If you love movies, at some point in your life, you’ve almost certainly encountered Charlie Chaplin hallucinating that his fellow resident of a snowed-in frontier cabin is a giant chicken, or Buster Keaton keeping his deadpan as the facade of a jailhouse falls down on him, only for Keaton to pass safely through a second-floor window that had been left open. Chaplin and Keaton’s films are among the best-known and best-loved of the 10,919 silent movies produced by American studios between 1912 and 1930. But a shocking new study by film historian David Pierce for the Library of Congress reveals that just 30 percent of those movies exist in any form today, and only 14 percent of them survive in their complete, original format.
It’s a striking cultural loss that’s the result of wildly divergent attitudes towards preservation among actors and movie studio executives who worked during the silent film period. And losing that history doesn’t just deny us the opportunity to see movies from the early years of American cinema. It means we lose an opportunity to see how American movies have developed over the years, and to truly understand the evolution of the norms that have governed American filmmaking.
Using sources including the Treasures of the Film Archives, an international registry maintained by the International Federation of Film Archives, and conversations with American film archivists, Pierce determined that 1,575 of the 10,919 movies produced during the silent period still survive today in their complete, original form (on 35mm film), 1,174 exist as foreign releases or in lower-quality formats like 28mm or 16mm film, and 562 exist as fragmentary or abridged edits of the original features. 70 percent of those silent movies are gone forever.
Caprice, good luck, and varied institutional practices determined whether or not movies were preserved for film lovers of the future. MGM, for example, paid to preserve 113 silent movies that it and Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions had made or distributed, and it donated prints and negatives of an additional 120 silent movies to film archives. As a result, far more MGM features survive than those from any other studio–68 percent of MGM’s silent movies survive in the modern era. This was far from standard institutional practice, though. As Pierce reports, “More common than enthusiastic stars, however, were unsentimental businessmen, such as producer Samuel Goldwyn. In response to the Museum of Modern Art Film Library’s inquiry about the destruction of sets on the backlot he had taken over from Pickford and Fairbanks, Goldwyn replied ‘[You] must realize that I cannot rest on the laurels of the past and cannot release traditions instead of current pictures.'” Silent movies, because they couldn’t be monetized by resale to television networks for broadcast, or at least not to the same extent as talkies, seemed like a less valuable part of the back catalogue for studio executives who were focused on profits, rather than their historical legacies.
Sometimes, individual stars stepped up to preserve their own work. Mary Pickford paid to have her own movies preserved, and, Pierce explains, “she sent films in which she starred to the Library of Congress in 1946. ‘I wish to say to you,’ she wrote, ‘how happy I am that my pictures will be housed in the Library of Congress and how greatly I appreciate the honor conferred upon me by your wish to have them there.'” As a result, 40 of the 48 silent movies in which she starred survive into the modern era, a record that looks positively admirable give that just 2 of Theda Bara’s 39 vampire movies made between 1914 and 1919 still exist, and only 12 of Tom Mix’s 85 Westerns survive. Even an Academy Award Best Picture nominee, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot, isn’t believed to be available in complete form anywhere in the world.
Even if the only value of these movies to modern viewers was that they give us pleasure, the loss of American silent movies would be shocking and saddening. But Pierce is right to point out that we’re losing critically important records of the evolution of American forms and American politics. With only 5 of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features still available to us, we’re lacking documents that could help us understand the development of American comedy. Pierce explains that we’ve lost the three silent versions of Brewster’s Millions, originally a play about a young man who is forced to burn through a large inheritance very quickly, that followed a stage production and preceded five talkie adaptations. Having those three lost movies could help us construct the path of what’s effectively become an American fable about sudden wealth and the virtuous disposal of it.
And the myths we’re losing track of aren’t just morality tales. Pierce asks “If popular culture is reflected through entertainment, then where are the major blockbusters of their day? There are no known copies of The Rough Riders (1927), Victor Fleming’s tribute to Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. Who has seen the surprise hit of 1924, the independently produced The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, which codified the Lincoln myth for years to come?…How much better would we understand media manipulation if we could see the World War I-preparedness drama The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), showing an invasion of the United States by an unnamed (but Teutonic) attacker; or its complement, the pacificist War Brides (1916), in which widowed mothers protest the war.”
There are plenty of other questions to ask, too. If silent films were better-preserved and more widely available, would the work of women like Louise Brooks make men’s dominance of film seem less natural and more like a regression from the early, experimental days of film? What might we learn about camera work, or musical cues, or the use of text on screen? And what would recovering prints of American silent films held abroad tell us about the appeal of American cinema a century ago at a time when a more competitive marketplace has American moviemakers eager to retain their international edge?
It may be too late to recover many of the silent films that Pierce has identified as lost–in some cases, the deterioration of film and negatives make it impossible to recapture viable prints of long-neglected movies. But he and the Library of Congress are absolutely right to call for vigorous efforts to step up film preservation, including repatriating the 76 percent of silent features that exist only in foreign release formats, to work harder with rights-holders to preserve movie master copies, and to preserve movies on poorer-grade formats so they will be more accessible. Preserving and restoring silent film history isn’t just a way of putting more entertainment back in circulation. It’s an attempt to recover our dreams of ourselves and our position in the world.