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Our Silent Film Heritage—Missing, Believed Lost

By David Pierce

Public interest in silent films has never been higher, it seems, than today. Beautiful restored copies are released on DVD and BluRay, public screenings attract thousands of people at festivals and cinematheques, and homages appear everywhere from YouTube to cinema screens. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) was just presented again at Royal Festival Hall in London with a full orchestra. The afterglow of the success of The Artist, the unlikely Oscar-winner for Best Picture for 2011, has given silent films a modern cultural relevance that other performing arts from that period, such as dance band music, have yet to achieve.

But for every classic silent film we are able to see today, there are many others that are not showable because not a single copy is known to survive. Imagine if a festival held a tribute to, say, Dustin Hoffman, and the audiences were told that only a third of his films survive—that Little Big Man exists in a version released in Europe missing 20 minutes, that Papillon survives in a 30 minute cutdown, that The Graduate was rescued from a print found in a barn, while Rain Man was saved by the studio only because they thought they might use clips in a documentary. Meanwhile, because Adam Sandler worked primarily for Sony, almost all of his films were preserved in pristine copies. That is fortunately not true for these films, but it gives you an idea of the fate (and the artistic and cultural loss) for the films of many, many silent actors and directors.

Such is the state of the preservation of America’s silent film heritage. And it could have been far worse. Some of the best films survive due to a combination of happenstance, luck, film collectors, a liberal copyright regime, and one studio (MGM) willing to invest in its heritage. Nearly all the studio films of the 1930s survive. For the 1920s, the proportion of films surviving as originally released is only 14%; if you allow for films in foreign release editions or on substandard gauges, you can reach—and it’s a stretch—a survival rate of 25%.

The survival status and fate of American silent feature films is documented in a report that I prepared for the Library of Congress, recently published by CLIR. The report is available for free download, as is the database of survival information that I developed.

I have always been interested in why some films are considered classics and others, just as important or groundbreaking, are not. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and every afternoon Channel 28 ran RKO and Warner Bros. films. I wondered why the station showed some of the best films from those studios again and again, while some titles never appeared at all. And why did those films have the names of television distributors appended to the prints? Why were the films owned by United Artists, a company that had nothing to do with their production?

It took me years to work out the path of distribution for these films, and in the process, I began to wonder why so many films from 1928 were lost, while most films from 1932 survive. Surely four years couldn’t make such a difference. Why were there 16mm prints of some old films released back in the 1920s, while not others? And why did one Ernst Lubitsch film from the 1920s survive while another, even more important, did not? Why did a third Lubitsch film survive only in a copy with nitrate decomposition? Wouldn’t the owners have looked after them? And why does the original negative survive for an independent poverty row western, while there are nearly no original negatives from most of the studio productions from the silent era? It seemed unlikely that the natural progress of nitrate film decomposition was the entire story. Finding answers to these questions became a minor obsession. Whenever I came across information, or a fact, I set it aside for future reference.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., I volunteered at the American Film Institute, in the days when the organization supported film preservation, and some of the pieces fell into place. Later, at the Library of Congress, other details began to fill out the puzzle. And meeting many archivists, collectors and entrepreneurs gave me more of the picture.

The reasons that most American silent feature films no longer survive include the use of nitrate film, which can decompose or catch fire, the effect of those fires, tight management of copies by the owners, and storage costs. The underlying issue was that once sound films took over, the ongoing lack of commercial value meant that there was no business justification to keep assets that represented an expense with no corresponding income.

The report focuses on the cultural value of what we have lost and why some films survive. Writing this report was a dream project, and I appreciate the support of the Library of Congress Packard Campus for giving me the opportunity to document this history and obtain information from all of America’s archives and some overseas.

Preparing this report did result in the rescue of one film long thought lost. The UCLA Film and Television Archive had a database entry for Partners Again, a 1926 comedy produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Henry King. Their copy was an 8mm negative, prepared for home release, and the copy had been set aside—surely a better edition existed elsewhere. But my research confirmed that they had the only known copy, so the archive invested in the preservation of this film. I was pleased to see it presented at a film festival as a work in progress, and more recently to hear that some 16mm reels had been uncovered at the Library of Congress. While very entertaining, the film is no classic. Nonetheless, every additional film that is found gives us a better idea of cinema before the coming of sound, and insight into our common heritage and our culture.

David Pierce is a historian and archivist.

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