There may be a recent resurgence of interest in silent film (thanks in no small part to the success of The Artist), but anyone looking to get into the art form is in for a rude awakening. Of the nearly 11,000 movies made in the pre-talkie, golden age of silent film, 70 per cent has been lost and gone forever.
The unfortunate news was uncovered thanks to a new study by the US Library of Congress, which also revealed that of those 11,000 films, a mere 14 per cent still exist in their original format. So who’s to blame? Apparently, it’s the studios themselves and an unfortunate practice of destroying their own films; the report describes the early studios’ failure to maintain any sort of silent era archive as an “alarming and irretrievable loss”. MGM was the only studio to maintain a decent archive, while Paramount, the worst culprit, didn’t begin preserving their titles until about 30 years ago.
Of course, not all of the losses can be put on the shoulders of early movie makers, some simply fell victim to fire or any number of other natural disasters. But however they vanished, the cultural and artistic loss is palpable. As historian and archivist David Pierce, who helped conduct the two-year study, told ABC News:
It’s a lost style of storytelling, and the best of the films are as effective with audiences today as they were when they were initially released. When you take away dialogue from a narrative story, it actually puts quite a challenge upon the creative people involved to tell the story entirely in a visual fashion. And it’s that limitation, I think, which makes the films so effective.
The Library’s next step is to look into both preservation groups overseas and private collections in the hopes of recovering some of the missing titles. Although judging by what we’ve found so far, we wouldn’t suggest holding your breath. [The Guardian]