London After Midnight
Credit: Everett Collection

Seventy percent of America’s silent films from 1912-29, an era that established Hollywood and American cinema as a lucrative and prominent art form, are gone forever. A new study commissioned by the National Film Preservation Board and unveiled by the Library of Congress revealed that of the nearly 11,000 silent feature films released during that period, only 30 percent are still in existence — and more than half of those are incomplete or remain only in foreign versions or in lower-quality formats, like 28 mm or 16 mm.

“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.”

In the last 80 years, thousands of films — some of them classics — have been lost due to chemical decay, fire, lack of commercial value, and the cost of storage. Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927, pictured above), The Patriot (1928), Cleopatra (1917), and The Great Gatsby (1926) are a few of the casualties, and only five of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features still exist.

The study highlights on ongoing effort to locate and preserve copies of American silent films in any form, and the study notes that more than a quarter of the existing films had been found in other countries.

“This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” said Martin Scorsese. “Any time a silent picture by some miracle turns up, it reminds us of the treasures we’ve already lost. It also gives us hope that others may be discovered. The research presented in this report serves as a road map to finding silent films we once thought were gone forever and encourages creative partnerships between archives and the film industry to save silent cinema.”

Visit the Library of Congress site to read more about the study.