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Lost movies: silent and sound

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David A Ellis

Moving pictures have been around since 1896. Since then an amazing amount of footage has rolled through the cameras, producing some great movies, both silent and sound. Sadly, much of the footage has been destroyed in some way, or lost, possibly tucked away in someone's attic or shed. One of the main reasons why nearly eighty per cent of silent output is no more is because the film stock was nitrate and has disintegrated. Some films were badly stored in not ideal conditions. Some films were destroyed by the film companies to make space on the shelves for new ones. Their attitude was that the film has been out there and now has no more commercial value. This happened in the 1950s and '60s by TV companies. A tape would be wiped to make room for something else. Also, storage was another problem. There are several programmes where there were a great number of episodes but are now reduced to just one or two. Two examples include BBC shows Juke Box Jury and Six Five Special, where only a handful have survived.
Sometimes a sixteen-millimetre copy taken from video turns up. Examples are early pop shows, which were shot on video, now screened on sixteen millimetre, complete with scratches. In these cases, the original video has been destroyed. The surviving prints carried an optical soundtrack and were prints that were sent to overseas markets. In the feature film world, some stills and cast/crew lists survive, even if the film itself hasn't. Some films have been destroyed in studio fires. Universal had a fire back in 1924. Fox suffered one in 1937 and MGM had one in 1965. Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation claims that half of all the American movies made before 1950, and ninety percent before 1929 are gone forever. The Library of Congress state that seventy-five per cent of all silent films are now lost.
On the BFI’s most wanted list are the silent films A Study in Scarlet (1914), Hitchcock's The Mountain Eagle (1926) and The Last Post (1929). Sound films include Squadron Leader X (1943) Linda (1960), directed by Don Sharp. Other films on the missing list include Educated Evans starring Max Miller and Bless 'Em All with the late singer Max Bygraves. Some films are incomplete. Sometimes films are cut for various reasons, including censorship. The cut footage is usually kept but sometimes it goes missing. The Stanley Kramer film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was premiered at 192 minutes but cut to 162 for general release. In the '80s twenty minutes of the cut footage was found in a warehouse that was due for demolition. The remaining lost road show footage was found in 2013 as part of restoration. Most of the scenes were complete, the remainder were missing sound or visuals, as they were derived from the original road show prints. Apparently, the original elements disappeared a long time ago.
Scenes that were cut from The Good the Bad and the Ugly are now believed to be lost. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was shortened after its premier from two and a half hours to 119 minutes. In 1996 it was decided to restore it to its original length. Most of the cut scenes were found. However, most of the dialogue tracks for the scenes could not be recovered, so where possible, the scenes were dubbed by the original actors. Footage of the song A Step in the Right Direction hasn't been found. Some lost films and TV episodes have been found. Some TV material is saved because someone made a video recording of it.
The late Bob Monkhouse recorded a lot of material. Because of people like Bob, a lot of material has been saved, which would have been lost forever. There are several Dr Who episodes that have been saved from home recordings. The comedy Steptoe and Son is another example of home recording saving the day. There is still a lot of old material on nitrate stock, which needs transferring to safety stock. The trouble is by the time it is decided to transfer and archive it, the damage is done.
With digital technology, a lot of films can be restored to their original quality. A lot of Eastman colour prints and negatives have faded over the years, but the digital process can restore elements that have suffered the passing of time. A film doesn't have to be very old to need treatment. The film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had a full restoration job done on it. Let us hope many more films are preserved for generations to come.

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