WASHINGTON – More than two-thirds of silent movies shot in the United States between 1912 and 1929 no longer exist, the Library of Congress says in a report released Wednesday, underscoring the urgent need to preserve old motion pictures.
Out of the 11,000 films made on U.S. soil in the early years of cinema, just 14 percent of them, or 1,575 in all, survive in their original 35 millimeter format, it said.
A smaller number exist only in foreign versions or in lower-quality formats, while 5 percent are incomplete, according to the report by historian and archivist David Pierce.
“All the features of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, the films Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made during the peak of their popularity in the 1920s, and the big epics, from “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) to “Wings” (1927), still exist,” Pierce wrote in the report.
“But for every film that survives, there are half a dozen that do not, and for every classic that is seen today, many more of equal importance at the time are now missing and presumed lost,” including four films starring silent diva Clara Bow and a 1926 version of “The Great Gatsby.”
Other notable films that now are considered lost include “Cleopatra” from 1917, Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” from 1927 and “The Patriot” from 1928. Chaney, famed as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), made only one film with sound.
Preservationists are looking to foreign archives and private collections to identify any other remaining films.
“The loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record,” said Library of Congress chief James Billington, who is tasked under a 1988 law to find ways to preserve U.S. film heritage.
Film director Martin Scorsese, a longtime champion of film preservation, called the artistry of silent film “essential to our culture.”
“Any time a silent film by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost,” he said. “It also gives us hope that others may be discovered.”
The report, titled “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” is at www.loc.gov/film.