Lost Films

Daniel Fandino's picture

Welcome to "It Came From the Internet."  Each week the intrepid crew of the H-PCAACA will venture boldly into the farthest reaches of the internet to find interesting and offbeat sites relating to American, world, and popular culture.

This week's websites take us into the vanished worlds of lost films, a tale that is part mystery story, part history lesson. Over 3500 films are listed by various groups as lost, unseen by human eyes for decades or even longer since their original runs. Lost films are a transnational phenomena, as movies from countries all over the world have vanished. Some exist in the form of scripts, reviews, and photos. For others, scarcely anything is known about them except for a title. Lost films form a hole in the canvas of cinematic history, with many early works by renowned actors and directors lost alongside movies by lesser known pioneers. Lost films are not restricted to the early days of the cinema--some more recent movies from the 1970s and 1980s have been lost in one form or another.

The potential reasons for a film's disappearance from the historical record vary. Older movies used a volatile nitrate film stock that spontaneously combusted in some circumstances. The nitrate stock contained minute traces of silver, so some films were rendered down to extract the precious metal. Improper storage led to the demise of other movies through deterioration or fire, as in the conflagration that swept through the MGM archives in 1967 (remember the final scenes of Inglorious Basterds and the film fire?). Sometimes, studios refused to reclaim their movies after their finial run in order to skip on the cost of storage.  In a few cases, the destruction was deliberate, as when MGM attempted to destroy all copies of the 1940 version of Gaslight in a bid to ensure their own 1944 remake was uncontested.

The Film Foundation estimates 90% of silent movies are lost, as few believed there would be any interest in them after the advent of the talkie. It may be hard to fathom in an era of syndication and movies on demand, but many films were junked out of the belief no one would ever want to see them in the future. With theaters generally the only venue for films in an era before television, future theatrical runs were not seen as potentially profitable. Film in its infancy was a disposable medium.

The films may be lost, but hope for their recovery is not. Through accidental discovery or as the result of determined sleuthing, lost films have occasionally been found. The labyrinthine process of early film distribution meant that once a movie finished its first run, reels made their way around the world to new markets. Collectors and curious workers kept reels. Thee search area is worldwide, and find these lost films groups have turned to the global reach of the internet. The British Film Institute and the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen have opened web sites to publicize lost films. Lostfilms.eu has placed images online from unidentified films in its possession in the hopes someone can provide a clue to their origins. The BFI has a list of their Most Wanted lost films.

Aside from being a fascinating story, lost films form a component in other works of popular culture. The "discovery" of found footage and lost films are part of an entire subgenre of horror films, while the search for lost films pop up in novels as a plot device. Peter Jackson's Forgotten Silver uses fabricated "lost films" as the center of a faux documentary on a fictional New Zealand director.

Delve into the fascinating world of lost films, and who knows, maybe you have the last copy of a vanished movie in the attic or will stumble across a missing part of cinematic history at a yard sale.