Lost film

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Lon Chaney in London After Midnight (1927), whose last known print was destroyed in the 1965 MGM vault fire. A set of production stills survives. Lon Chaney London After Midnight Vampire Bat Cape.jpg
Lon Chaney in London After Midnight (1927), whose last known print was destroyed in the 1965 MGM vault fire. A set of production stills survives.

A lost film is a feature or short film in which the original negative or copies are not known to exist in any studio archive, private collection, or public archive. [1] Films can be wholly or partially lost for a number of reasons. Early films were not thought to have value beyond their theatrical run, so many were discarded afterward. Nitrate film used in early pictures was highly flammable and susceptible to degradation. The Library of Congress began acquiring copies of American films in 1909, but not all were kept. Due to improvements in film technology and recordkeeping, few films produced in the 1950s or beyond have been lost.


Rarely, but occasionally films classified as lost are found in an uncataloged or miscataloged archive or private collection, becoming "rediscovered films".


During most of the 20th century, U.S. copyright law required at least one copy of every American film to be deposited at the Library of Congress at the time of copyright registration, but the Librarian of Congress was not required to retain those copies: "Under the provisions of the act of March 4, 1909, authority is granted for the return to the claimant of copyright of such copyright deposits as are not required by the Library." [2] A report by Library of Congress film historian and archivist David Pierce estimates that:

Of the American sound films made from 1927 to 1950, an estimated half have been lost. [4]

The phrase "lost film" can also be used 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 considered lost but eventually rediscovered with some of the original footage missing.


Many film studios hired a still photographer to take pictures during production for potential publicity use. [5] Some are produced in quantity for display use by theaters, others in smaller numbers for distribution to newspapers and magazines, and have subsequently preserved imagery from otherwise lost films.

In some cases, such as London After Midnight , the surviving coverage is so extensive that an entire lost film can be reconstructed scene by scene from still photographs. Stills have been used to stand in for missing footage when making new preservation prints of partially lost films: for example, with the Gloria Swanson picture Sadie Thompson .

Reasons for film loss

Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917). Four hundred stills, twenty seconds of the film itself, and the intro are known to have survived. A small loop of the film exists. ThedaBara-Cleopatra.jpg
Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917). Four hundred stills, twenty seconds of the film itself, and the intro are known to have survived. A small loop of the film exists.
The First Men in the Moon (1919), a lost British film, reputedly "the first movie to ever be based entirely on a famous science fiction novel" The First Men in the Moon (1919).jpg
The First Men in the Moon (1919), a lost British film, reputedly "the first movie to ever be based entirely on a famous science fiction novel"

Most lost films originate from the silent film and early talkie era, from about 1894 to 1930. [7] Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates that more than 90% of American films produced before 1929 are lost, [8] and the Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are lost forever. [9]

The largest cause of silent-film loss is intentional destruction. Before the eras of home cinema, television and home video, films were considered to have little future value when their theatrical runs ended. Similarly, silent films were perceived as worthless after the end of the silent era. 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." [10] The studios could earn money by recycling film for its silver content. Many Technicolor two-color negatives from the 1920s and 1930s were discarded when studios simply refused to reclaim their films, still being held by Technicolor in its vaults. Some used prints were sold to scrap dealers and ultimately edited into short segments for use with small, hand-cranked 35 mm movie projectors, which were sold as a toy for showing brief excerpts from Hollywood films at home.

Tenderloin (1928), starring Dolores Costello, the second Vitaphone feature to have talking sequences, is considered a lost film because only its soundtrack is known to have survived. Tenderloin poster.jpg
Tenderloin (1928), starring Dolores Costello, the second Vitaphone feature to have talking sequences, is considered a lost film because only its soundtrack is known to have survived.

Many other early motion pictures are lost because the nitrate film employed for nearly all 35 mm negatives and prints created before 1952 is highly flammable unless carefully conditioned and handled. When in very badly deteriorated condition and improperly stored (such as in a sun-baked shed), nitrate film can spontaneously combust. Fires have destroyed entire archives of films, such as the 1937 storage-vault fire that destroyed all the original negatives of pre-1935 films made by Fox Pictures [11] and the 1965 MGM vault fire that destroyed hundreds of silent films and early talkies, including London After Midnight , now considered among the greatest of all lost films. Eastman Kodak introduced a nonflammable 35 mm film stock in 1909; however, the plasticizers employed to increase the film's flexibility evaporated too quickly, rendering the film dry and brittle and causing splices to separate and perforations to tear. By 1911, the major American film studios had reverted to nitrate stock. [12] "Safety film" was relegated to sub-35 mm formats such as 16 mm and 8 mm until improvements were made in the late 1940s.

Nitrate film is also chemically unstable and over time can decay into a sticky mass or a powder akin to gunpowder. This process can be very unpredictable; some nitrate film from the 1890s is still in good condition, while some much later nitrate film was scrapped as unsalvageable when it was barely 20 years old. Much depends on the environment in which it the film stored. Ideal conditions of low temperature, low humidity and adequate ventilation can preserve nitrate film for centuries, but in practice, storage conditions have usually fallen far below this level. When a film on nitrate base is said to have been "preserved", this almost always means simply that it has been copied onto safety film or, more recently, digitized, but both methods result in some loss of quality.[ citation needed ]

Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), the third Warner Bros. film shot in Technicolor, is a "partially lost film" GoldDiggersBroadway2.jpg
Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), the third Warner Bros. film shot in Technicolor, is a "partially lost film"

Some pre-1931 sound films produced by Warner Bros. and First National have been lost because they used a sound-on-disc system with a separate soundtrack on special phonograph records. In the 1950s, when 16 mm sound-on-film reduction prints of early talkies were produced for television syndication, such films without complete soundtrack discs were at risk of permanent loss. Many sound-on-disc films have survived only by way of these 16 mm prints.

As a consequence of this widespread lack of care, the work of many early filmmakers and performers exists in the present day only in fragmentary form. A high-profile example is the case of Theda Bara, one of the most famous actresses of the early silent era. Bara appeared in 40 films, but only six are now known to exist. Clara Bow was equally celebrated in her heyday, but 20 of her 57 films are completely lost, and another five are incomplete. [13] Once-popular stage actresses who transitioned to silent films, such as Pauline Frederick and Elsie Ferguson, have little left of their film performances. Fewer than ten movies exist from Frederick's work from 1915–1928, and Ferguson has two surviving films, one from 1919 and the other from 1930, her only talkie. All of the film performances of the stage actress and Bara rival Valeska Suratt have been lost. Only three of the films of Fox's William Farnum, an early screen Western star, have survived. Others, such as Francis X. Bushman and William Desmond, accumulated numerous film credits, but films produced in their heyday are missing because of junking, neglect, warfare or the demise of their studios. However, unlike Suratt and Bara, because Bushman and Desmond continued working into the sound era and even on television, their later performances survive.

Films were sometimes destroyed deliberately. In 1921, actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was charged with the murder of actress Virginia Rappe. Following a series of trials, he was ultimately acquitted, but not before his name had become so toxic that studios engaged in the systematic destruction of all films in which he had a starring role. [14] The Charlie Chaplin-produced A Woman of the Sea was destroyed by Chaplin himself as a tax write-off. [15]

John Wayne in the lost Western The Oregon Trail (1936) Oregon trailposter.jpg
John Wayne in the lost Western The Oregon Trail (1936)

In contrast, 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. Many of Griffith's feature-film works of the 1910s and 1920s were added 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 nearly complete. Her early years were spent with Griffith, and she gained control of her own productions in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She had originally intended to destroy these films but later relented. She also recovered as many of her Zukor-controlled early Famous Players films as were salvageable. Likewise, almost all of the films created by Charlie Chaplin have survived, as well as extensive amounts of unused footage dating back to 1916; the exceptions are the aforementioned A Woman of the Sea and one of his early Keystone films, Her Friend the Bandit . Stars such as Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks benefited from their great popularity: because their films were repeatedly reissued throughout the silent era, surviving prints could be found even decades later. Pickford, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Cecil B. DeMille were early champions of film preservation, although Lloyd lost a large number of his silent works to a vault fire in the early 1940s.

In March 2019, the National Film Archive of India reported that 31,000 of its film reels had been lost or destroyed. [16]

Later lost films

An improved 35 mm safety film was introduced in 1949. Since safety film is much more stable than nitrate film, comparatively few films were lost after about 1950. However, color fading of certain color stocks and vinegar syndrome threaten the preservation of films made since that time.

Most mainstream films from the 1950s and later survive today, but several early pornographic films and some B movies are lost. In most cases, these obscure films are unnoticed and unknown, but some films by noted cult directors have been lost as well.

Lost film soundtracks

Some films produced from 1926–31 using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, in which the soundtrack is separate from the film, are now considered lost because the soundtrack discs were lost or destroyed, while the picture elements survive. Conversely, and more commonly, some early sound films survive only as sets of soundtrack discs, with the picture elements completely missing, such as The Man from Blankley's (1930), or surviving only in fragmentary form, such as Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) and The Rogue Song (1930), two highly popular and profitable early musicals in two-color Technicolor.

Many stereophonic soundtracks from the early to mid-1950s that were either played in interlock on a 35 mm full-coat magnetic reel or single-strip magnetic film (such as Fox's four-track magnetic, which became the standard of magnetic stereophonic sound) are now lost. Films such as House of Wax , The Caddy, The War of the Worlds , War and Peace , The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and From Here to Eternity that were initially available with three-track magnetic sound are now available only with monophonic optical soundtracks. The process by which magnetic particles adhere 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.

List of lost films

List of incomplete or partially lost films

This list consists of films for which any footage survives, including trailers and clips reused in other films.

Rediscovered films

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. In 2013, an early Mary Pickford film, Their First Misunderstanding , notable for being the first film in which she was credited by name, was found in a New Hampshire barn and donated to Keene State College. [18]

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 two thousand rusty film canisters donated by Haarlem's eccentric Dutch collector, Joop van Liempd. It was given its first modern screening in 2005 and has since been aired on Turner Classic Movies.

In the early 2000s, the 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. However, at that point, approximately a quarter of the original film footage was considered lost, according to the Kino Video 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 almost all of the scenes still missing from the 2002 restoration. [19] [20] The film now has been restored very close to its premiere version. The restoration process is featured in the documentary Metropolis Refundada .

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. [21]

In 2018, the rediscovered 1898 film Something Good – Negro Kiss was inducted into the National Film Registry. Its portrayal of a warm, loving Black couple stands in stark contrast to the typically racist portrayals of that era. [22]

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) 35 mm reel in a Hollywood film laboratory with the negative trims of the unused scenes. [23]

Stock footage

Several films that would otherwise be entirely lost partially survive as stock footage used for later films.

For example, the Universal Pictures short Boo! (1932) contains the only remaining footage of the Universal feature film The Cat Creeps (1930). However, UCLA still has a copy of the soundtrack. The James Cagney film Winner Take All (1932) used scenes from the early talkie Queen of the Night Clubs (1929), starring Texas Guinan; that footage is all that remains of the earlier film.

Actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper made her screen debut in the Fox Film The Battle of Hearts (1916). Twenty-six years later, in 1942, Hopper produced her short series "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood #2". In the short, Hopper, William Farnum (the film's star), her son William Hopper, and William Hopper's wife Jane Gilbert view brief portions of The Battle of Hearts. More than likely, Hopper had an entire print of the movie in 1942. However, like many early Fox films, The Battle of Hearts is now lost or missing.

One of the best-known of Charlie Chaplin's works, the silent film The Gold Rush (1925), was re-released in 1942 to include a musical track and narration by Chaplin himself. The reissue would end up having the unintentional result of preserving the film, as the original film (though generally not considered a lost film) shows noticeable degradation of image and missing frames, damage not evident in the 1942 version.

The Polish film O czym się nie mówi  [ pl ] (1939) contains three short fragments of Arabella (1917), one of the early films of Pola Negri which were later lost.

In film and television

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 the more historical Lyrical Nitrate (Peter Delpeut, 1991) 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 2016 documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time , about the history of Dawson City, Canada, and the 1978 discovery of previously lost silent films there, incorporates parts of many of those films.

The mockumentary Forgotten Silver , made by Peter Jackson, purports to show recovered footage of early films. Instead, the filmmakers used newly shot film sequences to look like lost films.

In the double feature Grindhouse (2007), both segments— Planet Terror (directed by Robert Rodriguez) and Death Proof (directed by Quentin Tarantino)—have references to missing reels, used as plot devices.

"Cigarette Burns", an episode of the horror anthology series Masters of Horror directed by John Carpenter, deals with the search for a fictional lost film, "La Fin Absolue Du Monde" ("The Absolute End of The World").

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Silent film</span> Film with no synchronized recorded sound

A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound. Though silent films convey narrative and emotion visually, various plot elements or key lines of dialogue may, when necessary, be conveyed by the use of inter-title cards.

<i>Moana</i> (1926 film) 1926 American film

Moana is a 1926 American silent documentary film, or more strictly a work of docufiction, which was directed by Robert J. Flaherty, creator of Nanook of the North (1922).

<i>The Phantom of the Opera</i> (1925 film) 1925 American silent horror film

The Phantom of the Opera is a 1925 American silent horror film adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, directed by Rupert Julian and starring Lon Chaney in the title role of the deformed Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, causing murder and mayhem in an attempt to make the woman he loves a star. The film remains most famous for Chaney's ghastly, self-devised make-up, which was kept a studio secret until the film's premiere. The picture also features Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis and Snitz Edwards. The last surviving cast member was Carla Laemmle (1909-2014), niece of producer Carl Laemmle, who played a small role as a "prima ballerina" in the film when she was about 15 years old. The film was released on September 6, 1925, premiering at the Astor Theatre in New York. The film's final budget was $632,357.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Film preservation</span> Historic preservation of motion pictures

Film preservation, or film restoration, describes a series of ongoing efforts among film historians, archivists, museums, cinematheques, and non-profit organizations to rescue decaying film stock and preserve the images they contain. In the widest sense, preservation assures that a movie will continue to exist in as close to its original form as possible.

<i>Doctor Who</i> missing episodes Currently lost episodes of Doctor Who

Several portions of the long-running British science-fiction television programme Doctor Who are no longer held by the BBC. Between 1967 and 1978, the BBC routinely deleted archive programmes for various practical reasons—lack of space, scarcity of materials, and a lack of rebroadcast rights. As a result, 97 of 253 episodes from the programme's first six years are currently missing, primarily from Seasons 3, 4 and 5, leaving 26 serials incomplete. Many more were considered lost until recovered from various sources, mostly overseas broadcasters.

Preservation of documents, pictures, recordings, digital content, etc., is a major aspect of archival science. It is also an important consideration for people who are creating time capsules, family history, historical documents, scrapbooks and family trees. Common storage media are not permanent, and there are few reliable methods of preserving documents and pictures for the future.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Movietone sound system</span> Sound system for film

The Movietone sound system is an optical sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures that guarantees synchronization between sound and picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film that records the pictures. The initial version was capable of a frequency response of 8500 Hz. Although modern sound films use variable-area tracks instead, modern motion picture theaters can play a Movietone film without modification to the projector. Movietone was one of four motion picture sound systems under development in the U.S. during the 1920s, the others being DeForest Phonofilm, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone, and RCA Photophone, though Phonofilm was principally an early version of Movietone.

<i>The Lost World</i> (1925 film) 1925 silent film by Harry O. Hoyt

The Lost World is a 1925 American silent fantasy giant monster adventure film directed by Harry O. Hoyt and written by Marion Fairfax, adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name.

A film base is a transparent substrate which acts as a support medium for the photosensitive emulsion that lies atop it. Despite the numerous layers and coatings associated with the emulsion layer, the base generally accounts for the vast majority of the thickness of any given film stock. Since the late 19th century, there have been three major types of film base in use: nitrate, acetate, and polyester.

<i>Song of the West</i> 1930 film

Song of the West is a 1930 American Pre-Code musical western film produced by Warner Bros., and photographed entirely in Technicolor. It was based on the 1928 Broadway musical Rainbow by Vincent Youmans (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) and Laurence Stallings (book). It starred John Boles, Joe E. Brown and Vivienne Segal, and was the first all-color all-talking feature to be filmed entirely outdoors.

Blackhawk Films, from the 1950s through the early 1980s, marketed motion pictures on 16mm, 8mm and Super 8 film. Most were vintage one- or two-reel short subjects, usually comedies starring Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and other famous comedy series of the past. Blackhawk also offered newsreels, documentaries, and silent feature films. With the rise of the video market in the early 1980s, Blackhawk began producing video versions of many of their titles in 1981 and within a few years no longer manufactured film copies. The company was later purchased by Republic Pictures in 1985, and the film elements still later by archivist David Shepard.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charlie Chaplin filmography</span>

(Sir) Charlie Chaplin (KBE) (1889–1977) was an English internationally renowned Academy Award-winning actor, comedian, filmmaker and composer who was best known for his career in Hollywood motion pictures from his debut in 1914 until 1952; he however subsequently appeared in two films in his native England. During his early years in the era of silent film, he rose to prominence as a worldwide cinematic idol renowned for his tramp persona. In the 1910s and 1920s, he was considered the most famous person on the planet.

<i>Upstream</i> (film) 1927 film

Upstream is a 1927 American comedy film directed by John Ford. A "backstage drama", the film is about a Shakespearean actor and a woman from a knife-throwing act. The film was considered to be a lost film, but in 2009 a print was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paper print</span> Early motion picture print format

Paper prints of films were an early mechanism to establish the copyright of motion pictures by depositing them with the Library of Congress. Thomas Alva Edison’s company was first to register each frame of motion-picture film onto a positive paper print, in 1893. The Library of Congress processed and cataloged each of the films as one photograph, accepting thousands of paper prints of films over a twenty-year period.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lost television broadcast</span> History of missing television material

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On August 10, 1965, a fire erupted in Vault 7, a storage facility at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio (MGM) backlot in Culver City, California. It was caused by an electrical short that ignited flammable stored nitrate film. The initial explosion reportedly killed at least one person, and the resulting fire destroyed the entire contents of the vault, which included archived prints of silent and early sound films produced by MGM and its predecessors. The only known copies of hundreds of films were destroyed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1937 Fox vault fire</span> Fire at 20th Century-Fox film storage facility in New Jersey

A major fire occurred in a 20th Century-Fox film-storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey, United States on July 9, 1937. Flammable nitrate film had previously contributed to several fires in film-industry laboratories, studios and vaults, although the precise causes were often unknown. In Little Ferry, gases produced by decaying film, combined with high temperatures and inadequate ventilation, resulted in spontaneous combustion.

<i>A Sound Sleeper</i> 1909 American film

A Sound Sleeper is a 1909 American comedy film directed by D. W. Griffith and produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. The short was filmed in one day in the Coytesville borough of Fort Lee, New Jersey, which at the time was a popular filming location for many early motion-picture studios in the northeastern United States. Due to the brief running time of this comedy, it was originally distributed in April 1909 on a split reel with another Biograph release, a longer dramatic film titled The Winning Coat.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1914 Lubin vault fire</span> Destruction of a film-storage vault

On the morning of June 13, 1914, a disastrous fire and a series of related explosions occurred in the main film vault of the Lubin Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Several possible causes for the blaze were cited at the time, one being "spontaneous combustion" of highly flammable nitrate film, which was the motion picture industry's standard medium for cameras throughout the silent era and for the first two decades of "talking pictures". Millions of feet of film were consumed in the flames, including most of the master negatives and initial prints of Lubin's pre-1914 catalog, several of the company's recently completed theatrical prints ready for release and distribution, a considerable number of films produced by other studios, inventories of raw and stock footage, hundreds of reels documenting historic events that occurred between 1897 and early 1914, as well as other films related to notable political and military figures, innovations in medical science, and professional athletic contests from that period. While this fire was not a decisive factor in Lubin's decline and bankruptcy by September 1916, costs associated with the disaster only added to the corporation's mounting debts, which led to the closure or sale of its remaining operations the following year.


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Further reading