As I write, “completed in September 2013, but just generally released today, David Pierce’s report The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929, sponsored by The Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress Washington, D.C., tells a grim tale, though most film historians and archivists have known that the news wouldn’t be good for a long time. But the shock here is how bad it really is. As the report’s introduction by James Billington notes,
‘Pierce’s findings tell us that only 14% of the feature films produced in the United States during the period 1912–1929 survive in the format in which they were originally produced and distributed, i.e., as complete works on 35mm film. Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality such as 16mm and other smaller gauge formats.
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. Even if we could preserve all the silent-era films known to exist today in the U.S. and in foreign film archives—something not yet accomplished—it is certain that we and future generations have already lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the twentieth century’ (vii-viii).
This is the result of a number of factors: the death of the silent film as a commercial art form, and the resultant neglect of the film negatives by the Hollywood studios; nitrate film decomposition, which plagues all films made prior to 1950; but mostly, it’s a ringing indictment of the fact that we simply don’t value our cinematic heritage as much as we should, and now, it’s gone forever. We can’t get it back, no matter what we do. Unless some long forgotten print or dupe negative turns up in a vault somewhere, these films have been consigned by neglect and indifference to perpetual oblivion, and even if such materials do turn up, they will probably be in very poor shape.”