In September 2013, the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress published a 63-page report it had commissioned, written by scholar David Pierce. The subject was the “survival” of American silent feature films made in the 17 years between 1912, when feature-length movies were first produced in numbers, and 1929, by which time the introduction of sound spelled the demise of silent cinema. Of the 10,919 silent films Pierce recorded, only 2,749 exist today, complete in some form, though often in visually compromised versions. (You can download Pierce’s full report here.)
The loss of so many of these films is of more than merely academic concern. Historians and scholars rightly consider feature films to be windows into a period’s zeitgeist, as crucial as period documentaries or newsreels. For lovers of silent cinema like me, dedicated fans of TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights,” it leaves large and irretrievable gaps. Some of the lost movies featured the era’s major stars, including Lon Chaney, Clara Bow and Colleen Moore (whose 1926 film Her Wild Oat was discovered recently in a vault in Prague and restored).
A dramatic sense of what has been lost (and found) has become increasingly apparent thanks to the amazing, ever-growing magic of film archivists, preservationists and restorers. There are also filmmakers striving to help us rediscover near-forgotten masters; these include Pamela Green, who is currently at work on a feature-length documentary about Alice Guy-Blaché, cinema’s first major woman director/producer and a contemporary of the Lumière brothers and Méliès.
Here is the Kickstarter promo Green and her partner, Jarik Van Sluijs, made last year as they were researching their project and locating many of Guy-Blaché’s thought-to-be-lost movies:
Other films and film materials long thought lost are also being discovered, most recently the second reel of the iconic 1927 Laurel and Hardy comedy The Battle of the Century.
For decades, this formerly incomplete movie concluded with an explanatory title card and a still photo of the final high-angle shot.
(It is said that more than 3,000 cream pies were dispatched in the production.)
In a similar vein, restorations of Von Stroheim’s Greed and Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh have relied on dozens of stills and title cards to complete a coherent narrative.
Even the oft-restored Fritz Lang masterpiece Metropolis, last “completed” in 2001 by Martin Koerber, now includes another 25 minutes of footage that was found in a complete 16mm dupe negative in a vault in Argentina’s Museo del Cine in 2008. This, surely, will be as close as we will come to Lang’s approved version. (Of course, that’s what was thought of Koerber’s restoration.)
This latest restoration still exhibits scratches and frame damage, so it is easy for the viewer to spot what came from the 16mm Argentinian dupe. Here is an illuminating side-by-side clip:
We have all seen video and photos of film cans holding crumbling “vinegar syndrome” film reels, and demonstrations of how explosive nitrate film stock becomes with age.
Nitrate’s inherent flammability is one reason why so many early film negatives were intentionally destroyed, especially after a succession of studio-vault fires in the 1920s and 1930s. Even the supposed sanctuary of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris suffered a fire in 1959; Von Stroheim’s 1928 film The Honeymoon was one of the casualties.
Like George Eastman House, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the Academy Film Archive, the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, an arm of the Library of Congress, is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of cinema of all forms. In a short but comprehensive documentary from several years ago, scholars from these institutions, along with members of the National Film Preservation Board (which chooses 25 titles for preservation annually) are interviewed. Of particular note are the late Roger Mayer, once the chairman of the NFPB, who describes MGM’s dumping of all its nitrate titles, including Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and Chris Horak, director of the UCLA archive, who discusses the futility of preserving movies and media in short-life digital formats (what he calls “digitality”). There are also compelling interviews with several impassioned archivists from the Packard Campus. I think there’s no better motion-picture introduction to understanding what has been lost, and what is being done to try to staunch that loss.
Disturbing as this record is, there is another aspect to this story: that of artistic creation, what “film archeologist” and artist Bill Morrison calls “remediation.” I’ll look at his work in my next post.
Note: With the new blog design, the URL for this blog has changed, so please update your bookmark accordingly.