The following report from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) was commissioned for and sponsored by the National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress.
This post also includes a link to a searchable database that was developed for the report.
The Library of Congress today unveiled “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” the first comprehensive survey of American feature films that survived the silent era of motion pictures. Previous documentation established that nearly 11,000 (10,919) silent feature films of American origin were released from 1912 through 1929. There was, however, no definitive, systematic study on how many of these films still existed and where any surviving elements were located in the world’s leading film archives and private collections.
The groundbreaking study reveals some startling facts about America’s endangered silent-film heritage. Only 14 percent—about 1,575 titles—of the feature films produced and distributed domestically from 1912-1929 exist in their original format. Five percent of those that survived in their original 35 mm format are incomplete. Eleven percent of the films that are complete only exist as foreign versions or in lower-quality formats.
As part of the research for the study, Pierce prepared a valuable inventory database of information on archival, commercial and private holdings—who has custody of the films, how complete they are, the films’ formats and where the best surviving copies can be found.
The report concludes that the existence of the database will allow the repatriation of lost American movies. Films initially thought lost have been found—and subsequently repatriated—in Australia, New Zealand, France and many other countries.
Findings and Recommendations
- Fourteen percent of the feature films produced domestically from 1912-1929 survived in their original-release 35 mm format.
- Eleven percent of the films are complete as foreign versions or on lower-quality formats, such as 28 mm or 16 mm.
- Five percent are incomplete, either missing a portion of the film or existing only as an abridged version.
- Of the more 3,300 films that survived in any form, 26 percent were found in other countries.
- Of the silent films located in foreign countries, 24 percent already have been repatriated to an American archive.
- The Czech Republic had the largest collection of American silent films found outside the United States.
The vulnerability of nitrate film stock to fire and deterioration and the industry’s practice of neglecting or destroying prints and negatives contributed to the loss to the nation’s film heritage. Among some of the notable films considered lost in their complete form are Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” (1927); “The Patriot” (1928); ” Cleopatra” (1917); “The Great Gatsby” (1926), and all four of Clara Bow’s feature films produced in 1928, including “Ladies of the Mob.” Only five of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features survived and 85 percent of features made by Tom Mix—Hollywood’s first cowboy star—are lost.
Silent-screen legend Mary Pickford paid for the preservation of her films, ensuring that most of them survived. Of her 48 features, eight were lost from the first three years of her career. Pickford’s 1911 short—”Their First Misunderstanding”—was recently discovered in an old barn. It was the first time that she was credited by name in a film.
“Their First Misunderstanding” has been preserved by the Library of Congress, which hold’s the world’s largest collection of American silent features. More than half of the Library’s collection of silent features cannot be found anywhere else.
The report makes several recommendations:
- Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives.
- Collaborate with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.
- Encourage coordination among American archives and collectors to identify and preserve silent films that currently survive in lower-quality formats.
- Develop a campaign to document unidentified titles. The Library of Congress has sponsored annual workshops to identify unknown and lesser-known titles.
- Create an audience and appreciation for silent feature films through exhibition and screenings.
This database focuses on those titles that have managed to survive to the present day and represents the first comprehensive survey of the survival of American silent feature films. The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films documents 10,921 silent feature films of American origin released through 1930. Treasures from the Film Archives, published by the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), is the primary source of information regarding silent film survival in the archival community. The FIAF information has been enhanced by information from corporations, libraries and private collectors.