About Silent Movies: Lost and Found

The number of lost films from the silent era is enough to make a film fan weep. If you have been reading my Lost Film Files series, you will see that the missing films are not just small, obscure productions. No, the missing films include works from top stars, directors and studios. These were big hits, some of them considered the best films of the year.

Some movies were lost through neglect and decay, others were purposely destroyed. Nitrate film is flammable and a great many films have been lost to fire.

Let’s consider a few questions that commonly crop up when discussing lost films.

How many silent films are lost?

The definitive answer is we don’t know. Some sources put the amount as high as 90%. However, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist. If no archive or collector claims ownership of a film print, then we can assume that no copies of the film exist. However, archive catalogs are not perfect and not every private collector shares their treasures.

Further muddying the waters is the misinformation spread about silent films. Two movies with similar names can be confused. Historians may misremember a viewing experience. There have even been instances of IMDB reviewers allegedly pretending have seen lost films (using information culled from contemporary reviews) and of elaborate hoaxes claiming that long-lost films have been found.

Big name films are hard enough to find information about. Smaller, more obscure films can be well nigh impossible to track down. So, in short, it is quite possible that a “lost film” is actually in existence somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.

Here are some common questions that crop up around lost films.

What is nitrate film?

It’s a word that keeps getting thrown around whenever the subject of lost films is discussed. Nitrocellulose film was first produced by Kodak in 1889 and was used for movies until the early 50’s. What is it about nitrate film that makes it so significant?

It’s flammable: As you can see from the video above, nitrate film is extremely dangerous. Nitrate fires are responsible for many lost films and, in some tragic cases, lost lives. Fires were often caused by candles, matches, cigarettes and electrical shorts but nitrate film can also spontaneously combust.

It decays: Nitrate film is chemically unstable and, in extreme cases of decay, films can be reduced to dust.

It’s difficult to store: Theda Bara and Hobart Bosworth, among others, kept personal collections of their films. In both cases, incorrect storage conditions meant the irreplaceable collections were lost to decay.

Kodak has a very detailed article on nitrate film storage. A sample:

“Never store any nitrate base materials in sealed containers or without ventilation. Such dead storage simply increases the rate of decomposition. Pack the reels loosely in ventilated metal boxes or cabinets, and store them in a room apart from all other photographic materials. Do not let the storage area temperature exceed 21°C (70°F). If you achieve a lower temperature without increasing relative humidity above 45 percent, that s even better. Relative humidity below 40 percent retards decomposition even more, but makes the film more brittle.”

Why would studios purposely destroy their own films?

Seems strange, doesn’t it? The best way I can explain it is the story I hear again and again. I’m sure you’ve heard it too:

“I had a complete collection of (Superman comics/Original Star Wars action figures/Barbie dolls in their packaging/name your collectible) in the basement but my mom threw them away when I went to college. Do you know how much they would be worth now?”

cottage-on-dartmoor-come-with-me-to-a-talkie

The movie studios are mom. Nitrate film is flammable and expensive to store. Plus, a small amount of money could be made from recovering the silver out of  film. Talkies were the wave of the future and surely no one would want to see those creaky old silents. Why not make room in the vaults and recycle the old stuff? Film preservationist Robert A. Harris stated that while nitrate decay was responsible for some lost films, “most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios.”

However, as Kevin Brownlow brings out in his introduction to the book Silent Movies, these same studios are more than willing to claim any and all copyrights and royalties on the very films they tried to destroy.

How are lost films rediscovered?

Quite a few lost films have been found, I am happy to say! I am just going to share four case studies that illustrate the different ways a film can be rediscovered.

Oh, that’s where they were

"The Arab" was one of the films found in Russia.
“The Arab” was one of the films found in Russia.

Sometimes archives have copies of films and either have not cataloged them, or have not shared their catalogs. In this case, ten American silent films were in the collection of Gosfilmofond, the Russian state film archive. The Russians graciously presented copies of the films to the Library of Congress.

In the case of archives, it is usually lack of budget, unintentional oversight or political climate that prevents their contents from being publicized. What about private collectors? I am speculating here but perhaps private collectors conceal their films in order to keep their treasures to themselves or to bask in the knowledge that they own the only copy of something. Or they may simply not be interested in cataloging their collections.

And maybe grandma just really needs to clean her attic and consult an expert before selling that old film can on eBay.

Eureka! Beyond the Rocks

For years, Beyond the Rocks was a tantalizing mystery to film fans. The one and only screen collaboration of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino? Who wouldn’t want to see that? Sadly, it was missing and presumed lost.

beyond-the-rocks

When a private collector died and left his large collection to Nederlands Filmmuseum, the museum staff began to go through the films hoping to find lost Dutch movies. They stumbled on one reel of Beyond the Rocks but did not know what the had until they researched the name of the heroine.

This is the kind of story silent film fans daydream about. Getting a stack of nitrate and discovering those intriguing titles that had been out of reach for too long.

Piece by piece, The Sea Hawk

sea-hawk-letters-of-marque-movies-silently

There was no eureka! moment for The Sea Hawk, just lots of hard work. The Library of Congress had a partial print of the film but pieces, including the justly famous battle scenes, were missing. The missing footage had to be tracked down (in Russia, the Czech Republic and from a private collector) and the entire film restored. TCM provided the money and UCLA provided the know-how. The result was absolutely worth it. However, think of how many fragmented films just waiting for the same treatment. This work does not come cheap and tough decisions have to be made.

The last few feet, Metropolis

Metropolis has been a bit lost since it was released. Oh, most of the film existed but not the director-approved version that Fritz Lang released in 1927, which was hacked down almost immediately after the movie premiered. There were restorations (which filled the gaps with stills and title cards) but that last bit of footage seemed to elude historians.

We owe a large debt of gratitude to Fernando Peña, who heard rumors that the missing footage was being held in Argentinian archives and did not give up until he found it.

Gloria Swanson’s film Sadie Thompson is also famously incomplete, missing its final reel. Here’s hoping that there is another intrepid historian on the verge of discovery.

What now?

The good news is that mass communication and revival of interest in pre-sound films has meant more attention toward film preservation. Some are even taking matters into their own hands.

For example, silent film accompanist Ben Model launched a successful Kickstarter fundraiser for a project he is calling Accidentally Preserved. He raised funds to transfer and score 16mm prints of rare and presumed-lost silent films from his personal collection. He has made several films available on Youtube.

I especially love that this project focuses on rarer films that may never have gotten any attention otherwise.

So, the story of lost films is sad but there is a hint of a happy ending. Keep searching those vaults, buying those old film cans on eBay and using the power of the internet to share films that are lost and found.