If you’re the kind of person that pays attention to classic film news (and I suspect you are), you might have seen the recent news stories about the Library of Congress’ study and analysis of the availability of silent films. The conclusion they reached was one that pretty much every film buff knew already: there’s not a lot of silent films that have survived. To be exact, the Library of Congress pinned the number of missing silent films at around 70%. And articles like this made sad reference to the demise and slow death of silent films.
As someone who has a love of silent films (and most of all, silent film comedies), it’s upsetting to hear that so many films are just seemingly gone forever. A huge chunk of our film history’s early days are gone forever, and our only way to learn about it is to read about them. Who knows how many classic films we’ll never get to see.
It does, then, seem fair to think that the silent film has died a long, slow death and that there will not be really any good developments for fans of these films. But the silent film and it’s history still has some life in it, and there is good news to be found sometimes.
Although so many silent films are now lost, there are still those great times where these films are found and are able to be restored. It was only a few years ago that a Fatty Arbuckle short, Love, was restored back together by combining two separate foreign prints into one cohesive film. Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck was completely lost until the 80s when a partial print surfaced. Only recently did a print containing the ending come to light. Even within the last month, a surprising discovery was made as a lost Mary Pickford film was found in a barn.
And sometimes these discoveries are just piecemeal things. From time to time, a motherload is unearthed. Such is the case of the recently released Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive . It’s a treasure trove for classic film fans, including such long sought after material as an early Alfred Hitchcock film. Other collections like Saved from the Flames offer large collections of these presumed lost films.
Silent films are also still being kept active and aware through its own enthusiasts. Here in Pittsburgh, just over a week ago I had the great luck of seeing several silent shorts with live musical accompaniment. It was truly a magical experience, and is something others should go out of their way to do. As it turns out, at this particular theater it is a monthly event called Silents, Please! There are other places doing similar events as well. Regular silent film events are held at the Revue in Toronto, and Topeka, KS holds the annual Kansas Silent Film Festival. Check to see if your area has something similar.
Yes, the vast majority of silent films are gone, but all hope is not lost. Discoveries are still being made and communities are still showcasing these films. So no, there’s still some life in the silent film. Go ahead and watch one. Now.