Survey: Majority of American Silent Films Lost, Destroyed

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A recent survey from the Library of Congress, titled The Survival of American Silent Films: 1912-1929, concludes that 70 percent of all American feature-length silent films have been lost over time, Deadline reports.

Owing to the early 20th century’s technological limitations and a lack of interest in preserving films, only 14 percent of the industry’s reported 10,919 silent features still exist in their original 33 mm film spools. And among that slim percentage of survivors, five percent exist in fragments and 11 percent are low-quality, foreign formats.

”[The report is] invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” director Martin Scorsese said about the report. Today’s film industry has adopted digital recording as the near-universal standard, thus ensuring that countless copies and backups of today’s material will be preserved with little degradation in picture quality.

But during the silent film era, 33 mm film was made partly from nitrate, which was prone to deterioration, was highly flammable and did not benefit from modern film preservation methods. Movies once considered classics have been lost to damage or neglect, like 1926’s The Great Gatsby, all four of silent film celebrity Clara Bow’s 1928 features and Lon Chaney’s 1927 film London After Midnight.

“Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost,” Scorsese said. “It also gives us hope that others may be discovered. 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 archives and the film industry to save silent cinema.”

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