Martin Scorsese Backs Library of Congress’ Silent Film Study, Research Reveals 70% of Features Gone

“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

Last Updated: July 10, 2014 @ 7:56 PM

The most comprehensive study to date documenting the status of America’s silent feature films produced from the 1912 to 1929, says 70 percent are missing or gone and far more action needs to be taken to make the 2,749 known and complete surviving works accessible to the public.

The Library of Congress unveiled the three-year, Martin Scorsese endorsed study Wednesday, and while it offers some praise for studios — specifically MGM — it also voices concerns about the fate of silent films without increased preservation and the recovery of lost films.

“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 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.”

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In a statement accompanying the report’s release, the Library of Congress quoted Scorsese.

“This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” said Scorsese, whose 2011 Oscar-winning film “Hugo” dealt with the magic and mystery of silent movies. “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.”

The study says many of the best copies of silent films and often the only copies are overseas and that much more needs to be done to find missing films and bring those back to the U.S.

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It suggests six recommendations to do more.

Among them are that the U.S. develop a coordinated program to repatriate U.S. silent length feature films from foreign archives; work with studios and rights holders to acquire master film elements on unique titles; encourage coordination among U.S. archives to identify and preserve films held on small gauge tracks and work with U.S. and foreign archives to document unidentified titles.

The study also recommends efforts aimed at encouraging the exhibition and rediscovery of silent films as an art form.

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Steve Leggett, program coordinator for the Library’s National Film Preservation Board, told TheWrap that the study grew out of the Library’s frustration with trying to determine what to preserve from the silent movie era given the meager source data on silent film availability. Previous studies showed that more than 10,919 American silent features were produced during the period.

“One of the problems with film preservation is knowing which films exist and where they are,” he said.

The study, produced by historian-archivist David Pierce, offers a snapshot of the films known to be available and where they are, Leggett said. “The prints were originally sent overseas to foreign archives. They were too expensive to ship back,” he said. “The result is that films whose U.S. copies were destroyed or are missing are available only in the foreign archives.”

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Even in cases where copies of films are available in the U.S., foreign archives often have more complete versions, Leggett added.

The report says that while 2,749 American silent films survive in full form, 3,311 survive in some form with 151 of the missing having a single reel missing and another 275 with two reels missing. It suggests that some of the missing reels might be in collections unidentified and uncatalogued. Some of the surviving films are shortened versions that survive on 9.5 mm or 16 mm versions.

The report also said that of the 3,311 total movie features, about 1,699 were produced by major studios or their predecessor companies, but that while studios sent 531 titles to archives, 1,168 came from other sources.

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Leggett said the Library of Congress would like to get the films held abroad repatriated to the U.S., but that besides dealing with any rights issues  — copyrights still apply to films made after 1923 –U.S. film archives need to work out some payment system to compensate foreign archives for their sometimes extensive work in preserving films.

Congress in 1988 as part of enacting the National Film Preservation Act directed the Library of Congress to establish initiatives to protect the nation’s film heritage. One of the Library’s first directives to the board was to support archival research projects that would investigate the survival rates of American movies produced in all major categories during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Library currently holds the world’s largest collection of American silent features.  More than half of the Library’s collection cannot be found anywhere else.