Forgotten Films: The Loss of Silent Movies

By Kellie LoGrande

This still taken from the United States Motion Picture Corporation’s one-reel comedy “His Neglected Wife” (1919) shows some of the damage that nitrate films can suffer without careful preservation.

You may have seen a few silent films, such as Metropolis or Nosferatu, but the silent films available today are just a small percentage of all the silent films ever made. Today, very few silent films exist, and many of the films which do exist are incomplete. A staggering number of silent films in America are considered to be lost — approximately eighty-three percent. But why are so many of these films unavailable today? It’s all in the materials and preservation.

Today’s films are made from cellulose acetate plastic film, and are distributed via DVD and digital download. Cellulose acetate plastic film, known as “safety film,” replaced its predecessor in the 1950s. Its predecessor? Cellulose nitrate. Cellulose nitrate, or silver nitrate, is the type of film stock upon which silent films were recorded. Nitrate is an unstable film stock, one which can decompose if not stored properly and one which can catch fire easily.

There is one very serious problem with silver nitrate film stock, a problem which led to its replacement in the 1950s: nitrate film stock is highly flammable. Nitrate film is flammable in a perfect state; however, as it ages and decomposes into a brown powder, it progressively becomes more and more flammable. This is why the replacement for nitrate, acetate plastic, is called “safety film.” Nitrate films have been known to easily catch fire, with the fire spreading to other highly flammable films near it; this accounts for the large amount of movie vault fires, and for the loss of the films as a result of those fires.

Decomposition, especially due to improper storage, is the main cause of silent film loss. When nitrate films decompose, the top layer of the film will separate from the base, resulting in missing patches of the film and visual imperfections – some of which can hardly make the film viewable. This is illustrated well in the recently-discovered United Staes Motion Picture Corporation Comedy, His Neglected Wife, where some sections of the film are obscured by large blotches. Even properly storing the film does not guarantee its survival. This is why so many silent films are of poor viewing quality, with issues such as black or white blotches across the screen. The deterioration of nitrate film can also lead to certain parts of a film being unviewable altogether, thus destroying certain scenes. In fact, entire films have been destroyed; this is why most silent films are considered “lost.”

Many of the films of the United States Motion Picture Corporation and the United States Moving Picture Corporation seem to have suffered that final fate, with the acidic nature of the films even destroying parts of the documents — summaries and manuscripts – which accompanied them. While films such as Flesh and Spirit survive, they survive only through the efforts of those who clamor to preserve early film. Flesh and Spirit was transferred onto safety film in 1966 by Andrew Sordoni, and was later transferred by Charles Petrillo, in 2010, into a digital format. Unfortunately, the preservation of other early silent films is often limited by insufficient funds to perform the restoration. With the clock ticking away on the life spans of these films, with the nitrate decomposing more and more, early films cannot wait and, eventually, can be lost with the passage of time.

Information on the preservation of early silent film, including the U. S. Motion Picture Corporation film His Neglected Wife, and information on how you can get involved in the preservation of early silent film can be found on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website: www.filmpreservation.org

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