Silent films are disappearing at a disturbing rate

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William Haines and Marion Davies in “Show People,” 1928.

William Haines and Marion Davies in “Show People,” 1928.

A new study says 70 percent of American silent movies have been lost due to neglect and decay over the last 100 years, letting an original 20th Century art form all but disappear.

The first comprehensive survey of silent films put together by the Library of Congress has found that of 10,919 silent films released by major studios between 1912 and 1929, only 14 percent still exist in their original format.

“This report is invaluable because the artistry of the silent film is essential to our culture,” Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, an advocate of film preservation, said in a statement.

The study was written by historian and archivist David Pierce, who said that the films were being stored by studios and collectors, but had no commercial value.

“So when the films started to deteriorate, they threw them out,” Pierce said. “When there was the occasional nitrate film fire, because that film stock was flammable, those films were lost for good. And there were only a handful of archives, and one studio, MGM, that invested in the preservation of silent films.”

The study also includes a database identifying the silent-era films known to have survived, and where they are throughout the world.

You can hear more from David Pierce in this conversation with KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis.