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

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The Independent Culture

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.