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NFPB Study Reveals Staggering Loss of Early Silent Films

By Clint Holloway | Indiewire December 4, 2013 at 1:10PM

Having just released “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929," a comprehensive survey of the silent era of motion pictures that began a century ago, the Library of Congress reveals that a startling amount of early silent films have become quite literally a thing of the past.
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Betty Amann and Gustav Frolich in Joe May’s German silent film 'Asphalt' (1929), which is now available on DVD.
Betty Amann and Gustav Frolich in Joe May’s German silent film 'Asphalt' (1929), which is now available on DVD.

Having just released "The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929," a comprehensive survey of the silent era of motion pictures that began a century ago, the Library of Congress reveals that a startling amount of early silent films have totally become a thing of the past. While the study indicates that an estimated 11,000 American films were produced during the 17-year span, an overwhelming majority of the films made during that time having failed to be preserved, and are now lost or nonexistent.

"The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "We have lost most of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century."

The study reveals that only 1,575 films - roughly 14 percent - exist in their original format, with five percent of them being incomplete and 11 percent of the films that are complete are in foreign or lower quality versions. To help protect our nation's film heritage, the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) has been committed to investigating the survival rates of American movies and supporting archival research projects related to the medium. Written by David Pierce, "The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929" was commissioned by the NFPB and published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). You can read the full study on the NFPB's website.

"This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture," Martin Scorsese, film-preservation advocate and director of "Hugo," a tribute to silent film, said in a statement. "Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost. It also gives us hope that others may be discovered. The research presented in this report 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.


This article is related to: Silent Films, Martin Scorsese, Film Preservation, National Film Preservation Foundation, Silent Films, Silent film