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While movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will undoubtedly live on forever in more formats that I can imagine, a huge chunk of cinema’s earliest masterpieces are forever lost, and the damage is probably worse than you think. The Library of Congress has released a study authored by archivist and film historian David Pierce that revealed only around 14% of the 10,919 U.S.-produced silent films still exist in their original 35mm format, while another 11% have lived on in lesser formats or in foreign versions. Three-quarters of a modern artform’s entire output, lost after the artform itself became mostly obsolete.
Multiple goals were tied into this study. One, of course, was to catalog the individual surviving films and where they are in the world right now into an easy-to-use database. The second purpose, the success of which we will be able to tell in time, is a call to arms to international collectors to build a collaborative network that would allow silent films to be repatriated before the number of lost films increases. That seems a bit ballsy for a hypothetical intention, considering the U.S. released a large number of the films that remain intact, but the handful of other suggestions the study mentions have much likelier outcomes.
Taking another tact, the study suggests studios and rights holders should work together to attain master prints of certain unique movies. Noting the unexplored reserve of 432 16mm silent films, the study advises U.S. archives and collectors to identify and jot down all of the remaining relics that only survive in small-gauge formats. Public and scholarly communities are also encouraged to offer up their private collections to be identified, which would probably be where the most interesting artifacts would come from. Surely somebody out there has a barrel or two full of burlesque and snuff that no more than three people have ever laid eyes on.
The Library of Congress’ James H. Billington has been working for years to get the U.S.’ films back in the country, and lucked out a few years ago when the Russian archive Gosfilmofond gifted the Library ten digitally preserved copies of U.S. films once thought to have fallen out of existence - including Victor Fleming’s The Call of the Canyon from 1923.
The study, which Hugo’s Martin Scorsese called "invaluable" according to Variety, sums the somewhat depressing state of affairs quite eloquently.
"The silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternative form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed. Few art forms emerged as quickly, came to an end as suddenly, or vanished more completely than the silent film."
Considering The Artist was a recent Best Picture, silent film is still breathing and critically beloved, so here’s hoping a fair amount of good comes of the study. And now, while the sun is still out, here are two of the creepiest silent films to ever burn themselves into one’s retinas: George Melies’ The Haunted Castle and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.