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Around 70% of America's Silent Films Are Seemingly Gone Forever

by
December 5, 2013
Source: The Film Stage

The Great Gatsby (1926)

In the short history of cinema, there have been astounding advancements happening as quickly as the technology will allow. However, innovations like digital cameras, computer generated imagery, surround sound and 3D wouldn't have been possible without the inception of cinema that began with silent films. With the exception of The Artist, the era of the silent film has become only history as Hollywood has stuck with the innovation of sound on film. But because the speed at which Hollywood adapted new technologies, some of their rich history has been lost. In fact, a new study (via The Film Stage) from The Library of Congress says out of 10,919 silent feature films released in America, 70% of them are gone forever.

More specifically, of those silent feature films, only 14% are in their original format, with 11% in sub-par versions and 5% in incomplete editions. That means we will never see a shameful amount of silent films that influenced the big screen medium we know today. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington (no relation to our own Alex Billington) says:

“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. We have lost most of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century.”

Director and active film preservation advocate Martin Scorsese, who paid beautiful tribute to the silent film era with his visually astounding Hugo, added to the validity and importance of the study saying:

“This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture. Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost. It also gives us hope that others may be discovered. The research presented in this report serves as a road map to finding silent films we once thought were gone forever and encourages creative partnerships between archives and the film industry to save silent cinema.”

Whether or not you are able to enjoy the silent films of decades long since past (it can be difficult after becoming so comfortable with contemporary filmmaking techniques), there's no denying that they are important to remember and to preserve as a part of our history. The good news is that we're at least salvaging what we have left of the silent film era. The press release chronicling the study conducted by historian-archivist David Pierce adds:

"As part of the research for the study, Pierce prepared a valuable inventory database of information on archival, commercial and private holdings—who has custody of the films, how complete they are, the films’ formats and where the best surviving copies can be found (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/silentfilms/silentfilms-home.html). The report concludes that the existence of the database will allow the repatriation of lost American movies. Films initially thought lost have been found—and subsequently repatriated—in Australia, New Zealand, France and many other countries."

We've actually found 26% of the more than 3,300 films that have survived in some form from other countries outside of the United States, with the Czech Republic being where the most have been found. However, this number is nothing compared to how many films we've lost (at least in their complete form), including Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927), The Patriot (1928), Cleopatra (1917), The Great Gatsby (1926). In addition, only five of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features survived and 85% of features made by Tom Mix, Hollywood’s first cowboy star, are completely lost. That's terrible.

Now is the time to support film preservation, especially as Hollywood moves from celluloid to digital filmmaking, we mustn't forget the roots of cinema and preserve the films which have helped the film industry evolve into the economic and cultural staple it is today. The report suggests several methods of supporting film preservation including a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives, coordination among American archives and collectors to identify and preserve silent films that currently survive in lower-quality formats and also an audience and appreciation for silent feature films through exhibition and screenings. Here's hoping we don't lose anymore of cinema's history to carelessness. Check out the entire press release right here.

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  • Franklin Carpio
    I'm taking a class in Fim History and being born in the late 80's I have not seen many silent films until this class. It is sad to know that the films that started this industy that I have come to love are being lost. Watching silent films now make me realize how much they have actually impacted the flms and movies that come out now, and make me appreciate them a whole lot more.
  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7YGEVuJ4mM Carpola
    History gets destroyed all the time. I'm not sure the industry itself cares about preserving that history, just got to keep moving.
  • Fidel Reyes
    :(
  • GMcDowell
    There are enough silent films remaining (and most of the best) that you will not be able to see them in your lifetime. Lament what is gone, but see what remains.

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