It is a well-known fact that a vast number of movies made before 1929 no longer exist. When the talkies rolled in with the release of The Jazz Singer, the age of the silent film died almost overnight, as did their value, at least in the eyes of the movie studio executives who saw movies only as a commercial commodity. To date, there has not been an exact number attached to the number of silent shorts, features and newsreels that are simply lost to time, but the assessments have been anywhere from 60 to 90 percent.
Now we have a better number to go by. The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 is an exhaustive report by David Pierce that was released this last September. The project was commissioned by the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board, with a scope that was as narrow as it was broad. It covered the entire period in which American silent features were produced, from 1912 to 1929. It did not include foreign-made features, nor did it include the vast number of shorts that were produced, beginning in 1897. Still, within those parameters, the end results are a clear indicator to what we have lost and what we still have.
The seventeen-year period was short, in comparison to the overall stretch of motion picture history. As David Pierce noted, “the era of the American silent feature film lasted from 1912 to 1929, no longer than the period between the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). During that brief span of time, filmmakers established the language of modern cinema, while the motion pictures they created reached the height of artistic sophistication.” To drive home his point, he added that, “the silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternate form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed.”
The findings to the report are sobering, suggesting that of all the American silent features made between 1912 and 1929, only 30 percent are still in existence in one form or another. The figures, as noted by Pierce in the introduction, are as follows:
There is no single number for existing American silent-era feature films, as the surviving copies vary in format and completeness. There are 1,575 titles (14%) surviving as the complete domestic-release version in 35mm. Another 1,174 (11%) are complete, but not the original —they are either a foreign-release version in 35mm or in a 28 or 16mm small-gauge print with less than 35mm image quality. Another 562 titles (5%) are incomplete—missing either a portion of the film or an abridged version. The remaining 70% are believed to be completely lost.
Some studios were better at salvaging their past than others. MGM led the pack, but even their efforts have resulted in a 68 percent survival rate. Other studios, such as Universal, purposely destroyed many of their silents, seeing no value in keeping them. In 1938, Samuel Goldwyn was asked by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library about set destruction on the back lot. Said Goldwyn, “You must realize that I cannot rest on the laurels of the past and cannot release traditions instead of current pictures.”
The report ends with a series of six recommendations:
1. Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives.
2. Collaborate with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.
3. Encourage coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats.
4. Focus increased preservation attention on small-gauge films.
5. Work with other American and foreign film archives to document “unidentified” titles. An aggressive campaign to identify unknown titles could recover important films.
6. Encourage the exhibition and rediscovery of silent feature films among the general public and scholarly community.
The full 73-page report can be downloaded in PDF format from the Library of Congress website:
In addition to the report, David Pierce also created a database of location information on the archival film holdings identified in the course of his research. The database can be accessed at this link: