Ah, movies! We see them on T.V., play them on DVDs and watch them on Netflix and YouTube. We rave about them, argue about them and sprinkle our social media with photos and GIFs from them. Some of us, hopefully, even see movies in a theater.
With movies practically coming out of our ears, it’s bizarre to hear that the vast majority of silent era films are lost. This doesn’t seem to make sense–how the heck can a film be “lost”? Why, it’s just kind of there, on the screen. It’s not is the same kind of object as a painting or a book…right?
…Or is it?
Well, I’ve got a short answer and a long answer for these questions. Let’s dive in!
The short answer:
Films back in the silent era were viewed as disposable entertainment, more or less. Once a film was done being shown in a theater, the reels were either sent back to the place they were distributed from, put in storage, or even thrown away. Since films were made with silver nitrate stock they were often recycled for the silver content. Nitrate stock itself was perishable, so if stored in improper conditions it would literally rot away. If that weren’t enough, nitrate was also a major fire hazard (more than one vault fire destroyed many silent films). Once the talkie era arrived silents were viewed as taking up valuable studio vault space and many were thrown out. Because of all this, only a small percentage of silent films have survived to be preserved and subsequently copied onto our DVDs and Internet sites.
So that’s the short answer for you–but like most stories, there’s a lot more to it.
The long and oh-so-detailed answer:
A film is considered “lost” if there is not a single copy or even partial copy known to exist in any archive, studio vault, or private collection. By “copy” we usually mean reels of literal film, mind you, ranging from the original negative (the film actually used in the movie cameras), to the prints made from the original negative, to the prints of those prints (or prints of prints of prints of…you get the picture).
Literal, touchable film is key–because that’s the stuff that the VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-rays, etc. are originally made from. A YouTube copy is to an original film negative what a postcard of the Mona Lisa is to the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre.
We’re lucky that at least some filmmakers, like Harold Lloyd, took the care to properly store their films for future generations. For it is thought that up to 90%–90%–of all films made before 1929 are lost. That’s a heck of a lot. That’s this much:
That any silents survive at all is almost a miracle, especially when you consider everything that conspired to destroy them. Let us count the ways:
In the early silent era theaters would usually rent their films from film exchanges and then (hopefully) ship them back, where they were (hopefully) cleaned up and (definitely) rented out again. Independent filmmakers sold their films straight to the local distributors. Once the studio system took hold in the 1920s, studios like MGM had their own film exchanges and would sometimes collect prints of a film that had ended its run. Sometimes.
If everything went perfectly, a film could be rented out multiple times. Some distributors had a “library” of films, and studios kept original negatives and master prints of their product for potential re-releases (Chaplin shorts were frequently re-released).
Ah, but that’s if everything went perfectly. Here are the many hazards a poor innocent film might encounter in its journey to the local neighborhood theater and back:
Hazard #1. The film exchange/distributor itself. In some exchanges workers were more than casual about how they handled film. One man reported seeing reels “taken from the shipping case by exchange employees and literally thrown, or tossed, a distance of fully six feet to a board-top table.” Many exchanges cut costs by mounting film on the saddest, most decrepit reels imaginable, which didn’t always stay intact–sometimes a film was a tangled mess inside its case when it reached the theater.
Hazard #2. The theater itself. Once a film arrived at a theater, it might end up being shown on a run-down projector operated by an employee with no formal training. Small-town theaters, often the last to receive a film, didn’t always have the means or desire to invest in the latest equipment. And, significantly, local censors would review the film, pick any objectionable scenes/title cards to be removed, and the projectionist would dutifully sanitize the picture before it was shown. Hopefully he reassembled it carefully, but some slapped it together with anything from safety pins to gum (the cut film was thrown away). Some films were deliberately shortened so they would fit a specific running time. And a few censors thought themselves secret auteurs and would take it upon themselves to re-edit and “improve” a subpar picture! Who knows how battered, scratched, and chopped up a film could get after all of this–especially once it had been rented out multiple times!
Hazard #3. Shipping. Oh, the shipping. It’s not just that a film could get battered in transit–that was the least of its worries. Given enough time, it could end up just about anywhere. Once delivered to a rural or remote theater, or one that happened to get it at the end of its run, not all studios felt it was worth paying return shipping. Thus, many films sat in storage or were eventually thrown away. Some “end of the line” places, like Dawson City, Yukon Territory, were never expected to ship the reels back at all. And sometimes a film was accidentally sent back to the last theater it appeared in, or else arrived with reels missing, or had errors in its shipping address, or a bookkeeping error caused people to lose track of it. It didn’t take much for a film to float in limbo, often until it rotted away. (Did I mention that a few theater owners and projectionists were secretly collectors, too?)
Hazard #4. The film itself. In a sense, nitrate film was its own worst enemy. It was highly flammable, and impossible to put out if it started burning (it had to burn out on its own). The risk of the projection room catching on fire was always there–especially if an unscrupulous theater was running the picture through the projector too fast.
Hazard #5. The vaults at studios themselves. Once a film had made it through the gauntlet of apathetic film exchange workers, shoddy reels, bad projectors, multiple theaters, chop-happy censors, amateur projectionists, and shipping issues, you’d think it would be safe. Not so! It might be stored away in a vault, but nitrate rot, spontaneous combustion due to bad storage areas, and worst of all intentional destruction by recycling or throwing out old pictures are all threats to its future.
And those are just a few things that could happen to a silent film–in its heyday.
Oddball things were done with old films, too. Travelling fairs would buy up reels to play for fairgoers, amateur filmmakers might acquire some to practice making splices and montages, and some were cut into 100-foot or so strips for children’s toy projectors.
But if that were all, we might still have a ton more surviving silents if it weren’t for what happened when the talkie era arrived.
In a span of just a few years (after some initial trepidation), silent films were out of style. Old news. The theaters and the public no longer had a use for them, rather like Christmas decorations in January.
When this happened, there was the problem of what to do with all those silents. Would that obsolete medium ever be useful again? Were those pictures just taking up vault space?
And thus our early film legacy began to swiftly–and relentlessly–disappear, for several big reasons:
Reason #1: Studios just threw silent films away. This is said to be the main reason for the huge loss of pre-1929 shorts and features. As we’ve covered, film was basically disposable entertainment during the era itself. For instance, around 1912 one studio apparently burned its old release prints in a huge bonfire as a publicity stunt to prove they only released “new content” (and distributed a cheerful little newsreel about it too–!!!). In the ’30s and beyond it was costly to store film (if you wanted to do it properly) and since so much product had no foreseeable commercial value, well…you know the rest.
Reason #2: Films were destroyed in vault fires. This is the second biggest reason for our huge loss of silents. As was mentioned earlier, improperly stored, rotting nitrate has the tendency to spontaneously combust, often spectacularly. Vault fires over the years have consumed entire archives’ worth of film, as early on as 1914 (the Lubin studio fire) up until flippin’ 1993 (the Henderson Film Lab fire in London). Universal, Warner Bros., and Fox are some of the studios that lost the vast majority of their silent output. Even Harold Lloyd’s personal vault wasn’t immune–a blaze destroyed much of his 1910s work and the original negative of Safety Last.
Reason #3: Films were recycled for silver content. When studios downsized their vault collections many silents were recycled for their silver nitrate. Here’s a little-known fact: during WWII, some studios apparently requested as many old films as possible returned to the exchanges so the silver could be used for the war effort (interesting how not even film history emerged from WWII unscathed).
Reason #4: Films rotted away. Even if old film stock escaped catching fire, it still decomposed until it was literally reduced to dust. Many treasures, even in vaults, met this sad fate. For instance, Colleen Moore had deposited her silent films with care at the Museum of Modern Art, but they were accidentally neglected and eventually rotted until it couldn’t be preserved. Moore was heartbroken when she found out.
So that, my friends, is the breakdown of how and why so many silent films are lost. Notice the massive role that “neglect” has in all of this.
The Library of Congress estimates that about 70% of the 11,000 American silent feature films made from 1912 to 1929 are lost. This means that for every film we have preserved today, there are about six silents that are gone forever. (Here’s a list, if you want to feel blue today.)
Of those that survive, 11% are foreign-distribution copies or 16mm dupes. Only 14% exist in their original 35 mm format. 5% of those are incomplete.
But, there is hope. We may have only a small sliver of silents left, but at least we do have them. At least we have Intolerance and Metropolis and many other important features. At least we have the majority of some stars’ films, such as those by Chaplin and Pickford. The lamented London After Midnight might be gone (for now) but at least there’s The Phantom of the Opera.
And even in this day and age silent films keep turning up. And that’s because of these hopeful silver-lining facts (last list, I promise!):
Hopeful Fact #1: Some studios preserved their films. Lest we start to think that all movie studios were operated entirely by cold, fishy money-men, some studios did believe their silent work was valuable and tried to preserve it. Independent studios in particular tend to have a better survival rate of their work. MGM has more of its silent features surviving than any other major Hollywood studio precisely because in the 1960s it decided to preserve all that was still available. And we fans are grateful.
Hopeful Fact #2: Filmmakers kept personal archives of their work. Many of our creative movie-makers back then took the care to keep original negatives and pristine prints of their own films. Not all filmmakers’ work survived–Roscoe Arbuckle, for instance, apparently had a personal vault but it has never been found (and the contents almost certainly rotted away by now). But important bodies of work by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and D.W. Griffith were donated to the Musum of Modern Art, making it possible to see their films today. Important people like Mary Pickford and Cecil B. DeMille were also advocates for preservation pretty early on.
Hopeful Fact #3: Archives saved as much as they could. What the studios wanted to throw out often ended up at archives, quite a few of which were established in the 1930s. Since then, archives actively work to collect, preserve, catalog and maintain their collections, as well as make films available to the public–often on small budgets. Many archives have such large collections that they often don’t know exactly what they have, and now and then new treasures are discovered right in their own walls.
Hopeful Fact #4: Individuals collected countless films. Let’s hear it for the collectors with their countless stacks of film cans all over their houses! Some people started collecting because they wanted to see their favorite films whenever they wanted (which wasn’t easy in the days before VHS, DVDs and the Internet). Many didn’t want to see studios throw films away and offered to take the them off their hands. As a result, several precious silents have been found lurking in various houses and apartments, and there’s always a possibility that many more will turn up.
Hopeful Fact #5: Sheer dumb luck. In 1978 500 silents were found in the permafrost of Dawson City, Yukon Territory where they had been buried after their brief theatrical runs. In 1994 a cache of documentary silents was found sitting in three metal barrels in a basement in Blackburn, England. Other films have been found in barns, in closets, in old theaters and buried under the foundations of swimming pools. Take a look around–you never know where an old film might turn up!
We might despair that so much of our cultural heritage has been lost, and lament those films that will never be seen in a darkened theater again. But there’s always hope that we can at least add a few more puzzle pieces to the picture of the silent era. We can cherish what precious reels we have and celebrate whenever a new find comes our way. Future generations will be thankful for it–maybe more so than we can foresee right now.
So here’s to the importance of film preservation and here’s to the past–and yes, here’s to one day finding London After Midnight.
Many thanks to Katharine Lhota, Geo. Willeman, Eric Grayson, Jack Theakston, Dennis Doros, Ron Hutchinson, Shirley Hughes, Bruce Calvert, Jeanpaul Goergen, Cheryl Harris Wright, Paul Brennan and Alicia Mayer for assisting me with the information in this article!
Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1975.
Koszarski, Richard. The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.
Ballhausen, Thomas. “On the History and Function of Film Archives.” http://www.efgproject.eu/downloads/Ballhausen%20-%20On%20the%20History%20and%20Function%20of%20Film%20Archives.pdf
Pierce, David. “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” The Library of Congress, 2013. http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub158/pub158.pdf
Soja, Rebecca. “The Conditioned Containers of Celluloid Film.” https://jmassey.expressions.syr.edu/upstatemodern/?p=746
“Library Reports on America’s Endangered Silent-Film Heritage.” http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2013/13-209.html
“Vault and Nitrate Fires: A History” http://fan.tcm.com/blogpost/vault-and-nitrate-fires-a-history