The years have not been kind to the early Hollywood films of the silent era, but if a congressionally mandated report has any sway, the public might get to see more of these cultural treasures.
From 1912 to 1929, American studios produced nearly 11,000 silent feature films, but only 14 percent of those movies have survived in their original 35mm format. About 11 percent of those films survive in complete form as either foreign versions or in lower-quality formats, such as 28mm or 16mm. Another 5 percent are incomplete, either surviving in an abridged form or with portions missing. And of the 3,311 films that survived in any form or format, 886 of those were found in foreign countries.
Those findings are part of a report released Wednesday by the Library of Congress and commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.” The report’s author, David Pierce, exhaustively details how the surviving silent-era films survived neglect and mismanagement, sometimes through painstaking efforts and sometimes through pure dumb luck. One short feature, Mary Pickford’s 1911 short “Their First Misunderstanding,” was found in a barn, for instance.
Pierce has also compiled a database of the surviving films to help preservation efforts.
“This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” acclaimed director Martin Scorsese said in a release accompanying the report. “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 film industry to save silent cinema,” he added.
Pierce also recommends six courses of action to help preservation efforts:
Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives.
Collaborate with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.
Encourage coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats.
Focus increased preservation attention on small-gauge films.
Work with other American and foreign film archives to document “unidentified” titles.
Encourage the exhibition and rediscovery of silent feature films among the general public and scholarly community.
It’s that last recommendation, perhaps, that could land some silent films in repertory theaters, so film buffs can get a look at something from the era beyond just Halloween week screenings of “Nosferatu.”
The report singles out Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for its preservation efforts, saying it set an example that no other studios matched in preserving its film legacy. “The survival rate of silent films produced by MGM after its founding in 1924 is 68 percent, the highest of any studio,” the report stated.
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Jason Dick is the Hill Life editor for Roll Call and has also worked at Greenwire, CongressDaily and National Journal Daily during his time in Washington. @jasonjdick