50 to 90% Of All Films Before 1950 Have Been Lost…

Most lost films are from the silent film and early talkie era, from about 1894 to 1930. Martin Scorsese‘s Film Foundation estimates that over 90 percent of American films made before 1929 are lost, and of American sound films made from 1927 to 1950, perhaps half have been lost.

Blog Note:

In addition to lost movies, it also makes me sad that many educational and corporate training and safety films are lost. That would include driver’s ed films from school, and stuff that you had to watch as a young adult at your first job at some company. I watched many cheezy but awesomely funny training videos at minimum wage jobs that I have had over the years. I can only assume most are lost to history. Are they not Art as well..? Suffer me no more lost art!


Many 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, it can spontaneously combust. Fires have destroyed entire archives of films. For example, a storage vault fire in 1937 destroyed all of the original negatives of Fox Pictures‘ pre-1935 movies. 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 twenty 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. “Safety film” was relegated to sub-35 mm formats such as 16 mm and 8 mm until improvements were made in the late 1940s.

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.”

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 when 16 mm sound-on-film reduction prints of early “talkies” were being made for television use in the 1950s, 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 television and later home video, films were viewed as having little future value when their theatrical runs ended. Thus, again, 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 prints were sold either intact or broken into short clips to individuals who bought early novelty home projection machines and wanted scenes from their favorite movies to play for guests or family members.

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. In the case of Theda Bara, who was one of the best-known actresses of the early silent era: of the 40 films she made, only three and a half are now known to exist. However, this was still better than the fate of Valeska Suratt, not one of whose films survives. Likewise stage actresses such as Pauline Frederick and Elsie Ferguson who made the jump to silent films and became more popular have large caches of lost films. Frederick has about seven films that survive from the years 1915-1928 and Ferguson has one from 1919 that survives from her entire silent career 1917-1925. More typical is the case of Clara Bow: of her 57 movies, 20 are completely lost and five more are incomplete.

There are occasional exceptions. 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 inpaper print form at the Library of Congress. Much of Griffith’s feature film work, 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 BarryMary Pickford‘s filmography is very much complete being that her early years were spent with Griffith and especially films produced later after 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 that were salvageable. Stars like 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. Lloyd lost a good deal of his silent work in a vault fire in the early 1940s.

Another remarkable case was the 1919 German film Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern), starring Conrad Veidt. A striking plea for tolerance forhomosexuality, produced in collaboration with Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, it was targeted for destruction by the Nazis, with many prints of the film burned as decadent. However, a 50-minute fragment survived the censorship attempt.

Further Reading…