Study shows that 70 percent of American silent films no longer exist

By Daniel S Levine,

While film fans know all about the important silent feature films produced by Hollywood from 1912 to 1929, directed by people like Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, King Vidor, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the fact is that these movies only scratch the surface of what the industry produced during that time. Unfortunately, many of them are lost and a new study from the National Film Preservation Board and the Library of Congress reveals that an astonishing 70 percent are completely gone.

According to the study, it’s impossible to know the exact number of films Hollywood produced in that time. But we have 1,575 films complete in their original 35mm domestic release form, making up just 14 percent. There are 1,174 complete films (11 percent), but those only exist in foreign release 35mm prints or 28 or 16mm small-gauge prints, which do not have the same picture quality as 35mm. Another 562 titles (5 percent) are incomplete.

The study praised one particular studio - MGM. In the early 1960s, the studio started preserving 113 silent films themselves and in the 1930s, they gave 120 films to archives like the George Eastman House. That means that 68 percent of MGM’s silent films still exist, which is much better than any other studio. (And likely explains why we can get the MGM classic The Big Parade on Blu-ray.)

It’s also important to note that some stars took it upon themselves to make sure that their films survived, especially Mary Pickford. The silent comedians Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd also preserved their films themselves, which is why only a few of their movies are gone.

The study notes that the ongoing fight to preserve silent films worldwide is far from over.

“This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” director Martin Scorsese said, notes EW. “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.”

image: Wikimedia Commons


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