copies of some of the era's most influential work early. Mary Pickford, a silent film star, decided to pay for the preservation of her own work. And MGM studios gave prints or negatives of film archives for preservation starting in the 1930's, later completing a project to preserve most of their silent productions at the studio's expense. The survival rate for MGM films is 68 percent, much better than average.

There is some good new to emerge from the study, however. Author David Pierce, a historian and archivist, worked with the Library of Congress to create a comprehensive database of every surviving film, its location, and its condition. You can browse the new archive here.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.