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A lost film is a feature film or short film that is no longer known to exist in studio archives, private collections or public archives such as the Library of Congress, where at least one copy of all American films are deposited and catalogued for copyright reasons. Of American silent films far more have been lost than have survived, and of American sound films made from 1927 to 1950, perhaps half have been lost. The phrase "lost film" can also be used in a literal sense for instances where footage of deleted scenes, unedited and alternative versions of feature films are known to have been created but can no longer be accounted for. Sometimes a copy of a lost film is rediscovered. A film that has not been recovered in its entirety is called a partially lost film. For example, the 1922 film Sherlock Holmes was eventually discovered but some of the footage is still missing. Quite often a lost film of a major (i.e. Hollywood) production studio may have still photographs, shot at the time of production, often on glass negative. Glass negatives, if properly maintained, can last indefinitely, preserving image fidelity.
Most lost films are from the silent film and early talkie era, from about 1894 to 1930. Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that over 90 percent of American films made before 1929 are lost.
Many early motion pictures are lost because the nitrate film used in that era was combustable and autoignited. Fires have destroyed entire archives of films; for example, a storage vault fire in 1937 destroyed all of the original negatives of Fox Pictures' pre-1935 movies. Nitrate film is also chemically unstable and over time can decay rapidly if not preserved in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage. Films with a nitrate base are often preserved by being copied to safety film or digitized, though both methods result in some loss of quality.
Eastman Kodak introduced a nonflammable 35 mm film stock in spring 1909. However, the plasticizers used to make the film flexible evaporated too quickly, making the film dry and brittle, causing splices to part and perforations to tear. By 1911 the major American film studios were back to using nitrate stock. "Safety film" was relegated to sub-35 mm formats such as 16 mm and 8 mm until improvements were made in the late 1940s.
The largest cause of silent film loss was intentional destruction, as silent films were perceived as having little or no commercial value after the end of the silent era by 1930. Film preservationist Robert A. Harris has said, "Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house."
Many early talkies from Warner Bros. and First National were lost because they used a sound-on-disk process, with separate soundtracks on special phonograph records. These records were often lost or damaged, thereby making the reel a "mute print", and virtually useless for showing. It was not until 1930 that those studios converted to a sound-on-film process.
Before the eras of television and later home video, films were viewed as having little future value when their theatrical runs ended. Thus, again, many were deliberately destroyed to save the space and cost of storage; many were recycled for their silver content. Many Technicolor two-color negatives from the 1920s and 1930s were thrown out when the studios refused to reclaim their films, still being held by Technicolor in its vaults. Some prints were sold either intact or broken into short clips to individuals who bought early novelty home projection machines and wanted scenes from their favorite movies to play for guests or family members.
As a consequence of this widespread lack of care, the work of many early filmmakers and performers has made its way to the present in fragmentary form. In the case of Theda Bara, who was one of the best-known actresses of the early silent era: of the 40 films she made, only three and a half are now known to exist. However, this was still better than the fate of Valeska Suratt, not one of whose films survives. Likewise stage actresses such as Pauline Frederick and Elsie Ferguson who made the jump to silent films and became more popular have large caches of lost films. Frederick has about seven films that survive from the years 1915-1928 and Ferguson has one from 1919 that survives from her entire silent career 1917-1925. More typical is the case of Clara Bow: of her 57 movies, 20 are completely lost and five more are incomplete.
There are occasional exceptions. Almost all of Charlie Chaplin's films from his entire career have survived as well as extensive amounts of unused footage dating back to 1916. The exceptions are A Woman of the Sea (which he destroyed himself as a tax writeoff) and one of his early Keystone films, Her Friend the Bandit (see Unknown Chaplin). The filmography of D.W. Griffith is nearly complete as many of his early Biograph films were deposited by the company in paper print form at the Library of Congress. Much of Griffith's feature film work, of the 1910s and 1920s, found their way to the film collection at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s and were preserved under the auspices of curator Iris Barry. Mary Pickford's filmography is very much complete being that her early years were spent with Griffith and especially films produced later after she gained control of her own productions in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She also backtracked to as many of her Zukor controlled early Famous Players films that were salvageable. Stars like Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks enjoyed stupendous popularity and their films were reissued over and over throughout the silent era, meaning prints of their films were likely to surface decades later. Pickford, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Cecil B. DeMille were early champions of film preservation. Lloyd lost a good deal of his silent work in a vault fire in the early 1940s.
Another remarkable case was the 1919 German film Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern), starring Conrad Veidt. A striking plea for tolerance for homosexuality, produced in collaboration with Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, it was targeted for destruction by the Nazis, with many prints of the film burned as decadent. However, a 50-minute fragment survived the censorship attempt.
An improved 35 mm safety film was introduced in 1949. Since safety film is much more stable than nitrate film, there are comparatively few lost films after about 1950. However, color fading of certain color stocks and vinegar syndrome threaten the preservation of films made since about this time.
Most mainstream movies from the 1950s onwards survive today, but several early pornographic films and some B-Movies are lost. In most cases these obscure films go unnoticed and unknown, but some films by noted cult directors have been lost as well:
Some films produced in 1926–1930 in sound-on-disc systems such as Vitaphone, where the sound discs are separate from the film element, are now considered lost because the sound discs were damaged or destroyed, while the picture element was not. Conversely, some Vitaphone films survive only as sound, with the film missing (such as 1930's The Man from Blankley's, starring John Barrymore).
Many stereophonic soundtracks from the early-to-mid 1950s that were either played in interlock on a 35 mm fullcoat magnetic reel or single-strip magnetic film (such as Fox's four-track magnetic, which became the standard of mag stereophonic sound) are now lost. Films such as House of Wax, The Caddy, The War of the Worlds, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and From Here to Eternity that were originally available with 3-track, magnetic sound are now available only with a monophonic optical soundtrack. The chemistry behind adhering magnetic particles to the tri-acetate film base eventually caused the autocatalytic breakdown of the film (vinegar syndrome). As long as studios had a monaural optical negative that could be printed, studio executives felt no need to preserve the stereophonic versions of the soundtracks.
Occasionally, prints of films considered lost have been rediscovered. An example is the 1910 version of Frankenstein which was believed lost for decades until the existence of a print (which had been in the hands of an unwitting collector for years) was discovered in the 1970s. A print of Richard III (1912) was found in 1996 and restored by the American Film Institute.
Beyond the Rocks (1922) with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino was considered a lost film for several decades. Swanson lamented the loss of this and other films in her 1980 memoirs, but optimistically concluded, "I do not believe these films are gone forever". In 2000, a print was found in the Netherlands and restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum and the Haghefilm Conservation. It turned up among about 2000 rusty film canisters donated by an eccentric Dutch collector, Joop van Liempd, of Haarlem. It was given its first modern screening in 2005, and has since been aired on Turner Classic Movies.
In the early 2000s, the 1927 German film Metropolis—which had been distributed in many different edits over the years—was restored to as close to the original version as possible by reinstating edited footage and using computer technology to repair damaged footage. At that point, however, approximately a quarter of the original film footage was considered lost, according to Kino Video's DVD release of the restored film. On July 1, 2008 Berlin film experts announced that a copy of the film had been discovered in the archives of the film museum Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which contained all but one of the scenes still missing from the 2002 restoration. The film now has been restored very close to its premiere version.
In 2010, digital copies of ten early American films were presented to the Library of Congress by the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, the first film installment from the Russian state archives to be repatriated.
Television material existing on film has sometimes been recovered. The 1951 pilot of I Love Lucy was long believed lost, but in 1990 the widow of one of the actors, Pepito Pérez (who played Pepito the Clown), found a copy. It has since been shown on television. Sometimes a film believed lost in its original state has been restored, either through the process of colorization, or other restoration methods. The Cage, the original 1964 pilot film for Star Trek, survived only in a black-and-white print until 1987, when a film archivist found an unmarked (mute) 35mm reel in a Hollywood film laboratory with the negative trims of the unused scenes.
Similarly, a number of videotaped television programmes, previously thought lost (see wiping) have been recovered as overseas Kinescope film prints from private collectors and various other sources over the years.
Several films have been made with lost film fragments incorporated into the work. Decasia (2002) used nothing but decaying film footage as an abstract tone poem of light and darkness, much like Peter Delpeut's more historical Lyrisch Nitraat (Lyrical Nitrate, 1990) which contained only footage from canisters found stored in an Amsterdam cinema. In 1993, Delpeut released The Forbidden Quest, combining early film footage and archival photographs with new material to tell the fictional story of an ill-fated Antarctic expedition.
The Universal Pictures feature film The Cat Creeps (1930) is a lost film with the only now-extant footage included in a Universal short film called Boo! (1932). UCLA still has a copy of the soundtrack. The Fox Film Corporation feature Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) only exists in a trailer made to promote the film, and in a Spanish language version Eran Trece (There were thirteen [people]).
The James Cagney film Winner Take All (1932) used scenes from the early talkie Queen of the Night Clubs (1929) starring Texas Guinan. While Queen of the Night Clubs was not a lost film in 1932, no prints of the film have survived through the decades since then. But the Cagney movie still is extant along with the selected footage taken from Queen of the Night Clubs.
Actress turned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper made her screen debut in a Fox Film called Battle of Hearts (1916). The star of the film was William Farnum, then at the beginning of his long Fox contract. 26 years later in 1942 Hopper produced her documentary series Hedda Hopper's Hollywood #2. In the documentary, Hopper, Farnum, her son William Hopper, and Hopper's wife Jane Gilbert view portions of Battle of Hearts. These brief portions of that movie survive within the Hopper documentary. More than likely Hopper had an entire print of the movie in 1942. However, like many early Fox films, Battle of Hearts is now lost or missing.