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'Alarming' Study Shows Just How Few Silent Films Have Survived

Chicago Vintage Card Art - H 2013
Courtesy Library of Congress
"Chicago" (1928), produced by Cecil B. DeMille, is a rare silent film that has survived.

The Library of Congress has created a worldwide database to track what's left, a hopeful "road map to finding silent films we once thought were gone forever," Martin Scorsese says.

A new study unveiled by the Library of Congress notes that a scant 14 percent of the feature films produced and distributed in the U.S. from 1912-29 exist in their original 35mm format.

That's only 1,575 of the 11,000 or so features made during this nascent era of cinema, according to "The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929," the first comprehensive report of its kind.

Meanwhile, 5 percent (or 562 films) of those that have survived in their original 35mm format are incomplete, and 11 percent of the films that are complete (1,174) only exist as foreign versions or in lower-quality formats.

"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."

The study was commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board and written by historian and archivist David Pierce.

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Pierce also prepared an online inventory of information on archival, commercial and private holdings -- who has custody of what films, how complete they are, the films' formats and where the best surviving copies can be found. The hope is that this database will facilitate the repatriation of lost American movies.

Films initially thought lost have been found in Australia, New Zealand, France and elsewhere. In August 2011, for example, it was revealed that the first three reels of Alfred Hitchcock's The White Shadow (1924) had turned up among a cache of unidentified American nitrate prints safeguarded at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington.

The Czech Republic has the largest collection of American silent films found outside the U.S., the study discovered.

"This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture," director and film-preservation advocate Martin Scorsese 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."

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Among the most notable silent films considered lost in their complete form are Lon Chaney's London After Midnight (1927); The Patriot (1928), directed by Ernst Lubitsch; Cleopatra (1917), starring Theda Bara as the Queen of Egypt; The Great Gatsby (1926), released a year after the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel was first published; and all four of Clara Bow's features produced in 1928, including Ladies of the Mob.

Silent-screen legend Mary Pickford paid for the preservation of her films, ensuring that most of them survived. Of her 48 features, eight were lost from the first three years of her career. Pickford's 1911 short Their First Misunderstanding was discovered in a New Hampshire barn and has been preserved by the Library of Congress.

And famed director Cecil B. DeMille showed great foresight when he mandated that production company Famous Players-Lasky strike prints of his films for his personal archive when he exited to form his own company in 1925. He kept the prints in a concrete vault in his Hollywood home, and more than 40 of his early features have survived.

Said DeMille in a 1956 speech: "The [motion picture] industry will not come of age until it makes a determined effort to keep its own great classics alive -- and to present them regularly to the public in a manner worthy of their merit and worthy of the great names who made them."

Email: Mike.Barnes@THR.com
Twitter: @mikebarnes4