Lost Films

In my quest to learn everything I possibly can about the silent and early sound film eras, I’ve bought every old Hollywood biography I can find. Plus many other research books. I can’t even fit them all in a bookshelf any more. They’re clustered around the foot of it. One of the facts I keep running across that fills me with sorrow is the loss of hundreds (possibly thousands) of silent films.

I hadn’t realized until now that over 90% of silent films have been lost. 90%! That’s a lotta film. Not celluloid, mind you, but nitrate, which was the material they used back then. Unfortunately, the film stock itself was flammable. So with the constant threat of fire in the bad old days, one studio fire could eradicate an entire inventory of a company’s films, like the one in 1937 which wiped out all of Fox’s films from before 1935.

But as history progresses, copies of films are unearthed from the most unlikely sources. In the late 1970s, workers excavating for a new recreation center found that over 500 reels of film that had previously been considered lost. They were made from 1903 to 1929, and had been used as fill to cover up an old outdoor swimming pool! They now call it “The Dawson City find.” There’s even a documentary about it.

Once in a while, an archive from someplace as remote as Australia or as close as Rochester, New York can unearth a film they weren’t aware they had. Someone cleaning out a grandfather’s attic might find a copy, or a widow finds out her spouse had old film canisters down in the basement she didn’t know about.

Just last month, a guy tearing down an old barn in New Hampshire (that evidently had been part of a boy’s camp that must have shown the films to its campers) found a copy of Mary Pickford’s lost Their First Misunderstanding. In it, she starred with her first husband Owen Moore. How cool is that?

Theda Bara is one of the main casualties of the period. Because she was on the Fox roster, hers were among those in the 1937 fire. I would so love to have seen what made her the Lady Gaga of her day– her outrageously revealing costumes for the period, her vamp persona– all of it.


Theda in Cleopatra

Because I’ve written a book about Olive Thomas, I was sad how few of her films I was able to view to get a feel for her. I would love to have seen Upstairs and Down, where she played bitchy Alice Chesterton. It was that role that I consider the first flapper. From it, she became more popular, and was shaped into the Baby Vamp that became her main screen persona.

Olive Thomas

In researching Marie Prevost, I’ve discovered how few of her films exist. The stills from her time at the Sennett studios are so fun and breezy, and being an animal lover, I’d have enjoyed seeing Teddy the Dog co-starring with the Bathing Beauties.


Marie and Teddy the Wonder Dog

But one of the wonders of the film world that I’m bereft we’re still missing is London After Midnight. Lon Chaney was a genius. No one watching Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame can deny it. I’m hoping that there is an archive somewhere with a dusty corner closet they’ve been meaning to clean out, but haven’t had the time yet.


Lon in costume for London After Midnight

Clean out your attics, people. We’ve got more movies to watch!

2 thoughts on “Lost Films”

  1. Have you seen the version of London After Midnight they cobbled together from Forrest J. Ackerman’s collection of stills? It’s probably as close as you’ll get. There is a documentary somewhere. The few people they found who had seen it said it actually wasn’t very good, so maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that all we have left are pictures of the fantastic make-up.

    1. I’ve heard about it! But still…I like lots of stuff that other people think are garbage (cheesy 70s music, the movie version of Harper Valley PTA, and Brussels sprouts come to mind…). It’d be kind of cool to judge for myself, you know? Then I could diss it all I want.

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