LC Report – The Survival of American Silent Feature Films

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on December 22, 2013

“The Library of Congress unveiled  The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929, by David Pierce, the first comprehensive survey of American feature films that survived the silent era of motion pictures. Previous documentation established that nearly 11,000 (10,919) silent feature films of American origin were released from 1912 through 1929. There was, however, no definitive, systematic study on how many of these films still existed and where any surviving elements were located in the world’s leading film archives and private collections. The groundbreaking study reveals some startling facts about America’s endangered silent-film heritage. Only 14 percent—about 1,575 titles—of the feature films produced and distributed domestically from 1912-1929 exist in their original format. Five percent of those that survived in their original 35 mm format are incomplete. Eleven percent of the films that are complete only exist as foreign versions or in lower-quality formats.

“The Library of Congress can now authoritatively report that the loss of American silent-era feature films constitutes an alarming and irretrievable loss to our nation’s cultural record,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “We have lost most of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century.”

Commissioned by the NFPB, the study was written by historian-archivist David Pierce and published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). It is one of several congressionally mandated studies of the nation’s cinematic and recorded sound patrimony. The report is available as a free download at the NFPB’s website as well as CLIR’s website. As part of the research for the study, Pierce prepared a valuable inventory database of information on archival, commercial and private holdings—who has custody of the films, how complete they are, the films’ formats and where the best surviving copies can be found. The report concludes that the existence of the database will allow the repatriation of lost American movies. Films initially thought lost have been found—and subsequently repatriated—in Australia, New Zealand, France and many other countries.” 

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