The enviable state of Lloyd’s legacy is the exception rather than the rule as silent movies used nitrate film stock which was highly inflammable and prone to deterioration if not stored in ideal conditions. Prints struck from nitrate negatives imbued the image with a lustrous sheen (from which the term ‘the silver screen’ was derived) but they proved to be unstable.
Sadly, only 14% of the 11,000 films produced in the US between 1912–1929 have survived in their original 35mm format (source: Library of Congress) and of these 5% are incomplete. In all, 11% of the remainder exist in inferior formats such as 16mm or in foreign language prints (which invariably used different shots as the export version would be filmed by a second camera simultaneously or subsequently if a different cast were used).
Unfortunately, a curator of one of the largest libraries of silent movies in America is said to have told her staff that if only one can of nitrate film showed signs of deterioration they were to destroy every reel of that particular film, rather than splice out and dispose of the affected section. For this reason numerous films by major studios that were entrusted to this archivist have been lost forever.
Ernst Sezebedits, Chairman of the F.W. Murnau Foundation, concludes that there is no choice but to put all their resources into saving these films before it is too late:
“If these films are not adapted to digitization now, they will simply no longer be visible. That is, this film heritage will disappear from the world.”
Essential Silent Movies
‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ 2014 restoration (Kino), Robert Wiene
‘The Man Who Laughs’ (Kino), Conrad Veidt
‘Metropolis -Reconstructed and Restored’ (Eureka), ‘Spione’ (Eureka), and ‘Dr Mabuse – The Gambler’ (Eureka), Fritz Lang
‘Pandora’s Box’ (Second Sight) and ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’ (Eureka Masters of Cinema) Louise Brooks/G.W. Pabst
‘Faust’ (Eureka 2 disc edition), ‘Nosferatu’ 2013 restoration (Eureka), ‘The Last Laugh’ (Eureka) and ‘Sunrise’ (Eureka), F.W. Murnau
‘L’ Argent’ (Eureka) Marcel L’ Herbier
‘Iron Mask’ (Kino) and ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (Cohen Film Collection), Douglas Fairbanks
‘Vampyr’ (Eureka) and ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (Eureka), Carl Theodor Dryer
‘The General’ 2 Disc (Cinema Club), ‘Sherlock Jnr’ (Kino) and ‘Steamboat Bill Jr’ (Kino), Buster Keaton
‘The Gold Rush’ (Criterion Collection) Charlie Chaplin 1925 original is preferred to the 1945 edited version with voice-over made by Chaplin in order to renew his copyright.
‘The Definitive Collection’ (Studio Canal), Harold Lloyd
Kevin Brownlow ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ (University of California Press) and ‘Hollywood-The Pioneers’ (Harper Collins)
James van Dyck Card ‘Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film’ (University of Minnesota Press)
Grieveson and Kramer ‘The Silent Cinema Reader’ (Routledge)
Paul Merton ‘Silent Comedy’ (Arrow)
Joe Franklin/William K. Everson ‘Classics of the Silent Screen’ (Citadel Press)
‘Hollywood’ (You Tube)
Paul Merton’s ‘Silent Clowns’ (You Tube)**
‘Unknown Chaplin’ (Network)
‘Harold Lloyd ‘The Third Genius’ (RTM)
‘Buster Keaton-A Hard Act To Follow’ (Network)
**A special mention, too, for pianist Neil Brand who has been introducing UK audiences to the delights of silent cinema with his one man show ‘The Silent Pianist Speaks’ and accompanying comedian Paul Merton’s ‘Silent Clowns’ tour.