A conclusive study by the Library of Congress reports that only 1,575 of the nearly 11,000 films produced during the silent era still exist in their complete form. The study was commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board and written by historian and archivist David Pierce.
It’s not just obscure films of little interest that are lost: Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight – directed by Freaks auteur Tod Browning — is mostly gone (although it can be reconstructed scene for scene using still photographs), 20 Clara Bow films, The Patriot, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the adaptation of Edna Ferber’s So Big starring Colleen Moore, and many more are just gone forever.
There are myriad reasons for this. Many of these movies were filmed on nitrate, which deteriorates rapidly and is also highly flammable. In 1935, Fox Studios lost its entire film catalog in a fire, hundreds more were lost in a 1967 fire at MGM studios, in 1978, The Eastman House lost 329 nitrate prints of silent films in another fire. Also, many of the studios just did not invest in preserving these films until it was too late for many of them. Before the advent of television and home video, studios just really didn’t see the point in keeping them around for future release. Notable exceptions are the works of D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, who all took it upon themselves to have their films preserved.
However, one reason that doesn’t seem to be popping up in any of the articles about this is the fact that many of these films were intentionally destroyed. The 1917 version of Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara, was not just lost to time, it didn’t just disintegrate. The two remaining copies of the film were set on fire, purposely, along with most of her other films by Fox Studios after the Hays Code went into effect – as they were deemed too risque for the new rules. Though she made more than 40 movies throughout her career, only about three and a half exist today. Which is only slightly better than the fate of her cinematic rival Valeska Surrat, whose entire oeuvre is lost forever.
The first “lost” film was actually one of the films responsible for the introduction of the code in the first place. Convention City — a slightly raunchy comedy starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Mary Astor — was completely destroyed by Warner Brothers after causing a boatload of controversy. There are, of course, rumors that a cut of the film may exist in Britain, but it’s yet to be found.
Not only were many pre-code films destroyed, many of those that weren’t were sealed up in a vault in 1934, and did not see the light of day until the 1950′s during the television era. However, because said pictures were not “up to code,” many were hacked up and re-edited, the original versions lost forever.
Pre-code Hollywood is especially important from a feminist point of view, because it was basically a golden age of female empowerment. Which, quite frankly, is a lot of the reason the government put the kibosh on it. Luckily, people like David Pierce are working to hold onto the ones we do have, and searching for others that may be stored in random old attics throughout the country.