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Most American silent films are lost forever Library of Congress study reveals

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Seventy percent of American feature-length silent films have been completely lost to time and neglect, the Library of Congress revealed in a first-ever study "The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929".

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Of the few that are not gone with the wind -- about 1,575 titles still exist -- 11 percent are in lower-quality formats or are foreign versions, and some five percent are incomplete.

It's "an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in releasing the study Dec. 4.

Notable films considered lost include Lon Chaney's "London After Midnight" (1927); "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 have survived. And 85 percent of features made by Tom Mix, Hollywood's first cowboy star, are lost. Gloria Swanson's "Manhandled" (1924) exists only in a 16mm Kodascope home library print -- cut from seven to five reels.

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 first film credit, the 1911 short "Their First Misunderstanding" was discovered recently in an old barn. "Their First Misunderstanding" has been preserved by the Library of Congress, which holds 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, commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB), is available as a free download at the NFPB’s website, www.loc.gov/film.

The study was written by historian-archivist David Pierce, who prepared an inventory database with valuable info including who has custody of the films, how close to complete they are, and where the best surviving copies can be found.

Oscar®-winning director Martin Scorsese, whose film "Hugo" is a tribute to silents, said "This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture."

Scorsese, a film preservation advocate, also said the report's research "serves as a road map to finding silent films we once thought were gone forever and encourages creative partnerships between archives and the film industry to save silent cinema."

The report's recommendations include:

  • Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives. (Of the more 3,300 films that survived in any form, 26 percent were found in other countries.)
  • Encourage coordination among American archives and collectors to identify and preserve silent films that currently survive in lower-quality formats.
  • Create an audience and appreciation for silent feature films through exhibitions and screenings.

Certainly, "Hugo" and the Oscar-winning black and white silent "The Artist" by Michael Hazanavicius have helped increase audiences and appreciation.

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