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We've Completely Neglected to Preserve America's Silent Films

A staggering 70 percent of American feature films from 1912 to 1929 are thought to be lost forever.

by Lex Berko
Dec 4 2013, 6:25pm
Poster for silent film "Suds" starring Mary Pickford. Image via Wikipedia.

The demise of the American silent film is a story well trodden. Once popular enough to draw in 50 million tickets per week, the silent film peaked in the early twentieth century but its ascension was suddenly cut short when technological advances gave rise to “talkies” during the late 1920s. In the aftermath of this transition, many silent films were misplaced, neglected, and ultimately lost.

In the past, we haven’t had the statistics to quantify such losses, but a report released this morning by the Library of Congress makes the first attempt ever to show the consequences a tragic lack of conservation.

“The statistics are humbling, documenting losses that would be unimaginable for any other serious art form,” writes author David Pierce, a film historian and archivist who has previously worked for the British Film Institute. Indeed, the numbers are shocking, even to a non-film buff.

A staggering 70 percent of American feature films from 1912 to 1929 are thought to be lost. Only 14 percent of films produced in that era can still be found in the same formats in which they were initially released. And only a quarter survive in complete form, where completion denotes that less than a reel of a film has been lost.

Even silent film stars whose names remain recognizable almost a century later—Will Rogers, Clara Bow—have seen their histories mottled by neglect. Bow was considered a megastar in the 1920s, but only half of her films have made it intact to 2013. Meanwhile, in regard to Rogers’ roles in silent features, only five of sixteen films survive.

The majority of surviving films are packed away in five major American archival institutions, while the rest are scattered about in foreign archives, studios, and private collections. Non-domestic sources in particular have proved valuable in rediscovering the silent features of the last century, with almost 27 percent of surviving films discovered in other countries.

Money and resources for conservation were lacking back in the mid-twentieth century, when copies of silent films were still plentiful. That, along with the fragile nature of the films themselves and their dearth of financial import to the studios that produced them, led to today’s alarming status quo.

It wouldn’t have taken much to save a film. As Pierce writes, “One copy is sufficient enough for a film to survive.” He notes that Lon Chaney’s legendary performance as “the phantom” in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera would have been lost if not for a single 35mm original print saved by Eastman House, one of the oldest film archives in existence.

So what are we to do—simply mourn our significant cultural loss? No, says Pierce. We need to make more concerted efforts to find and catalogue the surviving films that are scattered across the globe, in domestic and foreign archives as well as in personal collections. Conveniently, the database organized by Pierce in the process of researching this report is expected to make it easier to preserve films in the future.  

But the most important step may be to reconnect with silent films on a more substantive level through public viewings and wider availability. Because it’s a simple fact of life: The more interested we are in something, the more likely we are to preserve it.

@heyiamlex