Back in the good old days, films were so good they got lost and disappeared forever. Them were the days!
Take Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). The silent mystery horror filmed starred Lon Chaney (1883-1930) but is now gone. Forever. Only some production photographs remain of its shoot.
And this is pretty much the norm across lost films—scant production still pictures, the odd bit of marketing material, but little else. No film! In fact, Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation claims 90% of films made before 1929 are permanently lost.
What’s going on here, then? Is it just incompetent archiving or something else!? Let’s have an explore.
The Greatest Lost Films in History
One of the reasons old cinema is so important, and fascinating, is it’s a window into the past. We see people now long gone revelling in the moment, locked in the timeframe of their era.
Like with the young lady above in 1906. That’s a colourised portion from a French short called Le Petit Déjeuner des Chats.
Unfortunately, a huge proportion of early cinematic efforts are forever gone. It’s a huge shame, and there’s a lingering hope some may gradually reappear over time, as these creatives were pioneers.
And that may well happen, with some anyway, as the BFI recently was able to find early technicolour films from the 1920s.
The list of lost films is as tantalising as it is vast.
Seriously, we can only scratch at the surface in this feature. To dig deep into it and unearth (or solve) many mysteries you’d need a full novel with total investigative journalist commitment (yes, we’re being lazy as we don’t have time for that).
For this feature we were trying to work exactly how many films from the silent era were lost. The reality is its hundreds upon hundreds (probably thousands).
Why? The main problem was early films were made using nitrate film. This is prone to decay and, to complement that problem, is enormously flammable (it can even spontaneously combust).
However, film archives were poorly kept and multiple devastating fires led to the en masse loss of many in one catastrophic event.
Other issues that created lost films included:
- Intentional destruction, as studios felt after an initial screening run the films had no future purpose.
- Destruction of silent era films as they were believed to be useless once audio arrived.
- Junking by studios in need of more vault space for newer productions.
- In response to actors ruining their reputation (for example, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s case led to the destruction of his films—even though he was acquitted of murder charges).
This all means the work of prolific, famous actors of their era barely have anything left of their legacy. Take Theda Bara—she starred in 40 silent era films. Only six are left.
Of course, there are notable exceptions. Most of Charlie Chaplin’s films have survived. And Buster Keaton’s slapstick work is largely in place.
You can easily watch The General (1926) online in all its glory.
Yes, then, a big thanks to people who have preserved these films over the years. As effort was made to keep many projects safe and secure. But not enough effort or consideration was placed into preserving everything.
The studios back then clearly weren’t thinking ahead. That now, 100 years later, future generations would want to see these creative efforts.
Notable Lost Films From the Silent Era
The peak of this era of loss was from 1894-1930. And there are so many random examples we can pick from. There are so many we started picking from random lost productions.
One British film, The First Men in the Moon (1919), was adapted from H.G. Wells’ novel. There are some production shots from the film, but nothing else.
The First Men in the Moon was directed by, and starred, South African filmmaker Bruce Gordon. To note, this was the first science-fiction film ever adapted from a sci-fi novel.
That’s a huge loss! As you can see above, the interpretation of aliens back then is what’s helped to set in stone the concept of aliens being sort of -bug like, whilst maintaining some anthropomorphic qualities.
Another lost film we randomly picked was a 1915 US production of Anna Karenina.
Directed by J. Gordon Edwards and starring Betty Nansen, the only thing left of it are a few production notes and this newspaper ad promoting it.
This all seems remarkable now. All that time and money put into these things and there’s nothing to show for it. Actors learning their lines, crew getting the set together—all for little historical record.
One of the great joys of cinema is how it transcends time. We can watch films from the 1940s, 1950s and you’re brought into the era.
The above two are a bit more obscure. But one of the most famous lost films is from one of cinema’s horror auteurs. Whilst other big stars like Chaplin and Keaton avoided major losses, one Alfred Hitchcock did not.
The Mountain Eagle (1926) was a silent drama. It was filmed in the Austrian village of Obergurgl and had quite a lavish set. Here’s Hitchcock and the crew at work.
There are a few production stills of on set actors, lots of newspaper clippings for its screening runs, and lobby cards such as this.
Yet the film is lost. 24 new production stills were found in 2012 and there’s still hope to find the The Mountain Eagle—it’s often classed as The Most Wanted Film in the World and tops the British Film Institute’s Most Wanted list.
French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was a pioneering director. He was also a magician and somehow magicked up some 592 films from 1896-1912 across a huge range of genres. Around 200 of these films are intact.
One of his many lost films is Watering the Flowers (1896), a short comedy film. Just as a random example. But, dang, we’d love to see that.
There is a small chance some of these may see the light of day again.
Canisters holding old film will be laying around in dusty warehouses all over the US (and elsewhere). Restoration projects may be able to restore these historic relics. The first task, though, is for someone to stumble across them and realise what they’ve found.
It’s like an archaeological dig. Not for dinosaur bones, but for strips of nitrate film that hold on them magical secrets from the past.
The Sad Story of Valeska Suratt
Lost films mean lost bodies of work for directors, film crew, and actors. Ever heard of Valeska Suratt? No, neither had we.
Suratt (1882-1962) was an American stage and silent film actress famous during her era. However, ALL of the 11 silent films she starred in are gone forever. Why? Primarily due to a massive fire at the 20th Century-Fox studio on July 9th, 1937.
The 11 films she starred in are as follows:
- The Soul of Broadway (1915)
- The Immigrant (1915)
- The Straight Way (1916)
- Jealousy (1916)
- The Victim (1916)
- The New York Peacock (1917)
- She (1917)
- The Slave (1917)
- The Siren (1917)
- Wife Number Two (1917)
- A Rich Man’s Plaything (1917)
The only known footage of Suratt is a home recording from circa 1917, which was recorded by her nephew Richard. Here it is.
Otherwise, all those films… gone! Whether they were any good or not is irrelevant, as it’s a piece of recorded history now lost to time. Frustrating, for sure. These early films are now a fascinating time capsule as much as a piece of entertainment.
As for Suratt, in the clip above she’d have been at the peak of her career and enjoying success. She signed with Fox in 1915 as a “vamp” (femme fatale), basically to star as a mysterious and seductive woman.
Sadly, the second half of her life faltered.
Her career trailed off in the 1920s and she was pretty much left in penury for the rest of her life (whilst also battling a reported gambling problem).
In the 1930s she wrote an autobiography in which she, allegedly, claimed she was the Virgin Mary and, therefore, the mother of God.
Unfortunately, then, she seems to have not been in the best of mental health. Her book wasn’t published and she never revived her career.
All of which leads us to again state it’s a real tragedy this footage is now lost. Some of it was down to lack of forward-thinking or terrible archiving.
But such practices continued deep into the 20th century. The BBC, famously, just destroyed much of its records up until the late ’60s and into the ’70s.
Which reminds us of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project.
Stokes was an obsessive archivist who recorded multiple, looping VHS tapes of various news channels and TV stations—in the end it was over 400,000 hours worth (45 years) of footage.
Whilst it may seem obsessive (to put it mildly) to do so, Stokes’ archives are now being slowly digitised for future generations.
And one thing is for sure—future generations aren’t going to be limited when it comes to records of our what we’ve been up to. If anything, the massive social media oversaturation will leave them sick of the sight of the global class of 2023.
All the same, the records will remain. And the generation 100 years from now will study us to a far greater extent than any other generation has ever been able to. They’ll be able to draw a direct comparison to their era.
And that’s kind of the point of this feature—it’s important for future generations. Live and learn through us, as we can still do (in more limited form) from people of yesteryear.
This is a brilliant post, my dear!
TCM plays silent movies Sunday at midnight. They do a lot of restoration. They have a fair sized archive, in spite of what’s been lost.
My fave is Noir Theatre on Sunday morning ( w/ breakfast in bed)
Eddie Muller has been finding and restoring many of these since 2005. Not all are American films. I’ve seen restored film noirs from Argentina, France, UK, Spain, Portugal and more.
My father in law was a producer and director in early television.
Almost all his shows were destroyed when the CBC cleaned house to make room for the newer programs.
Much has been lost from the silent era. Unfortunately, many are also lost from the 20th century.
Perhaps this digital age will be a better procurer.
Thank you for this post!
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Indeeeed, I picture you being a noir fan. Noir Theatre and a breakfast in bed of ambiguous porridge and a pomegranate, I trust!?
And dang, with your father in law, that just seemed to be the norm. The BBC here just destroyed everything… it’s weird they didn’t think, “Hang on, people in a hundred years might want to see this.” Stuck in the moment!
That’s a job I’d like anyway. Restoring films. There’s one called New York Ninja (a daft B movie) that was shot in 1984 and restored in 2021. Not exactly a GREAT film, but it’s not a historical property.
At least Buster Keaton’s films are still there, anyway. One likes him a lot.