The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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December 5, 2013

Most U.S. silent films have been lost

WASHINGTON (AP) — The vast majority of feature-length silent films made in America have been lost due to decay and neglect over the past 100 years, allowing an original 20th century art form to all but disappear, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Library of Congress conducted the first comprehensive survey of silent films over the past two years and found 70 percent are believed to be lost. Of the nearly 11,000 silent feature films made in America between 1912 and 1930, the survey found only 14 percent still exist in their original format. About 11 percent of the films that survive only exist as foreign versions or on lower-quality formats.

During the rise of silent films between 1912 and 1929 — before network radio or television — going to the movies became the most popular form of entertainment. Movie theater attendance in United States averaged 46 million admissions per week in the 1920s in a country of 116 million people, according to the report.

Historian and archivist David Pierce, who conducted the study for the library, said few defunct art forms have the resonance of silent films.

“It’s a lost style of storytelling, and the best of the films are as effective with audiences today as they were when they were initially released,” he said. “When you take away dialogue from a narrative story, it actually puts quite a challenge upon the creative people involved to tell the story entirely in a visual fashion. And it’s that limitation, I think, which makes the films so effective.”

Notable films now considered lost include “Cleopatra” from 1917, “The Great Gatsby” from 1926, Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” from 1927 and “The Patriot” from 1928.

Films featuring early stars, including Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford still exist. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Library of Congress and other archives have been preserving early films for decades. But the study notes that for every classic that survives, a half dozen have been lost.

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