Elegy for Silent Cinema

A report produced by the United States Library of Congress in September 2013 revealed that research had shown that a total of 70% of American silent films are believed to be lost. 11% survive only in foreign release versions or in low image quality copies, while 5% are incomplete. The other 70% are completely lost.


This is partly the result of the nature of the nitrate film stock, which was vulnerable to fire damage and general deterioration; however the industry also had a routine practice of neglecting or even destroying prints and negatives when it suited them. Sometimes, an individual might work to preserve their work; Mary Pickford, the famous silent screen actress, paid for the preservation of her films and so almost all of them have survived for posterity. Luckily, very occasionally new, thought lost, films, come to light; Pickford’s first credited-by-name film, ‘Their First Misunderstanding’ (1911) has only been recently discovered, in a barn. However, similar famous names have had their work lost to posterity; films featuring famous names of the day, as such as Clara Bow, Will Rogers’ and Tom Mix, who was Hollywood’s first cowboy are all believed to be gone.

Those without a clear knowledge of the history of early cinema or indeed a general appreciation of the genre can at least realise, from the perspective of the study of the history of art, storytelling and human culture, a great deal of visual evidence has been lost.
It is generally considered that the silent era lasted from 1894-1929, before silent films were replaced by the development of ‘talkies’ in the last 1920s.

The oldest surviving film was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888, taken of people walking in "Oakwood Streets" garden, entitled Roundhay Garden Scene and lasting a full 2 seconds.
There were a number of early entrepreneurs of filmmaking, including the Frenchman Georges Méliès, who built one of the first film studios in May 1897. When people think about the earliest silent films, they often bring an image of a retro style moon against a black backdrop, which could very well be a reflection of one of Méliès’ most famous films, ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902). This, together with ‘The Impossible Voyage’ (1904), are considered to be some of the earliest surreal films of the science fiction genre. This was a more creative development of use of film, which had in the previous decade been devoted to creating flat, stagey scenes, only a minute or so long, often featuring crowd pleasing slapstick.

In later years, as filmmaking developed, silent films were made of famous stories, such as A Christmas Carol and Pride and Prejudice. Newsreels developed as a key way of providing news to the bourgeoning cinema audience, as cinemas began to be built in America, Britain and France from around 1907. As the silent film era continued, more famous films, starring the likes of Mary Pickford and Tom Mix, began to be shown to large audiences.

As a part of western culture, especially the culture of America, Britain and France between the wars, the approach to cinema, both in terms of what was being made into a film and why, can be viewed by any student of history as vitally important. We need only look at the use of film for propaganda, on both sides of the Second World War, to know that the world was changed by the development of film, in so many ways. Which is why I, for one, feel saddened to know that we have lost such crucial material historical sources.

Guest Author: Martha Stoneham