The silent film era from the start of the 20th Century through the end of the 1920s was a rich time in American entertainment. Rich, poor, immigrants new to our nation—they all sought out the new and wondrous moving shadows which looked so clearly like real life. By the mid-teens, the Hollywood studio system and movie companies in Chicago, New York, and parts of New Jersey, as well as Florida and Maine, were churning out thousands of short films and feature-length entertainments for mass consumption.
The movie star system was established and thrived in the silent film era, and names such as Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino, Tom Mix, and William S. Hart graced the marquees of huge movie palaces as well as small-town movie houses. Directors such as Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, D.W. Griffith, and Lois Weber were making movies to remember.
However, one aspect of silent films that has changed dramatically over the years is the life expectancy of a film. In the silent film days, a movie played theatrically in urban centers, towns, and villages. By the time it finished playing theaters, its life was complete. There was no more money to be made because, for the most part, there were no opportunities for profits after the theatrical run. Today, we not only have theaters but cable markets, network TV, streaming, DVD and BluRay, and more. Not then.
So studios either paid to store film materials that were no longer capable of making money—or they destroyed those materials. Negatives and prints of thousands of titles were dumped, and many were accidentally burned due to the flammable quality of early commercial film stock.
How much of the silent film era’s productions were lost? According to a newly published study by film archivist/historian David Pierce, done under the auspices of the Library of Congress, only 14% of almost 11,000 silent films released by major studios survive in their original format, and another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or in lesser-quality materials.
Other films of the period survive in foreign archives, and funds are needed to “repatriate” these titles. The National Film Preservation Board wants to bring in these films to have them archivally preserved within the United States.
Our film heritage doesn’t begin with CASABLANCA, THE WIZARD OF OZ, or GONE WITH THE WIND. Silent films are a full-blown form of entertainment, and some are an art form. There actually are film festivals in the U.S. and in countries of Europe which focus only on the silent film era. With the growth of available film titles at our fingertips via the Internet and DVD, it may be time for film enthusiasts to look further back than they have been doing, and explore the fascinating world of silent films!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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