Lost film | reasons for film loss

Reasons for film loss

Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917). Four hundred stills and twenty seconds of the film itself are known to have survived. Because a small loop of film exists, Cleopatra in the loose sense could be considered a "partially lost film".
The First Men in the Moon (1919), a lost British film, reputedly "the first movie to ever be based entirely on a famous science fiction novel".[5]

Most lost films are from the silent film and early talkie era, from about 1894 to 1930.[6] Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that more than 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost,[7] and the Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are lost forever.[8]

The largest cause of silent film loss was intentional destruction, as silent films were perceived as having little or no commercial value after the end of the silent era by 1930. Film preservationist Robert A. Harris has said, "Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house."[9]

Many other early motion pictures are lost because the nitrate film used for nearly all 35 mm negatives and prints made before 1952 is highly flammable. When in very badly deteriorated condition and improperly stored (e.g., in a sun-baked shed), nitrate film can and will spontaneously combust. Fires have destroyed entire archives of films. For example, a storage vault fire in 1937 destroyed all the original negatives of Fox Pictures' pre-1935 films.[10] The 1965 MGM vault fire resulted in the loss of hundreds more silent films and early talkies.

Humor Risk (1921), now long-lost, was the first Marx Brothers film. Pictured in a photograph the same year, from (left to right), are Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico.

Nitrate film is chemically unstable and over time can decay into a sticky mass or a powder akin to gunpowder. This process can be very unpredictable: some nitrate film from the 1890s is still in good condition today, while some much later nitrate had to be scrapped as unsalvageable when it was barely 20 years old. Much depends on the environment in which it is stored. Ideal conditions of low temperature, low humidity, and adequate ventilation can preserve nitrate film for centuries, but in practice, the storage conditions were usually far from ideal. When a film on nitrate base is said to have been "preserved", this almost always means simply that it has been copied onto safety film or, more recently, digitized; both methods result in some loss of quality.

Eastman Kodak introduced a nonflammable 35 mm film stock in spring 1909. However, the plasticizers used to make the film flexible evaporated too quickly, making the film dry and brittle, causing splices to part and perforations to tear. By 1911, the major American film studios were back to using nitrate stock.[11] "Safety film" was relegated to sub-35 mm formats such as 16 mm and 8 mm until improvements were made in the late 1940s.

Tenderloin (1928), starring Dolores Costello, was the second Vitaphone feature to have talking sequences. It is considered a lost film because only its soundtrack is known to have survived.

Some pre-1931 sound films made by Warner Bros. and First National have been lost because they used a sound-on-disc system with a separate soundtrack on special phonograph records. If some of a film's soundtrack discs could not be found in the 1950s when 16 mm sound-on-film reduction prints of early "talkies" were being made for inclusion in television syndication packages, that film's chances of survival plummeted: many sound-on-disc films have survived only by way of those 16 mm prints.

Before the eras of sound film, television and later home video, films were viewed as having little future value when their theatrical runs ended. Thus, many were deliberately destroyed to save the space and cost of storage; many were recycled for their silver content. Many Technicolor two-color negatives from the 1920s and 1930s were thrown out when the studios refused to reclaim their films, still being held by Technicolor in its vaults. Some used prints were sold to scrap dealers and ultimately cut up into short segments for use with small, hand-cranked 35 mm movie projectors, which were sold as a toy for showing brief excerpts from Hollywood movies at home.

As a consequence of this widespread lack of care, the work of many early filmmakers and performers has made its way to the present in fragmentary form. A high-profile example is the case of Theda Bara. One of the best-known actresses of the early silent era, she made 40 films, but only six are now known to exist. Clara Bow was equally celebrated in her heyday, but 20 of her 57 films are completely lost, and another five are incomplete.[12] Once-popular stage actresses such as Pauline Frederick and Elsie Ferguson, who made the jump to silent films, are now largely forgotten with a minimal archive to represent their careers; fewer than 10 movies exist from Frederick's 1915–1928 work, and Ferguson has just two surviving films, one from 1919 and her only talkie from 1930.

John Wayne in the lost Western The Oregon Trail (1936)

This is preferable to the fate of the stage actress and Bara rival Valeska Suratt, whose entire film career has been lost. Western hero William Farnum, a Fox player like Bara and Suratt, was one of the screen's big Western actors rivaling the likes of William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Harry Carey. Farnum has about three of his Fox films extant. Other male performers, such as Francis X. Bushman and William Desmond, had numerous film credits, but films made in their heyday are missing due to junking, neglect, or studios being defunct. Nevertheless, unlike Suratt and Bara, these men continued working into the sound era and even into television, thus their later performances can be observed and appreciated.

Occasional exceptions exist; almost all of Charlie Chaplin's films from his entire career have survived, as well as extensive amounts of unused footage dating back to 1916. The exceptions are A Woman of the Sea (which he destroyed himself as a tax writeoff) and one of his early Keystone films, Her Friend the Bandit (see Unknown Chaplin). The filmography of D. W. Griffith is nearly complete, as many of his early Biograph films were deposited by the company in paper print form at the Library of Congress. Many of Griffith's feature-film works of the 1910s and 1920s found their way to the film collection at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s, and were preserved under the auspices of curator Iris Barry. Mary Pickford's filmography is complete: her early years were spent with Griffith, and she gained control of her own productions in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She also backtracked to as many of her Zukor-controlled early Famous Players films as were salvageable. Stars such as Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks enjoyed stupendous popularity, and their films were reissued over and over throughout the silent era, meaning prints of their films were likely to surface decades later. Pickford, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Cecil B. DeMille were early champions of film preservation, though Lloyd lost a good number of his silent works in a vault fire in the early 1940s.

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