Going quietly: The sad plight of silent movies

With more than 70 per cent of early films lost, archivists are scouring the world to preserve the precious examples that remain

When clearing out a barn in New Hampshire three months ago, carpenter Peter Massie found a silent movie from 1911 starring Mary Pickford, one of the era’s biggest stars.

Their First Misunderstanding delighted silent film fans, as did the 75 US silent movies found in the New Zealand Film archives several years earlier. Yet for every silent feature that survives, six have been lost.

An official report published in the US found that more than 70 per cent of the country’s silent films from the era have been lost to decay or neglect. A specialist at the BFI confirmed that the number was similar in the UK and in many other archives around the world. High-profile silent movies including Cleopatra from 1917, 1926’s The Great Gatsby and Lon Chaney’s 1927 film London After Midnight are all believed to be gone for good.

Responding to the report Martin Scorsese, who has long been a champion of genre and whose film Hugo was a loving tribute to the era, said the artistry of silent film was “essential to our culture”.

“Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost. It also gives us hope that others may be discovered,” he said.

The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929 shows just 14 per cent of feature films produced and distributed in the US between 1912 and 1929 survive in 35mm form. The study, commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board, also found that a further 11 per cent survive only in foreign archives or on lower-quality formats. Archivists are currently scouring the world to find surviving prints.

Laraine Porter, senior lecturer in film at De Montfort University, said she was not surprised by the results and called for a similar report in Britain funded by academic or research networks.

“We’re a bit behind the Americans in valuing our pre-1930s films if it’s not by directors like Hitchcock or Anthony Asquith,” she said. In Britain, many films were lost after 1926, when the industry was “on its knees”. Studios went bust and films were often melted down for the silver they contained. The British Silent Film Festival was set up in 1998 “in response to a crisis in how silent films were viewed”, Ms Porter said. “Not by the BFI, but historians and researchers.”

The Library of Congress report marks the first comprehensive survey of the art form. The nitrate film stock is vulnerable to fire as well as deterioration, while there was no programme for many years to preserve the stock. The library said that action was needed to make sure the 3,311 US films that remain are protected and made accessible to the public.

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the BFI National Archive said: “This is a welcome report as it is very clear about the need for an increased effort on everyone’s part to crack on with this job because time is running out.”

Librarian of Congress James H Billington said the authoritative three-year study showed the loss “constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record”.

During the era films were hugely popular, coming before the age of network radio and television in the US, the report said. Movie theatres, on average, had 46 million admissions per week during the 1920s.

There was a resurgence of interest in silent films last year with the release of The Artist, which swept the Oscars, followed by the Spanish film Blancanieves.

The need for a film archive in the UK was felt as early as 1930 but “it was very small and underfunded”, Ms Dixon said. “All they could do was pick out what they thought of the most important works.”

Ms Dixon continued: “Technology is coming to our aid, certainly with what we’re doing in preserving silent films. The Library of Congress is taking the initiative by publishing the report, but many others are looking to follow.”

As for the most sought after British silent film? Mountain Eagle, Ms Porter said, a lost film directed by Hitchcock.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future