News / Arts & Entertainment

Library of Congress: Much of American Silent Film Heritage Lost

This undated handout image provided by the Library of Congress shows a motion picture lobby card for D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919), showing sailors standing over two bodies, lying on the dirt street in Chinatown.
This undated handout image provided by the Library of Congress shows a motion picture lobby card for D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919), showing sailors standing over two bodies, lying on the dirt street in Chinatown.
Reuters
— Nearly three-quarters of America's feature-length silent films have been lost, and the legacy that put Hollywood at the forefront of the movie industry from 1912 to 1929 is endangered, the Library of Congress said Wednesday.

The first comprehensive study of American feature-length films of the silent era unveiled by the Library of Congress paints a distressing picture. Seventy percent of silent feature-length films have been lost.

Classics films such as 1926's The Great Gatsby, the 1917 version of Cleopatra and actor Lon Chaney's 1927 London After Midnight are among movies considered lost in their complete form.

“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.

About 11,000 silent feature films of American origin were released from 1912 through 1929. Only 14 percent, or about 1,575 titles, exist in their original 35 mm format.

Five percent of the films that did survive are incomplete and 11 percent of those that are complete are in lower-quality 28 mm or 16 mm format or in foreign versions, according to the study.

“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,” Billington said in a statement.

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, an advocate of film preservation, said the findings are invaluable. His film Hugo was inspired by pioneering film-maker Georges Melies who directed hundreds of movies in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

“The research presented in this report serves as a road map to finding silent films we once thought were gone forever and encourages creative partnerships between the archives and the film industry to save silent cinema,” Scorsese said in a statement.

In 1990 Scorsese established The Film Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history. It has helped to save more than 560 films, according to its website.

The study, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929” - commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board - also showed that of the more than 3,300 films that survived in any format 26 percent were found in other countries, and 24 percent have already been repatriated.

The Czech Republic has the most American silent films found outside the United States. The report credits overseas archivists with preserving many U.S. silent films.

The author of the study, historian-archivist David Pierce, also compiled an inventory to help bring American silent films back to the country.

The report recommended that a nationally-coordinated program be developed to repatriate silent films from foreign archives, as well as a campaign to document unidentified titles.

It also encourages studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.

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