The Final Fade Out – 75% or More of Silent Films Lost Forever

Features decomposing film

Published on December 4th, 2013 | by Wheeler Winston Dixon

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Completed in September 2013, but just generally released today, David Pierce’s report “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929,” sponsored by The Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress Washington, D.C., tells a grim tale, though most film historians and archivists have known that the news wouldn’t be good for a long time. But the shock here is how bad it really is. As the report’s introduction by James Billington notes,

Pierce’s findings tell us that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed, i.e., as complete works on 35mm film. Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality such as 16mm and other smaller gauge formats.  

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. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives—something not yet accomplished—it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century. (vii-viii)

This is the result of a number of factors: the death of the silent film as a commercial art form, and the resultant neglect of the film negatives by the Hollywood studios; nitrate film decomposition, which plagues all films made prior to 1950; but mostly, it’s a ringing indictment of the fact that we simply don’t value our cinematic heritage as much as we should, and now, it’s gone forever. We can’t get it back, no matter what we do. Unless some long forgotten print or dupe negative turns up in a vault somewhere, these films have been consigned by neglect and indifference to perpetual oblivion, and even if such materials do turn up, they will probably be in very poor shape.

A few years ago, in 2008, 25 minutes of lost scenes from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” surfaced in the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine, in 16mm dupe negative format, footage that had been cut shortly after the film’s initial premiere in Berlin. However, the footage was so scratched and damaged that even after extremely aggressive digital restoration, it was still of such inferior quality that it could only serve as an aide-mémoire for the images in their original form. The resultant “complete” version was thus so intensely compromised that it was of archival value only, and bore only the most distant relationship to the film’s initial creation.

But it’s better than nothing, and for 75% of the silent era, that’s exactly what we get: nothing. For George Fitzmaurice’s “The Dark Angel” (1925), named by the New York Times as one of the ten best films of the year, nothing. For Herbert Brenon’s 1926 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” we have only tantalizing glimpses from the film’s trailer, and a few stills, but nothing else. For Tod Browning’s 1927 “London After Midnight,” we again have a few stills, but the last surviving print was destroyed in a fire in the MGM vaults in 1967. And the depressing list goes on and on.

The old saying “nitrate won’t wait,” means that the decomposition of nitrate film negatives and prints is inevitable. Movies created in this medium must be transferred to either safety film or some sort of digital master—this last option being the most ephemeral and unreliable, as I outline in my recent book “Streaming: Movies, Media and Digital Access” (2013)—or they will cease to exist. Film is a deeply fragile medium, and making a film is, as the 1940s producer Val Lewton observed, echoing Keats’s famous epitaph, like “writing on water.”

If just one copy of a book survives, no matter how badly damaged it is, if the text is decipherable, it can be reset in new type and reprinted, and thus live anew for succeeding generations, with no damage at all—the words have been reclaimed from the ashes. Not so with film. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever; it’s the death of every film that no longer survives that we mourn here, something for which there is no remedy.

For those films that no longer exist, all we can do is memorialize them, and try to keep what artifacts we can from their production to remind us that once upon a time, literally thousands of people labored on thousands of films in a variety of capacities, to bring their vision to life on the screen. But since they are gone, we should also look towards the future, and aggressively seek to save every film, silent or sound, foreign or domestic, commercial or experimental that we possibly can.

The entire report can be downloaded as a pdf here. It’s absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in both the past and the future of cinema.

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About the Author

is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, and Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent book is "Cinema at the Margins" (Anthem Press, 2013).



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