"Most of America's Silent Films Are Lost Forever"
December 4, 2013 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Most of America's silent films are lost forever, according to the newly released Library of Congress report The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929. (You can look up the ones that survive in this handy database).

The study, commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board and written by David Pierce (founder of the Media History Digital Library), found that of the 10,919 feature films produced by the American film industry between 1912 and 1929, "just 2,749 of those are still with us in some complete form, either as an original American 35mm version, a foreign release, or as a lower-quality copy... A further five percent of films survive in an incomplete form, and the remaining 70 percent of work from the era is completely lost to history."
posted by bubukaba (39 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dear time travelers, forget Hitler. Take back high-resolution duplication equipment and copy these films before they were lost to fire, poor preservation and general neglect. This way, you can hop back to your present time, leaving the course of history intact, but saving these films for the future.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:19 AM on December 4, 2013 [24 favorites]


A favorite isn't enough notification for filthy light thief's comment. I would like to carve it in a mountain so that future folks can see it.

Related : This piece today from the Telegraph on Phillip Morris and Television International Enterprises Archive who were responsible for the recent lost Doctor Who finds and how the search for Doctor Who is helping find other lost items as well.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:26 AM on December 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


It still wigs me out that Nosferatu, one of the most influential silent horror films, was almost lost completely, and only survived thanks to a single undestroyed print.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:33 AM on December 4, 2013 [13 favorites]


About ten years ago I worked as a software developer on a contract with the LoC to build tools for digital preservation, specifically aimed at recorded sound and video. I recall reading a report that described the race against time to digitize the materials. At that time it was estimated that 70% of the holdings would be lost (due to shelf decay) at the current rate of work.

I can attest that people took this seriously and I knew some people who had the morbid job of deciding what priority to assign to the preservation choices. It is tragic that these things are being lost but rest assured it isn't something that caught everyone by surprise. The Library has been lobbying for better funding to address this.

My only complaint to the Library of Congress on this matter is that they really should have (and should start to) leverage crowd sourcing to some extent. In the professional archival realm there is strong distrust of the quality of folksonomic metadata and handling of primary source material. To succeed in the next decade I think they will need to be more pragmatic to avoid the next big loss.
posted by dgran at 11:36 AM on December 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Dear time travelers, forget Hitler. Take back high-resolution duplication equipment and copy these films before they were lost to fire, poor preservation and general neglect.

And while you're at it, would you pick up the thousands of episodes of the radio show Vic & Sade that Proctor & Gamble deliberately destroyed?
posted by JanetLand at 11:40 AM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


One time in film school, I had a dream that I pulled up a floor and found an uncut print of Greed.

I suspect many film students have had the same dream.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:41 AM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


It still wigs me out that Nosferatu, one of the most influential silent horror films, was almost lost completely, and only survived thanks to a single undestroyed print.

That one is at least explicable, if repugnant (up yours widow Stoker!). The amount that's lost because of simple neglect is mind-boggling.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:42 AM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


.
posted by Gelatin at 11:51 AM on December 4, 2013


1932 - Horse Feathers - Norman Z. McLeod - Marx Brothers - The only existing prints of this film are missing several minutes, due to both censorship and damage.

Wow. I've seen Horse Feathers many, many times and had no idea I was seeing an incomplete version. Going through that Wikipedia list of incomplete films is a big eye-opener.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:52 AM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's because films weren't meant to last. This paradigm we have now that everything should be accessible is a very new development that was only made possible by technology. Back in the 20's they only expected to release a film once, and then it would be gone like yesterday's newspaper.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:53 AM on December 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


It still wigs me out that Nosferatu, one of the most influential silent horror films, was almost lost completely, and only survived thanks to a single undestroyed print.

This is fascinating if true, but the German Wikipedia page for "Nosferatu" says that many copies (with many different cut versions) survived in France, Spain and Germany. In addition, in the 1990s, apparently an original version was found in the archives of the Cinémathèque française.
posted by tecg at 11:54 AM on December 4, 2013


Only half-joking: They should start remaking the incomplete and lost silent movies instead of movies that just came out ten years ago.
posted by dogwalker at 11:55 AM on December 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


1932 - Horse Feathers - Norman Z. McLeod - Marx Brothers - The only existing prints of this film are missing several minutes, due to both censorship and damage.

If you watch their movie "The Cocoanuts" all the way through, you'll notice that one reel is particularly more fuzzy and deteriorated than the others, because that's all they had. Bullet dodged.

And, of course, I grieve for "Humour Risk."
posted by Melismata at 11:59 AM on December 4, 2013


dgran - really interesting to hear a little inside glimpse. Morbid indeed.

Of course, the big challenge for today's archivists is dealing with the rapid decay of both magnetic and optical media. Analog film, especially on modern stocks but even (under the right conditions) the older stocks, can last much longer.

(Key quote from that link, since it involves complicated PDFs and such: "...preservationists in both the private and public sectors feel growing pressure to “digitize” their holdings. Digitization, however, is not yet a practical film preservation solution. The best way to protect film content for the future is still the time-honored approach of copying film onto film and storing it in a cold, dry vault. At present film remains its own unrivaled long-term preservation medium.")

Digital tech is full of amazing access tools, but so far nothing good (that I've heard of at least) for preservation on the analog timescale.
posted by bubukaba at 12:00 PM on December 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


One of the first U.S. War Department training films, Fit to Fight (1918), is on the list of lost films. It was also used in one of the first large scale studies of the effectiveness of film for training purposes.
posted by PHINC at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2013


Of course, the big challenge for today's archivists is dealing with the rapid decay of both magnetic and optical media

Or just plain old being cheap. How much early tape was re-used? Even NASA reused the original Moon Walk tape. The stuff they did end up using was only viewable because the last remaining original player was still in a museum. I have a video reel from the mid 1970's that I can't play because I can't find a compatible deck.
posted by Gungho at 12:15 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fun fact...A lot of Edison's films survive because, before 1912, there was no copyright available for film. So, Edison (and other film makers) made contact prints of their films on photographic paper the same size as the film, and sent them to the copyright office of the Library of Congress. Some film companies sent only illustrative portions and frames. Edison and Biograph submitted the entire film as a contact print. In many cases, these contact prints are the only remaining copies of the films.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:22 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Of course, the big challenge for today's archivists is dealing with the rapid decay of both magnetic and optical media.

I agree. We had discussions about how it would be tragic to lose it via an EMP blast or traditional data loss scenarios. In those cases duplicate copies in separate locations seemed the best defense, but we didn't get really concrete about those issues while I was there.

We regularly had discussions about the fate of born digital (and converted to digital) formats, particularly ones that were dependent on proprietary viewers. Our conversations revolved around how you choose data formats with planned obsolescence. Today you convert from film into a quicktime movie file (or something like it) and figure in 10-15 years it will need to be transitioned into something else.

There was a lot of debate about whether to use commercially driven formats, like QuickTime. On one hand these formats are ubiquitous, but on the other you are beholden to the companies. You can figure that many people will need data conversion but this is no guarantee. Popular formats have been orphaned before.
posted by dgran at 12:34 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The LoC will make copies of its public domain films and sell them to anyone, I believe the going rate was $800 a film last time I checked. I've followed a couple efforts on collector sites where the community has raised money to buy a copy of an old, unavailable film, get it digitized, and send DVDs to contributors. It's cool to watch but there are so many more films people would love to do this for but are stopped because of copyright.
posted by edeezy at 12:37 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Copyright is killing our culture, and this is a prime example of how.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:44 PM on December 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


There was a lot of debate about whether to use commercially driven formats, like QuickTime. On one hand these formats are ubiquitous, but on the other you are beholden to the companies. You can figure that many people will need data conversion but this is no guarantee. Popular formats have been orphaned before.

I think the best approach to film preservation (and photographic preservation, video games and everything else that's digital) is to pick or create a format that's open source and stick with it, permanently. Something that's very basic, but can have new features like 3D added on as needed. If all archives everywhere used the same format, they'd never have to worry about losing the ability to read it.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:47 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just imagine how much of a headache it would be to preserve books if they were written in different, proprietary alphabets that went in and out of fashion. Standardization is crucial.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:51 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was working on doing a long-form series on the comparative cinematic adaptations of The Great Gatsby. I was most interested in seeing the original 1926 version, made in New York a year after the novel was published. It would have been fascinating to have seen a contemporaneous Gatsby...unfortunately, that film is lost.
The few surviving clips and trailers suggest a degree of expressionism. Probably better than the Mira Sorvino or Redford versions, while inferior to the Baz Luhrmann version (as well as G, a terrific low budget African American adaptation).
posted by LeRoienJaune at 1:31 PM on December 4, 2013


Fortunately summaries of all the films survive in the memoirs of Alice Danglenusson, an avid film buff and part time restroom attendant from Forest Hills.


London After Midnight (1927)
That one girl, from the other picture, with the hair, ugh. She's a mess. Anyway, fell asleep halfway.

Cleopatra (1922)
Who's that guy? Is he the bad guy? Who's that lady? Who's that snake? That sure went by quick.

The Great Gatsby (1926)
Filled with disgusting smut and jass degeneracy. Even worse the second time.

posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:37 PM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've been watching a lot of silents lately and the idea that there so many that are lost is heartbreaking. Got to see The General in a theater last week with the Alloy Orchestra playing live. Just amazing and obviously pretty accessible to a contemporary audience since the theater was packed and even the little kids were enjoying it.
posted by octothorpe at 1:41 PM on December 4, 2013


If you're getting a hankering for some here is an old post with all of Charlie Chaplin's films except for the one lost one.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:53 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Back in the 20's they only expected to release a film once, and then it would be gone like yesterday's newspaper.

True, that. Anita Loos wrote scenarios back in the day, and she writes that the whole thing was seen as something of a lark, a flash in the pan, something to make a quick buck out of while the getting was good.

She and her pals were astonished a few years later to find that Europeans considered the stuff art.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2013


Australia is in even worse shape. Of the 250+ silent films made between 1900-1930, only about 50 are left - and the vast majority of them are only in fragments. In terms of full main feature films, I think we have about 8.

Further reading
posted by smoke at 2:17 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


She and her pals were astonished a few years later to find that Europeans considered the stuff art.

Art can be ephemeral, though. Maybe a better analogy would have been to conflate early movies with plays. You go to see a play once and only once, and that particular performance will never happen again, even if it's restaged with the same actors. Silent movies were a bit more durable, since you could see the same movie more than once while it was in the theater, but after the run ended it was supposed to be gone.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:21 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Copyright is killing our culture, and this is a prime example of how.

That's nonsense, both in the assertion and in the supporting evidence. There's more creative content out there now than we know what to do with, and frankly not a whole lot of respect for copyright.* What this is a prime example of is general indifference to what was considered fleeting creations. Indifference killed Cock Robin, not evil copyright holders.

Fun fact – that scene of the burning of Atlanta in Gone With The Wind? Old film stock. Stuff was dangerous, best get rid of it for safety’s sake, and how best to get rid of it than in the cause of a blockbuster?

*(Impossible to know, of course, how many would-be professional creatives have just said to hell with it because of lack of respect for their own copyright.)
posted by IndigoJones at 2:32 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Potomac Ave, that's actually not far off!:

From Motion Picture Classic, 1926: "Lois Wilson has sacrificed her long chestnut hair so that she can play the bobbed heroine in "The Great Gatsby," which is scheduled to go into production shortly. Lois was one of the few in pictures who obeyed the old-fashioned conventions."

Motion Picture Magazine, 1926: "Lois' is a bob in name only tho, for it is not at all boyish... It has given Lois a new gesture, for she insists that she feels quite nude, and keeps stroking the back of her head experimentally."

The Educational Screen, 1926: "The Great Gatsby - For Intelligent Adults: Interesting. For Youth (15 to 20 yrs.): Unwholesome. For Children (under 15 yrs.): By no means."

The Educational Screen again, 1926: "A baffling story that seems to lack a good many of the essentials of real movie material, but that holds attention and somehow lingers awhile in the memory..."

Motion Picture Magazine, 1927: "Herbert Brenon has gone about misinterpreting F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel to the very best of his ability."

[all via]
posted by bubukaba at 2:39 PM on December 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's nonsense, both in the assertion and in the supporting evidence.

I'm going to have to disagree.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:56 PM on December 4, 2013


"The Great Gatsby - For Intelligent Adults: Interesting. For Youth (15 to 20 yrs.): Unwholesome. For Children (under 15 yrs.): By no means."

Can we ditch the MPAA and go back to this rating system?
posted by stevis23 at 2:57 PM on December 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wow. I've seen Horse Feathers many, many times and had no idea I was seeing an incomplete version. Going through that Wikipedia list of incomplete films is a big eye-opener.

I recently learned that Max Linder, who pioneered the mirror gag that the Marx Brothers made famous, made nearly 500 short films, of which only a handful survive.

To anyone interested in the salvage of silent films that hasn't seen it, the documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque is highly, highly recommended. A good deal of what we have left, he saved from the trash (and the Nazis).
posted by ryanshepard at 2:59 PM on December 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just imagine how much of a headache it would be to preserve books if they were written in different, proprietary alphabets that went in and out of fashion. Standardization is crucial.

What you're describing is uh...history.
posted by stenseng at 3:13 PM on December 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sorry, guess I had an anglocentric bias there.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:40 PM on December 4, 2013


"Just imagine how much of a headache it would be to preserve books if they were written in different, proprietary alphabets that went in and out of fashion. Standardization is crucial."

Hoc est quod locutus sum!
posted by Blasdelb at 12:43 AM on December 5, 2013


Loren Estleman has a mystery series about Valentino, a film detective who has to solve crimes while hunting for lost film footage. As far as I can tell, his research is pretty good. The novels each include a bibliographic essay which was actually my favorite part of the books.
posted by maurice at 9:05 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dear time travelers, forget Hitler. Take back high-resolution duplication equipment and copy these films before they were lost to fire, poor preservation and general neglect. This way, you can hop back to your present time, leaving the course of history intact, but saving these films for the future.

Battery-powered flatbed scanner + Library of Alexandria
posted by snottydick at 9:35 AM on December 6, 2013


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