I don’t think there is any news that thrills classic film fans more than news that a movie that was thought to be lost has been found. With the news that an astounding 75 lost silent films have been found in New Zealand, I’m sure many fans of silents are feeling like they just won the lottery. It’s exciting enough when just one lost film is rediscovered, but to find 75 of them is truly incredible. Among the most noteworthy finds are: Upstream, directed by John Ford; The Woman Hater, starring Pearl White; Won in a Cupboard, directed by legendary Mack Sennett star Mabel Normand; Mary of the Movies, which is now the oldest known surviving movie produced by Columbia; and Maytime, starring the ‘it’ girl herself, Clara Bow.
It is believed that about 80% of films from the 1890s-early 1930s are now lost for good. In some cases, virtually nothing exists anymore from some of the biggest stars of the time. Theda Bara starred in 40 films during her career, but only three and a half currently exist. But luckily, the films of other major stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks fared much better and very little of their careers have been lost to the ages.
There are many reasons for how films wind up being lost. In many cases, the films just weren’t well cared for. In the early days of film, nobody was thinking that anybody would be interested in this stuff a century later so they thought nothing of throwing away unused footage or entire movies that no longer had any commercial value. Sometimes films would be destroyed in order to recycle the silver in the film stock. Nitrate film stock is extremely volatile and can easily catch on fire if it is improperly stored. Fox lost all of their pre-1935 negatives due to a vault fire. If they didn’t burst into flames, they’d often just decay and disintegrate into a pile of dust. A lot of times, scenes would be cut after initial screenings to make it more marketable or due to censorship. Most famously, much of the original cut of Metropolis was lost for decades before a complete print was discovered in Argentina in 2008. And then there’s the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born. That one had to be drastically cut down after its premiere and is currently available in a nearly complete restored version, but a complete print is believed to exist. And then there’s the case of 1933’s Convention City. The entire film was intentionally destroyed because it was way too pre-code to even be censored and re-released while the Production Code Administration was in charge.
Since I love the stories about how lost films (or lost scenes) surface, here are some of my favorite rediscovery stories: