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.
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.
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.