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Lost Silents


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> {quote:title=dougiezerts wrote:}{quote}

> Somebody told me once that as much as 80% of all silent films are considered to be lost. Could this be true? How sad!

 

dougiezerts,

 

 

Sorry to say that this is essentially true. About 75 to 80% of Silent films, and around 50% of all Movies made before 1950, are considered to be Lost! Our Motion Picture heritage in general has been decimated, and only exist's in fragmentary form. Who knows how many Mastepieces are gone forever?

 

What's worse, much of what still survives is slowly turning to dust! Way to many films, even important titles have not been properly restored, droves of them are rarely ever seen, and than only for the ocassional live screening. Universal, Paramount, Fox, and even Warner's continues to sit on much of it's surviving Silent film library. In addition to Warner Brother's titles, that includes Metro, MGM, and First National titles.

 

I am of the opinion that many, many so called "lost films" do indeed still exist, but it is a race against time to get to them before they are beyond reproach. The longer these films sit around in vaults, the damage will eventually become irreversible.

 

George Eastman House spent over $80,000 in 2006 restoring Colleen Moore's HER WILD OAT (First National, 1927), which was paid for by Warner's I believe? Particularly costly as the title-cards were in Czech, and had to be translated, and redone, back in English. But when you compare this to the umpteen million dollars that it cost to make just an average Hollywood movie today, that amount is very, very miniscule indeed! I mean for the price of one even modestly budgeted big studio release made today, probably 50 or 60 vintage movies still on Nitrate stock, could be salvaged and even restored, maybe more? Think about it!

 

Here is an interesting interview with UCLA's Bob Gitt. Robert Gitt is the preservation officer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Gitt's restoration of the dark 1955 classic, The Night of the Hunter, won him worldwide acclaim. In New Delhi recently, he spoke with Avijit Ghosh on the art of restoring films:

 

What is film restoration?

 

Film archives around the world are taking a number of steps to preserve films. One is conservation, which is simply taking care of old films, storing them in vaults with temperature and humidity control to make the celluloid last as long as possible. Then there is preservation that usually implies taking the reels on flammable nitrate film stock and transferring them to the more stable modern polyester film stock.

 

Film restoration is a more complicated form of preservation where you try to find missing scenes from a film because they were censored or because the studio went against the director's wishes and took some things out. You find them and put these things back in. It also involves fixing up a film. May be the colour has faded or the sound has become noisy because of scratches and wear and tear. One has to rid the film of all that. It takes a lot of time and effort.

 

Has digital technology improved the quality of film preservation?

 

Digital technology is wonderful in removing scratches and dirt particles. But you can also misuse the technology by changing the image in subtle and major ways. You can make certain colours appear brighter over others. You can bring details out of the shadows. It sounds like a good thing to do but it isn't supposed to happen. The scary thing about digital technology is it either works or doesn't. In the old analog film, you get warning signs. The film first begins to smell, then it begins to change colour. You know it is deteriorating and work on it. With digital everything is fine till one day it goes blank and you cannot play it anymore.

 

Is film restoration a costly exercise?

 

Yes. Using digital technology for restoration is even costlier. A black and white feature film that is about 90-120 minutes long will cost $30,000-$40,000 to restore. A technicolour film would cost between $1,00,000 and $1,50,000. Digital work could vary from $2,00,000 to a million dollars depending on the complications.

 

At the UCLA film archives, over the last 20 years, we have preserved about 350 feature films and hundreds of newsreels and animated films. My favourite is Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter . Laughton spent looking at D W Griffith's silent films before he made it. It is an unusual nightmarish film with beautiful dark cinematography. It is a very expressionist film.

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Dougie,

 

Vault fires are one of the reasons that much of our cinematic history has been lost. Another factor is that before the advent of television and Home Video, the studios didn't understand or believe that their Film Libraries had worth.

 

1914: Lubin fire in Philadelphia destroys Oliver Hardy?s film debut as well as footage of McKinley?s ambulance leaving the Expo after he was shot. Also lost in this fire Hobart Bosworth?s version of *The Sea Wolf* .

 

1914- Los Angeles: The lab shared by Keystone and Ince Films has a fire destroying films.

 

1915- Edison?s vault may have had a fire.

 

1924 Universal (East Coast)Vault Fire includes negatives to Universal films 1913-1924

 

1933 Warner Bros/First National Vault Fire destroys most of 1928-1930 Vitaphone talkies

 

1937- 20th Century-Fox (NJ)- Negatives for most of , if not all, pre-1935 Fox films destroyed. Big problem was that original negatives and fine grain masters were stored in the same vault.

*Cleopatra* starring Theda Bara is lost, so is *Way Down East* as well as films starring William Farnum, Harry Carey and Tom Mix are lost. Also films from companies such as Educational Pictures, World-Wide that Fox sub-distributed for are lost.

 

1940s- Museum of Modern Art suffers four major vault fires one which is said to have wiped out 2/3rds of the collection including Hans Richter?s hand painted color animation *Rhythmus 25* .

 

1943- Harold Lloyd?s personal vault has a fire. Losses include the Lonesome Luke series and the original camera negative of *Safety Last!*

 

c. 1950s- RKO has a major vault fire that results in the loss of *Citizen Kane* . Other RKO titles believed lost include *Case of the Sgt, Grischa, Freckles, Laddie,Leathernecking, The Monkey?s Paw, West of the Pecos, White Shoulders, Hit the Deck* (soundtrack only survives) and *Runaround* .

 

1959 the Cinematheque Francaise has a vault fire that destroys films including Von Stroheim?s *The Honeymoon* .

 

1961: 20th Century Fox?s New Jersey vault has a fire where the explosion could be heard for three miles. Lost films include most of Theda Bara?s work.

 

1965: MGM has a vault explosion and fire that destroys the entire contents. Films include *A Blind Bargain?* *The Divine Woman* and *London After Midnight* .

 

1967 National Film Board of Canada Vault Fire

 

1993- Henderson Film Lab Fire in London. Destroys the original negatives of Satyajit?s Ray?s Apu Trilogy as well as Ealing Studios Comedies.

 

Also at some point, George Eastman House had a vault fire that destroyed part of their collection.

 

Non fire destruction

1948: Universal decides to toss out all of its silent library that it still has vaulted. By this time only a few hundred titles remain from the 5,000 films the studio produced prior to converting to talkies. The films, as well as screen tests and trailers, are destroyed to recover their silver content.

 

Decomposition has destroyed many films.

 

Paramount produced some 1200 silents and by the late 1960s only about 250 survived.

 

Fox produced about 1200 silents and only about 120 are thought to still survive.

 

Warner Brothers silent library is just as depressing.

 

MGM silents from 1924-1929 seem to have had the best survival rate.

 

It is believed that less than 20 of 1917-1922 Goldwyn silents survive.

 

Frances Goldwyn ordered all of the post -1922 Goldwyn films destroyed (except the *Winning of Barbara Worth* because it starred Gary Cooper) because she believed they had no value. About that same amount of Metros pre-merge silents survive.

 

Roger Mayer went to work at MGM in the early 1960s and continued the preservation work begun by Louis Mayer of transferring their films to safety stock and insuring back up copies are being made. He can?t work fast enough to stave off decomposition.

 

Only about 24% of silents are said to still survive.

 

Message was edited by: lzcutter

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Lynn,

 

Hey, I knew that Sid Terror, did not have the correct year of the MGM vault fire.

 

By the way, In the Greenacers Lloyd Estate fire the original domestic negative to THE FRESHMAN was also destroyed. However, in the late 1990's the 2nd Camera European Negative to THE FRESHMAN, the film was released overseas as "COLLEGE DAYS" was miraculously found, and used as the basis for the 2001-2002 restoration that was released on DVD by New-Line Entertainment Home Video in the Fall of 2005 in the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection Box set.

 

Incidentally, New-Line Home Video no longer exists. It since been absorbed into Warner Brothers, but the Lloyd box-set is still in print, thank goodness.

 

Somewhere down the line the Camera Negative to Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS was also lost. That is why the film just doesn't look as good as most of Chaplin's other features do today.

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  • 3 weeks later...

One of the largest threats to film has not been vault fires so much as copyright control. If a studio can keep these, it can stop anyone from preserving a film. Notice how films that fell out of copyright a long time ago, for instance, most UA titles, have been with us all along. They were always available from Tarbox, or Blackhawk for film collectors, and shown on TV or revival Theatre rentals from Paul Killiam at mid-century. Short subjects, at least the talkies produced by Educational, or the cartoons produced by VanBuren studios, are safe and sound and have always had a lot of currency since they went Public Domain.

Meanwhile the treasures of the big studios were left to rot or burn or even get tossed in garbage because far more effort was spend _preventing_ new prints from being made of their films than any effort to preserving them. To a big studio, old films, especially silents, only really had value for thier titles and/or their screenplays, which could be reused or sold for new films. The actual old negatives and prints didn't have much value at all. When shelf space became short, dump the old junk. You only need clear title to them for them to remain legal property, and a file cabinet full of copyright documents in much tidier than a warehouse full of film reels.

At the same time, if say by some stroke of luck you found a complete, perfect print of The Devil's Passkey. You couldn't show it, or made copies from it, lest the studio sue you and make you quit, and took it away from you. This was known as fighting "Film Piracy". Who cares about that it's a lost film, or that it's artistic or good at all, or even that it's title, story or revival possibilities were all small-change trifles at that point; nobody was going to make a nickel off their property, even if thousands of dollars were spent to stop you. So they weren't interested in preserving their films, and this control-mad behavior helped discourage anyone else doing it, either. It still holds- where are all the Universal features and talkie shorts right this minute? Under lock and key, turning to dust in the dark.

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Factotum,

 

 

I agree that the copyright laws are ignorant and stupid, and all films over 75 years old should be in the Public Domain as we speak. The problem with this is, undoubtedly you will end up with allot of poor telecine transfers, and sub-par prints of many of the movies.

 

Take a look at Grapevine Pirated prints of Paramount Silent's like James Cruze THE PONY EXPRESS, and Muritz Stiller's HOTEL IMPERIAL. Very sad to see these films unnecessarily degraded to this degree in terms of technical quality, when it doesn't have to be that way. According to Kevin Brownlow very good prints of both of those movies still exist.

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That may be so, and god bless whoever can maintain a good print. But why be a snob about it? If a film is only available in secondary quality, then see it in secondary quality. We've all put up with it when none better were available.....I was looking at a kinescope of The Thief of Bahgdad on "Silents, Please" (1961) a few weeks ago. It is utterly horrible, looking like a scratched up, dupey, played-a-thousand times, 8mm print from Hell. Yet it was good enough to be broadcast on the ABC network in prime time then. Now it would intolerable anywhere.

But if we want to see films, we should take them as they come, because if there's a rare title or one you might enjoy, see it. Life's too short to wait for perfect prints, restored with long lists of contributors and huge money grants, and brass bands. You'll never see half of them then.

If they put all the rare films on telecine and gave the public access to them, it would be wonderful. It would be democratic, and engage Americans with a chance to become familiar, certainly far more familiar with that time and it's forgotten pleasures. We could get familiar with once great stars and stories again. it's not like there's nothing left; there's lots of silent films but they are closed off from us precisely because they have to go through a long formal process of high powered funding and paying institutional fees, salaries, and egos, until a chosen film is restored and in the end, perhaps much more significance for it is implied than it had in it's time.

And how many other flicks just powder away because they weren't chosen? If cheapie telecines had been made, at least you could see them still, and that's what movies are supposed to be for; for seeing.

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