Is Silent Film Era Lost to the Dust Bin?

Maytime (1922) showing the deteriation of nitrate film stock. Courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation

A new report by the Library of Congress revealed that only around 14 percent of the films produced between the years 1912 and 1929 still exist. That means that of the 11,000 or so features that usered the art form into existence, we can have about 1,575 remain.

“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,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement. “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.”

There’s a silver (nitrate) lining to the report, however. The new data on the silent film archives, which has been incorporated into an online database that can help facilitate discoveries of thought-lost movies that exist in private collections. Martin Scorsese, a long-time archival activist whose movie Hugo doubles as a nostalgia piece about lost cinema, hopes the number of “repatriated” films will slowly increase with time.

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.

Here’s the full article.