75% of Silent Films Lost

A study from the Library of Congress recently came out about how 75% of silent films are lost, kaput. Apparently, there were 10,919 films made by major studios (so we’re not talking about “independent” films, if there were many. Also, I think we are talking about feature-length films, I don’t know about shorter films but it can’t be good there). I had heard in graduate school that there was a problem with silent film; the actual footage was very volatile. But now, they’ve actually done the research and this was their conclusion.

The specifics don’t make it better. “Only 14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format, according to the report, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality.” Russia is said to hold a largest cache of lost American silent films. I remember that the film Straight Shooting (1917), the silent cowboy film directed by John Ford, was thought to be lost forever, until they found a copy in the Czech Republic. It had Czech titles and they changed all the names, but it survived.This is a catastrophe. Much of this wondrous era of film is lost forever. Their stars will literally be silent and forgotten.

Why does it matter? This is our history of film, of our culture. And the article makes an incredibly important point: “The silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternative form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed,” the study notes. “Few art forms emerged as quickly, came to an end as suddenly or vanished more completely than the silent film.” Too true.

The report does have several recommendations, such as working to get some films held by MGM into archives, repatriation of films from overseas, and collaborating with private institutions and collectors.

So my advice to you all? Go out and enjoy the silent films we do have, because they are special in so many ways. Music Box has second silent Saturday; every second Saturday of the month, they show a film at noon for $10. And there is a live organist.

Anyway, here’s a moment of silence for all those lost films.

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