Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation claims that 90% of films made before 1929 are lost. The Library of Congress found that 75% of silent films made my major studios are lost. These numbers, on the surface, are harrowing to say the least. If all we have is 10% of the silent films ever made, what brilliant, ground-breaking, revolutionary pieces of art are we missing out on?
My answer: probably not that many.
Statistics are often presented in a way that will make headlines. Obviously, 90% of all silent films being lost is dramatic—it even captures the attention of those who don’t care about old movies. But when you stop and think about it, these figures are essentially meaningless.
If we take the title of every silent film ever produced, it is quite likely that only 10% exist. But is it fair to give equal weight to every silent film? For every masterpiece like Metropolis or Wings, there are countless low-budget, forgettable silent films. Take a film like His Neighbor’s Pants. I’m guessing there is no one who would argue that the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants—an inexpensive, single-reel comedy by the Albuquerque Film Manufacturing Company in 1914—is significant. Audiences barely took notice of His Neighbor’s Pants upon its initial release, and today the film would probably not contribute to our understanding of cinematic history whatsoever. But by Scorsese’s count, the loss of His Neighbor’s Pants is just as important as the survival of The Gold Rush.
In this article, I am going to do my best to demonstrate that statistics like those from Scorsese’s Film Foundation are unnecessarily bleak and dire. I will not deny that there are some incredibly important silent films which are now lost. However, I do believe that the vast majority of “significant” silent films are not only extant, but widely available to modern audiences. Rather than lament the loss of silent films, we should celebrate the existence of so many. Studios were under no obligation to preserve nitrate stock for posterity’s sake; the fact that we are able to experience Fairbanks, Bow, and Garbo at all is quite miraculous.
But rather than arguing this point with prose, I’d rather stick to the data:
By my count, 23 films received nominations at the First Academy Awards. These films obviously represent the highest standard of artistry Hollywood had to offer in the late 1920s. It can be argued that all 23 films are objectively “significant.” Of those 23 films, 17 survive in their entirety. For three films we are left with fragments, and three are completely lost. That means that nearly three-quarters of films nominated in 1928 are still available—not a bad percentage.
Moving on: the “Big Three” of silent film comedy—Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Between them, they produced 31 feature films in the silent era. All 31 films survive. Chaplin alone made 77 silent films, from his start at Keystone through Modern Times. 76 survive; the only lost film, Her Friend the Bandit, was presumably interchangeable with any of his other Mabel Normand shorts. Charlie Chaplin is the single most significant figure in early cinematic history, and we have access to 98.7% of the silent films he released (this figure is actually much higher if we take into account the number of reels that survive, rather than simply the number of titles).
Arguably the four greatest directors of the silent era are D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich Von Stroheim, and F.W. Murnau. From Birth of a Nation to The Ten Commandments to Greed to Sunrise, their films are often ranked amongst the greatest movies ever made. And, with each director, we see the same trend: the vast majority of films they made have survived relatively intact.
D.W. Griffith was prolific in the late-1900s and early-1910s, but it is fair to say he hit his stride with Birth of a Nation in 1915. Between 1915 and the end of the silent era, Griffith directed somewhere around 29 feature films. Of those 29, 24 are known to exist, while only five are considered lost. His most acclaimed films—Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm—are all widely available. The few films that are missing do nothing to detract from his remarkable legacy.
The same can be said for Cecil B. DeMille, who directed a total of 60 silent films during his career (including shorts). Again, the vast majority—49 films this time—survive and are easily accessible to film buffs. Of the 11 films missing, only 1924’s Feet of Clay can be considered significant; none of the rest were particularly well-received upon release.
Erich Von Stroheim, while not as prolific as Griffith and DeMille, released some of the most acclaimed films of the 1920s. Of the nine films he wrote or directed (or both), eight still survive. The only one missing is The Devil’s Pass Key—a film which would certainly contribute to our understanding of the Von Stroheim’s work, but is admittedly nonessential when compared to The Merry Widow or The Wedding March.
F.W. Murnau experienced a higher rate of loss than the other directors mentioned here. Of his 21 directorial efforts, only 12 survive (fragments are known from several others). However, it must be remembered that his early films were made in Weimar Germany, at the height of hyperinflation and widespread poverty. It is expected that films produced in such bleak conditions would survive at a lower rate than films produced in the United States. If we look at Murnau’s “Golden Age”—from mid-1922 through the end of his career—10 of 12 films exist. 4 Devils, the only of Murnau’s American films that is lost, is rightfully one of the most sought-after of all silent films.
Wikipedia lists the top 10 grossing films by year in the 1920s (the only year they omit is 1922). I’m not going to argue the validity of their figures, as box office data from the silent era is notoriously difficult to corroborate. However, it is still interesting to note that the worst rate of survival is from 1927, when only seven out of the top 10 films still exist. For 1925, all 10 films still exist. If nothing else, this data demonstrates that the films that audiences were flocking to in the 1920s still exist. The films that were box office flops are less likely to exist; but is that really much of a loss?
In conclusion, I’d like to comment on several specific movies. The lost silent film title that gets tossed around most frequently is London After Midnight—one of three of Lon Chaney’s M.G.M. productions that is lost. London After Midnight received tepid reviews, at best, and was certainly eclipsed by some of Chaney’s other performances from the same period. The vast amount of attention given to this one film, then, is somewhat of a mystery. I am not denying that it would be incredible to view London After Midnight. If I print turned up, it would certainly be one of the most significant artifacts in the history of cinema. I’d be the first in line at a screening. But doesn’t the fact that we still have Laugh, Clown, Laugh; The Unknown, Mr. Wu, and The Blackbird count for anything? There is no shortage of Lon Chaney films to view, analyze, and discuss. Why, then, the obsession with London After Midnight?
Another “lost film” that frequently comes up in conversation is the original cut of Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed. In all but the strictest sense of the term, I do not think it is valid to consider the original, 42-reel version of Greed a “lost film.” There are reports that Von Stroheim himself never intended for the 42-reel version to be shown publicly; he himself reduced it to 24 reels. But even this edited version should not be considered a lost film alongside London After Midnight and Cleopatra—for the simple reason that this film was never released to the public. How can we put a director’s cut of a film, never seen by more than a handful of friends and studio executives, on par with movies that were screened to thousands of people across the globe?
When audiences went to the theater in late-1924, they saw a version of Greed that was 10 reels long. Today, this version is widely available to view. If the cut of the film that was viewed by audiences nearly a century ago is still in existence, it seems ridiculous to consider Greed a lost film. Would the 7-hour version of Greed be the masterpiece that everyone hopes it would be? Perhaps. But for all intents and purposes, Greed exists. The missing 32 reels of film should be considered “deleted scenes” at best.
Hindsight is 20/20. In the 21st century, it is easy to look back and lament how many films could have been saved. But the harsh reality is that movie studios were businesses, first and foremost, and there was zero monetary incentive to preserve early films. Once a movie was released and shown at theaters across the country, it was effectively finished. Storage of nitrate film reels was costly and dangerous. If these films had no commercial potential, what was the point of utilizing valuable resources to save them?
It is also worth asking the question—if everything survived, would anything be special? Or would access to every silent film diminish the impact that certain films have to this day? The fact that many films survived at all adds to their cultural cachet and modern popularity. A higher survival rate would potentially create a malaise and complacency around silent film that could kill the community dedicated to preserving the legacies of cinema’s earliest treasures.
So the next time you hear that 90% of silent films ever made are now lost—don’t panic. Don’t worry that you’re only being exposed to a tiny fraction of what the silent era had to offer. The reality is much more positive than these intentionally-sensationalized headlines would have you think. Sure, the majority of films ever made no longer exist—but as for the films that matter? You can watch most of them online with the click of a button.
Written by Charles Epting for a forthcoming issue of Silent Film Quarterly.