Decay destroys America’s silent movie legacy

Cecil B DeMille's Male And Female is a survivor of North America's endangered motion picture heritage. Picture: AP
Cecil B DeMille's Male And Female is a survivor of North America's endangered motion picture heritage. Picture: AP
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The vast majority of feature-length silent films made in America have been lost due to decay and neglect over the past 100 years, allowing an original 20th century art form to all but disappear, according to a new study.

Over the past two years, the US Library of Congress has conducted the first comprehensive survey of silent films and found 70 per cent are believed to be lost. Of the nearly 11,000 silent feature films made in America between 1912 and 1930, the survey found only 14 per cent exist in their original format. About 11 per cent of the films that survive only exist as foreign versions or on lower-quality formats.

During the rise of silent films between 1912 and 1929 – before radio or television – going to “the movies” became the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. Cinema attendance there averaged 46 million per week in the 1920s in a country of 116 million people, according to the report.

Historian and archivist David Pierce, who conducted the study for the library, said few defunct art forms have the resonance of silent films.

“It’s a lost style of storytelling, and the best of the films are as effective with audiences today as they were when they were initially released,” he said. “When you take away dialogue from a narrative story, it actually puts quite a challenge upon the creative people involved to tell the story entirely in a visual fashion. And it’s that limitation, I think, which makes the films so effective.”

Notable films now considered lost include Cleopatra from 1917, The Great Gatsby from 1926, Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight from 1927, and The Patriot from 1928.

Films featuring early stars, including Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford still exist. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Library of Congress and other archives have been preserving early films for decades. But the study notes that for every classic that survives, half a dozen have been lost.

Nitrate film stock’s vulnerability to fire and deterioration contributed to the losses, along with the movie industry’s practice of neglecting or destroying prints and negatives, Pierce wrote.

Of the major film studios, MGM stood out for its early work to preserve silent films. The studio also held Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in its collection and found ongoing commercial value in films with re-releases and TV distribution, Pierce said.

So the studio invested in its film library, unlike any other, and saved 113 silent films it produced or distributed. MGM also gave prints and negatives to archives, primarily the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Now, 68 per cent of the studio’s silent films still survive.

At the same time, Paramount Pictures, the early dominant movie studio, stands out for how few of its 1,222 silent-era features survive. The study noted Paramount had no preservation programme until the 1980s, and now only 29 per cent of its silent-era titles or fragments can be located.

Librarian of Congress James Billington said that the US has lost much of the creative record from an era that brought American movies to the heights of cinematic achievement.

“The loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record,” he said.