Vast Number of Silent Films Lost to History

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Old movies, whether they be the Hollywood classics of the 1940s or your parent's home VHS tapes, keep us rooted to our past. And silent movies are still the earliest cinematic record of our time—even if they have long been surpassed by more exciting forms of theater.

Unfortunately, the Library of Congress has reported that much of that record has been lost to history.

According to the Library of Congress, about 70 percent of the more than 10,000 silent films made between 1912 and 1929 are unaccounted for—many are suspected to have been burned or disintegrated without proper preservation and safe storage.

Dan Streible, a professor of cinema studies at New York University and founder of The Orphan Film Symposium, says that what gets depicted in movies is an important barometer of what is going on culturally. “Film is the best time machine we have,” he says.

The loss of almost three quarters of the films from the 1920s—an era when the motion picture industry was booming—is not just a disappointment for cinephiles like Streible, but is a lost opportunity to see the world as it was back then depicted on screen.

However, film historians are holding out hope that some of the films considered lost may turn up in archives in other countries around the world. The Library of Congress report calls for “repatriation” of old films that were sent abroad during the early 20th century but were too expensive to ship back.

Streible joins The Takeaway to discuss the significance of this lost record of silent cinema, and whether the U.S. can recover these pieces of missing history.