CLIR and LC Publish Report on America’s Endangered Silent-Film Heritage

First-ever Database Tracks Existing Films Worldwide

Washington, DC, December 4, 2013-The Council on Library and Information Resources, in partnership with the Library of Congress, today released The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929, the first comprehensive survey of American feature films that survived the silent era of motion pictures. Nearly 11,000 silent feature films of American origin were released from 1912 through 1929, but until now there had been no systematic study of how many of these films still exist and where surviving elements are located in the world’s leading film archives and private collections.

The study reveals some startling facts about America’s endangered silent-film heritage. Only 14 percent-about 1,575-of the feature films produced and distributed domestically from 1912-1929 exist in their original format. Five percent of those that survived in their original 35 mm format are incomplete. Eleven percent of the films that are complete only exist as foreign versions or in lower-quality formats.

“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,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “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.”

Commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board, the study was written by historian-archivist David Pierce. It is one of several congressionally mandated studies of the nation’s cinematic and recorded sound patrimony. As part of the research for the study, Pierce prepared an 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. 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.

The vulnerability of nitrate film stock to fire and deterioration and the industry’s practice of neglecting or destroying prints and negatives has contributed to the loss to the nation’s film heritage. Among some of the notable films considered lost in their complete form are Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” (1927); “The Patriot” (1928); “ Cleopatra” (1917); “The Great Gatsby” (1926), and all four of Clara Bow’s feature films produced in 1928, including “Ladies of the Mob.”  Only five of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features survived and 85 percent of features made by Tom Mix-Hollywood’s first cowboy star-are lost.

The report makes several recommendations:

  • Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives.
  • Collaborate with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.
  • Encourage coordination among American archives and collectors to identify and preserve silent films that currently survive in lower-quality formats.
  • Develop a campaign to document unidentified titles. The Library of Congress has sponsored annual workshops to identify unknown and lesser-known titles.
  • Create an audience and appreciation for silent feature films through exhibition and screenings.

The report is available in print, and as a free download at www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub158.