Fred Ott’s Sneeze,  an early kinetoscopic film produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company, 1894.
Fred Ott’s Sneeze, an early kinetoscopic film produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company, 1894. Alamy.

On 3 November 1927, Hollywood stars were out in force for the premiere of the silent film The Devil Dancer. Directed by Fred Niblo – who had recently wowed audiences with Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) – it was a spectacular tale of romance and derring-do set high in the mountains of Tibet. It was an instant hit. The critics loved it. The New York Times gushed over its ‘rich … scenery’ and ‘wonderfully convincing …atmosphere’. Everyone agreed it was in a class of its own. At the first Academy Awards the following year, it was nominated for Best Cinematography – and was only pipped at the post by F.W. Murnau’s ground-breaking Sunrise. Yet just as its place in film history seemed assured, it suddenly disappeared. No one could say when, or even how, it was lost. All we know is that not a single frame of it is left.

When The Devil Dancer was released, American silent films were at the peak of their popularity. In 1917 alone, almost 1,000 films were released: an average of nearly three per day. Their success was phenomenal. By the mid-1920s, an average of 46 million cinema admissions were recorded per week, out of a total population of 116 million. Film stars enjoyed an unheard-of celebrity. In 1926, Colleen Moore, whose feisty manner helped define the flapper style, was receiving 10,000 fan letters every week and was earning upwards of $40,000 per month – the equivalent of well over $650,000 today. As the psychologist William Moulton Marston remarked, ‘[n]ot even the church’ had such a hold over the popular imagination.

Yet sadly, The Devil Dancer’s fate was not unusual. For all their popularity, silent films were alarmingly vulnerable. During the golden age of the silent movie (1912-29), 10,919 silent feature films of American origin are known to have been released in the US. Of these, only 2,749 (25.2 per cent) survive as complete films, either in their original 35mm domestic release version, or in some other format. A further 562 (5.1 per cent) are incomplete, lacking one or more reels. The remaining 8,114 (74.3 per cent) have been lost – a staggeringly high proportion.

There was no pattern to the losses. It didn’t matter whether a film was a success or a failure. Blockbusters were just as likely to disappear as flops. In fact, many of the period’s greatest hits are missing. Annette Kellerman’s ‘million-dollar movie’ A Daughter of the Gods (1916), which was filmed on location in Jamaica and which featured the first nude scene by a major actress, has been lost without a trace. Nor was genre a factor. Popular Westerns like The Phantom Riders (1918) vanished just as often as comedies and experimental pieces. Even star power was no guarantee of survival. Popularly known as ‘The Vamp’, Theda Bara was one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols, earning $4,000 per week in her prime; yet only two of her 39 films have come down to us. So why were so many films lost?

Few, fragile, flammable

One reason is that there were never more than a handful of copies to start with. Today, Hollywood films tend to be released in a large number of cinemas simultaneously, meaning that a lot of prints are in circulation at any given time. Quite the opposite was true of silent movies. Early production companies based their business model on building excitement through scarcity. Rather than being released all at once, films were released in stages. First, they would be shown in downtown cinemas, then in the suburbs and finally in more rural areas. This way, tickets for earlier screenings could be sold at a higher price, and a steady interest maintained across the country. Sometimes, it would take as long as two years for a film to reach the whole country. The effect was to reduce the number of copies that were needed, even for the most successful titles. And the fewer prints there were, the more likely films were to be lost, mislaid or destroyed.

It didn’t help that early films were also very fragile. Until as late as 1951, the film base of most movies was made from cellulose nitrate. This had the advantage of being colourless, transparent and flexible, but it was also highly unstable. Over time, the base reacts with the air to produce nitric acid – a highly corrosive substance which gradually eats away at the film. First, the image fades, then a sticky gloop begins to form and, finally, the whole reel disintegrates. With the proper care this process can often be slowed; but once it has started, it can’t be stopped – with the result that many silent films simply turned to dust, sometimes before completing a single screening run.

To make matters worse, cellulose nitrate is highly flammable, too. During screenings, it was not unknown for a film to get too hot passing through the projector and burst into flames. But films could also ignite even when in storage. On 9 July 1937, during an especially hot summer, a fire broke out in a 20th Century Fox vault in New Jersey. It took 150 firefighters more than three hours to extinguish the blaze. Among the thousands of films destroyed were nearly all those directed by Gordon Edwards, and most of the Westerns starring Tom Mix. Almost as devastating was the fire which broke out at the MGM vault in Culver City, California, on 10 August 1965. Caused by an electrical short, this claimed the only known copies of several hundred titles, including The Divine Woman (1928) starring Greta Garbo and Tod Browning’s horror mystery London After Midnight (1927).

Not worth saving

The main reason so many silent films were lost, however, is that almost no one thought they were worth saving.

For most film-goers, silent feature films were fun, even exciting, but never anything more than ephemeral. As soon as you’d seen one, you’d forget it and move on to the next. They certainly weren’t ‘art’. As the Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Shallert put it:

Making pictures is not like writing literature or composing music or painting masterpieces. The screen story is essentially a thing of today and once it has had its run, that day is finished. So far there has never been a classic film in the sense that there is a classic novel or poem or canvas or sonata. Last year’s picture, however strong its appeal at the time, is a book that has gone out of circulation.

Since novelty was clearly the key to success, studios saw no point in holding onto their old titles. It was expensive to store films properly, reruns were rare and, after the ‘talkies’ came along in 1929, there wasn’t even any scope to reuse old footage in new productions. It made no commercial sense to cling onto such useless reels. As the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn explained: ‘I cannot rest on the laurels of the past.’ Whenever a film became too worn, or started to decompose, studios simply wrote it off. Either they chucked it straight in the bin, or they tried to recover what money they could by reclaiming the silver content of the base. Several companies specialised in this and, if done on a large enough scale, it could yield a decent sum. As the film historian David Pierce has noted, in one case: ‘United Artists sent 130 well-worn prints of Suds (1920), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Rosita (1923), and other older [Mary] Pickford titles to the Kodak recovery centre in Rochester. The resulting income was a modest, but undoubtedly welcome, $302.74.’ The cost to film history was incalculable, however.

For art’s sake?

It took a long time for anyone to start talking seriously about preservation, due largely to the unwillingness to see film as an art form. When the idea was first mooted back in 1893 the goal had merely been to secure copyright protection. It was suggested that copies should be deposited in the Library of Congress, not so that they could be seen again – much less appreciated – but for the sake of guarding against imitation. And even this was slow to take off. Not until a little later did anyone raise the possibility of preserving films for their own sake. In 1895, W.K.L. Dickson proposed that a national film collection should be established. He pictured this as a gigantic visual library, where people might view films as easily as they read books. But it was clear that what he had in mind were ‘documentary’ films (newsreels, footage of eminent people, events etc.), rather than fictional narratives. Trusting naively to the camera’s fidelity, he wanted to create a repository capable of preserving history ‘free of the historian’s cant and with greater precision than written texts’ (!) – not a collection of aesthetically or dramatically valuable films.

The release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) marked a turning point of sorts. Though now reviled for its unrepentant racism, this epic Civil War drama caused an immediate sensation and became the most popular film of its day, earning a record $20 million in receipts. Its success rested, to a large degree, on its technical virtuosity. It pioneered the use of closeups and fadeouts, featured hundreds of extras and was the first film to be issued with its own score. For many critics, it illustrated the artistic potential of cinema and led some to query film’s status. Granted, it didn’t cause studios, or even the government, to think any differently about preservation. Though politicians like the former postmaster general Will Hays regularly called for the creation of a national film archive in the 1920s, they too were interested only in films showing ‘historical or otherwise noteworthy event[s]’. But such was the visual impact of The Birth of a Nation that it nevertheless stirred private enthusiasts into action instead. Later that year, Columbia University opened its first film programme and began assembling its own movie collection. Meanwhile, film societies began springing up, especially in Europe. Small groups would gather regularly to watch and discuss films, and many created their own archives. Naturally, these tended to be fairly eclectic. Yet they helped to foster an appreciation of cinema’s artistic elements among intellectuals and journalists at a time when most studios and filmgoers were oblivious to all but its most commercial aspects.

This proved decisive. Thanks to critics such as Iris Barry, the notion that silent films deserved not only to be recognised as artworks in their own right, but also preserved for posterity began to gather momentum. When the Museum of Modern Art was founded in New York in 1929, it was recognised that film deserved a place in its collection. Accordingly, in 1935, The Film Library was established under Barry’s leadership to ‘trace, catalog, assemble, exhibit, and circulate … films … in exactly the same manner’ as ‘paintings, sculpture, architectural photographs, and …reproductions’. This transformed attitudes, so much so that in 1960 MGM began an ambitious programme to preserve any silent films still in its vaults; and, in 1965, the American Film Institute was established specifically to safeguard the legacy of the American film industry.

It is largely thanks to these institutions – and the European film societies – that any silent films from America’s golden age have survived at all. It is just a pity they did not start earlier. Looking back at what has perished, it is hard not to think of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and weep with Norma Desmond, if not for the demise of the silent movie star, then certainly for the loss of so many silent movies.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book, Machiavelli: His Life and Times, is now available in paperback.

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