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Alarming New Report from Library of Congress Says 70 Percent of America's Silent Films Are Lost and Gone Forever

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood December 4, 2013 at 12:46PM

The National Film Preservation Board and Library of Congress have revealed a depressing if perhaps unsurprising new study claiming that 70 percent of America's silent films, dating between 1919 and 1929, are gone forever.
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Lon Chaney's "After Midnight" (1927), one of the thousands of America's lost silent films
Lon Chaney's "After Midnight" (1927), one of the thousands of America's lost silent films

The National Film Preservation Board and Library of Congress have revealed a depressing if perhaps unsurprising new study claiming that 70 percent of America's silent films, dating between 1919 and 1929, are gone forever. Of the 11,000 feature films released in that productive period, only 30 percent still exist, and even half of those are in some incomplete form, or exist only in foreign versions or in lower quality formats (such as 28mm or 16mm).

Reasons for this mass loss of the country's silent films range from chemical decay, fire, perceived lack of value (i.e. not commercial) and high storage costs.

Director, cinephile and Film Foundation head Martin Scorsese, however, was able to pinpoint a bit of hope in these bleak findings, stating:

“This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture. Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost. It also gives us hope that others may be discovered. 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 the film industry to save silent cinema.”

The first step is awareness.

This article is related to: News, Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, News, Silent film


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.