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Many silent films disappeared

There were 10,919 silent feature American films released from 1912 through 1929. A study was conducted on how many of these films still exist and where any surviving films are located in the world’s film archives and private collections. Only 14 percent— about 1,575 film titles— still exist in their original format. The rest are lost or destroyed. The groundbreaking study by the Library of Congress reveals some startling facts about America’s endangered silent-film heritage.


Watch and Download Classic Silent FIlms

There are some silent films that are in the public domain and can be streamed online or download to a PC or mobile device. Learn more about watching and downloading free movies FAQ. The following links provide access to those films.

Universal Pictures to restore Silent Films, Honoring the Studio's rich history and cultural legacy

Approximately 15 classic titles to be restored over the next four years. Building on its 2012 Centennial celebration, Universal Pictures announced its continued commitment to honor the Studio's rich film history and cultural legacy by restoring some of the world's most classic silent films. During the next four years, the Studio will restore approximately 15 silent film titles from Universal's early years. The complete list of films is still in development in collaboration with outside film historians, institutions, and preservationists. Partners and collaborators in the initiative include the Library of Congress, The Film Foundation, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archives, Association of Moving Image Archivists, and Hollywood Heritage. The announcement was made at the Opening Night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

"The company understands its responsibility and need to preserve our silent film legacy," said Ron Meyer, Vice Chairman, NBCUniversal. "This early art of filmmaking is the foundation on which Universal Pictures was built more than 100 years ago, and it's important we honor our rich history."

The silent film era is best known for instantly recognizable storylines, settings, costumes, and characters. Most early silent films were accompanied by a full-fledged orchestra, organist or pianist to provide musical background and to underscore the narrative on the screen. Some even included live actors or narrators. The major genre emphasis was on swashbucklers, historical extravaganzas, and melodramas, although all kinds of films were being produced throughout the decade.

According to a report released by the Library of Congress, 70 percent of the nation's silent feature films have been completely lost. Universal's restoration team will work with archives and collectors worldwide to secure copies of prints and additional elements needed to complete this restoration effort and augment the silent film titles currently in its library.

Universal Pictures silent film restoration initiative builds on the company's ongoing restoration commitment. Since the program was first announced in 2012, nearly 30 titles have been restored and 25 more titles are expected to be restored by 2017. Fully restored titles to date include All Quiet on the Western Front, The Birds, Buck Privates, Dracula (1931), Dracula Spanish (1931), Frankenstein, Jaws, Schindler's List, Out of Africa, Pillow Talk, Bride of Frankenstein,The Sting, To Kill a Mockingbird, Touch of Evil, Double Indemnity, High Plains Drifter, and Holiday Inn.

Universal Pictures is a unit of NBCUniversal, one of the world's leading media and entertainment companies in the development, production, and marketing of entertainment, news, and information to a global audience. NBCUniversal owns and operates a valuable portfolio of news and entertainment television networks, a premier motion picture company, significant television production operations, a leading television stations group, world-renowned theme parks, and a suite of leading Internet-based businesses. NBCUniversal is a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.

Lost silent films gone forever

Some of the report’s findings:

  • Fourteen percent of the feature films produced domestically from 1912-1929 survived in their original-release 35 mm format. 
  • Eleven percent of the films are complete as foreign versions or on lower-quality formats, such as 28 mm or 16 mm.
  • Five percent are incomplete, either missing a portion of the film or existing only as an abridged version.
  • Of the more 3,300 films that survived in any form, 26 percent were found in other countries.
  • Of the silent films located in foreign countries, 24 percent already have been repatriated to an American archive.
  • The Czech Republic had the largest collection of American silent films found outside the United States.
  • The vulnerability of nitrate film stock to fire and deterioration and the industry’s practice of neglecting or destroying prints and negatives contributed to the loss to the nation’s film heritage.

Among some of the notable films considered lost in their complete form are Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” (1927); “The Patriot” (1928); “ Cleopatra” (1917); “The Great Gatsby” (1926), and all four of Clara Bow’s feature films produced in 1928, including “Ladies of the Mob.”  

Only five of Will Rogers’ 16 silent features survived and 85 percent of features made by Tom Mix—Hollywood’s first cowboy star—are lost.

Silent-screen legend Mary Pickford paid for the preservation of her films, ensuring that most of them survived.  Of her 48 features, eight were lost from the first three years of her career. Pickford’s 1911 short—“Their First Misunderstanding”— was recently discovered in an old barn. It was the first time that she was credited by name in a film.

The Library of Congress unveiled “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” the first comprehensive survey of American feature films that survived the silent era of motion pictures.  

Source: Library of Congress

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