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Where Did All the Silent Films Go?: Tales of Fire, Destruction and Deterioration

Silent films have become a frequent topic around here. Recently, we even talked about the lost films that have been found this year, even though 75% of the silent films are lost. We keep making reference to all these silent films being gone, but what happened to them? Many were destroyed deliberately and others deteriorated, but the vast majority can be attributed to what all the films were made of. To understand properly why the films were gone, you need to know that specific fact.

The answer boils down simple to one thing: nitrate and, specifically, nitrate film. Even before there were motion pictures being made, nitrate was already being used for still frame cameras. The first patent was filed by Hannibal Goodwin, a priest, in 1887. During the time in which Goodwin waited for his patent to be filed, Kodak began using the nitrate film in 1889 (Goodwin later won $5 million in a patent infringement lawsuit). It was this type of film that was used dating back in motion pictures as early as Edison’s Kinetoscope.

There is, however, a major problem with using nitrate film: it’s highly flammable. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise given that nitric acid had been used in guncotton, to create an explosion, since the 1830s. As many were to find out, it can catch fire easily and is hard to put out.

Experiments found that even getting the fire of a nitrate film underwater was difficult. This is because nitrate film gets fueled by it’s own oxygen once it’s on fire, which makes it hard to put out and allows it to catch fire quickly. New nitrate films could also catch fire easily, which is what brought about two very deadly fires at movie theaters in Ireland and Scotland. In the case of the one in Ireland, it was started by a nearby candle.

It was these fires throughout the decades that spelled the end for a vast majority of the silent film. Practically each major studio has numerous terrible stories. On the Universal lot, a 1922 electrical fire spread to where the films were stored. It immediately ignited and burned up 185,000 feet of film. Warner Bros suffered a similar fate in 1933.

So many films were lost in the fires because they were all store in similar proximity. A 1937 fire in Fort Lee, NJ wiped out all of the films made by Fox Pictures up to that point– the building contained 48 different vaults filled with films. Fox would later have a couple more fires in the decades to come, and RKO had it’s own vault fire.

The 1967 MGM Vault Fire is perhaps one of the most notable ones. It’s certainly one of the most damaging. The entire vault went up in flames, including some of the most now sought after silent films– London After Midnight, The Divine Woman, Our Gang shorts, and numerous early talkies as well.

In other cases, studios simply threw out the films. Universal notably dumped whatever silent films they had left in the 40s, greatly adding to the number of films now lost.

The ones that survived fires and purposeful destruction still ended up gone in many cases. Once again, the nitrate prints combined with poor storage were to blame. Little did anyone know at the time just how badly nitrate prints decomposed throughout the decades in various stages.

In a good situation, the print only fades and develops an amber color. From there, prints begin to stick together and become brittle. Ones even further along contain gas bubbles and sometimes a poor odor. Up until that stage, there is still a chance the film can be saved, but there are no guarantees that the film will survive the breaking apart due to their brittle nature. Films even worse along might be welded together and covered in froth, eventually breaking down into powder. Films in these later stages cannot be saved and must be safely disposed of.

It was once estimated that the majority of nitrate print films would have decomposed by 2000. Luckily, there are many that have still survived to this day, and new methods in freezing the film have allowed them to be saved for longer periods of time. They must still be carefully preserved, as these older prints can catch fire at 120 degrees F (49 C). And yet, some have managed to last the test of time, like this print of the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which I now own:

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Yes, this is all horrible news but remember the good news from before–many international vaults are still turning up lost films. And when they are found, they are almost immediately preserved. Most of the silent films may be lost, but the ones that are still around are being permanently saved. It’s just a shame that flammable prints stored poorly led to almost all of them disappearing.

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