The Silent Era of American film has been over for more than 80 years now, but it was officially declared dead this week by the Library of Congress. Though it's been known for some time that the majority of films from the period--spanning from 1912 through 1930--had been lost, this study, spearheaded by historian and archivist David Pierce, is the first time that it has been quantified.
"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."
The numbers truly are alarming. Of the 10,919 silent films released through 1930, only 1,575 (14%) still exist in their complete, domestic-release, 35mm forms. Another 1,174 (11%) survived in complete cuts, but only as foreign-release versions or small-gauge formats like 16mm. Still another 562 (5%) have stood the test of time, but only partially, and are either missing reels or have only exist as minutes-long fragments of the original. The remaining 7,608 (70%) films are officially considered lost.
The silent era--not just in America, but throughout the world--is widely considered one of the most important periods in all of cinema. Almost all of the traditions of modern film were established during that 17-year period and moviegoing became the world's largest and most popular form of entertainment. All of these factors paved the way for the massive success of the sound films that followed in the 1930s and beyond. But, their arrival--and the lower commercial value of silent films that came with it--spelled not just the end of silent cinema, but also its complete disappearance.
Given that the birth of sound films coincided with the release of the first televisions, their widespread commercial appeal was cemented from the start. People wanted to enjoy absolutely everything about the newfound technology, and the "talkies" were one of the best ways to do that. This meant that many copies of the films were made while the negatives were still in perfect condition, ensuring their survival. While the studios were able to make beaucoup bucks licensing those sound films to TV stations, their silent films decayed in studio vaults.
Silent films died out slowly over the decades following the end of the silent era. The first Academy Awards were held in 1929, and marked the first time the industry gathered to celebrate their creations. Despite the fact that sound films had already overtaken their silent counterparts in terms of popularity (almost every first-run film playing in New York City was a talking picture, according to the study) there was only one award on the list that even had anything to do with talking pictures, and that was an honorary one created to be given to Warner Bros. Production "for producing the pioneering talking picture, 'The Jazz Singer'."
But this final flood of respect and admiration for silent films meant little for their popularity and, therefore, their perceived importance to studios. Blame for the loss of so many silent films lies almost entirely with them. MGM proved to be an exception to this point. They began a preservation program for their films in 1950, much earlier than any other studio, as they partnered with the George Eastman House to archive and protect their films. In the early 1960s, the studio began a full-fledged conversion of their movies from the nitrate film they were originally recorded on to safety film that was generally less fragile. They even recovered prints of some films from overseas and restored/remade intertitles and scores for them when necessary. MGM's efforts are astounding, and also incredibly lucky, because very few of their films were recovered from elsewhere. If not for these programs, the studio's early film legacy would be all but lost.
Paramount has also seen a large number of their silent films survive into today (although a much smaller percentage overall, because they produced so many). Unlike MGM, though, they didn't get a serious preservation program underway until the 1980s. Instead, the reason so many of their films stood the test of time is the studio's willingness to work with archives. The Museum of Modern Art requested (and were given) many of their films in 1935, and there were more and more individual requests over the years. They also gave a number of films to the George Eastman house. These studios each took different routes in terms of preserving their films, direct and indirect, but no other studio managed to maintain their films so well, with the majority of them having less than 25 left today.
Of the 3,311 silent films that exist in some form today, 1,699 were produced by one of the at-the-time-major studios. However, only 531 of those (31%) were obtained directly from studios. MGM and Paramount make up the bulk of those, with 128 and 156, respectively, coming from their collections, either directly or already given to various archives over the years. The worst offender was Pathé, as the studio preserved 0 of their own films.
The remaining 1,168 were recovered from other sources, such as stars, directors, and independent collectors. Cecil B. DeMille was a large contributor on this front, as he obtained copies of almost all of his films from the studios, and kept them in great condition over the years, donating many of them to archives. Overall, he was personally responsible for the preservation of 30 films (which puts him ahead of 10 studios).
In considering all of these findings, Pierce and the Library of Congress have created a list of recommendations as to how the US can best preserve the films that are left and possibly discover some that are now considered lost. It includes initiatives such as creating a program to repatriate films that are currently in foreign archives, working to document any currently unidentified films sitting in archive collections, and encouraging exhibition of silent films in an attempt to renew enthusiasm for the medium.
As it stands, we're staring down the loss of a major chunk of American film history. If we're lucky, some of the great films that are now considered lost can be found. Earlier this year, the first film that Mary Pickford was credited in--1911's "Their First Understanding"--was discovered in an abandoned barn in New Hampshire after being considered lost for decades. While moments like these are going to be few and far between, they might be the only hope we have left at recovering pieces of our lost legacy.