Picture your favorite film of all time. You may have your favorite moments, but don’t remember everything about the film. One day, you decide you want to refresh your memory, only to discover the film no longer exists. There is no way to possibly watch it ever again. In this digital age, it is hard to imagine content no longer being available, but this scenario has made thousands of films from the beginning of cinema through the end of the 20th century inaccessible and continues to threaten existing films today. Film is a great cultural artifact, and the loss of its history is an irrecoverable travesty. If there was no intervention, very few films from cinema’s history would be available today, but thankfully the issue of preservation became a pressing matter throughout the 20th century, and although not every film was able to be preserved, a great many of them were saved from oblivion. Film preservation, simply put, is the effort of storing and rescuing decaying film stock for the benefit of future generations. It must be stressed that every film ever made is at risk of decaying and disappearing forever, and it becomes ever more critical to preserve these titles as time goes on and the film itself ages. There are many challenges regarding what and how films are preserved, and there is no single easy solution to them. However, it is the job of the film preservationist to make these decisions. These efforts are now known to be of great importance, and there is great cooperation from film studios to preserve their film library, but this was not always the case, and it is not to be taken for granted that these efforts will continue to be seen as essential. Only through continued iteration of the importance of film preservation will these efforts be able to continue in the capacity needed to ensure the preservation of cinema’s history. A greater understanding of the importance of film preservation can only be achieved by understanding how films have come to be lost, the history of their preservation, and their recovery.
How does a lost film become lost? It is one of the first questions anyone asks when they first hear that most films have been lost. Surely once a film has been made, it exists in a multitude of prints that have been sent around the world and exists for all eternity in a comprehensive archive. This is not the case. In 2013, the Library of Congress reported that 75% of all silent films were lost, and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates over 50% of American films made before 1950 are lost. For the first six decades of the existence of motion pictures, every print was made from a photochemical film stock from a nitrate base. What resulted was a luminous image, but this material was highly flammable, and often erupted into flames or even exploded in some cases. Almost every film studio suffered catastrophic losses from nitrate film fires, which are nearly impossible to put out. For instance, a 1937 fire destroyed most of Fox’s pre-1933 catalog, and a 1967 fire on MGM’s lot destroyed many silent productions.
To further exacerbate the problem, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that film archivists began stressing the importance of properly storing their nitrate films, which had the tendency to decompose if improperly stored. David Pierce, founder of the Media History Digital Library, describes the decomposition process of nitrate film:
In the first stage of decomposition, the image starts to fade as the base emits gases that affect the film emulsion. The surface then becomes sticky, attaching itself to the adjacent film. Next, gas bubbles appear near the tightly wound sections of film where the gases are unable to escape. The film softens and welds into a single mass with an overwhelming noxious odour before degenerating to a must-coloured acrid powder.
Into the 1970s, studios were actively junking their copies of films not seen to have any commercial value. For instance, starting in 1948, Universal began junking their silent films from the 1910s and 1920s, and until 1974 the BBC systematically junked their copies of television programs, including episodes of Doctor Who. Thankfully, today the preservation of film is taken seriously. However, the damage has been done.
There are several misconceptions about which films are lost. For example, many believe the earliest of all films are lost, but in truth many films predating the 1910s—mostly from Edison’s studio—survived due to their preservation in paper prints found in the Library of Congress. These exist not for some need to preserve our cultural heritage, but for a loophole in copyright law preventing motion pictures from copyright, but not photographs. So, to obtain copyright for his motion pictures, Edison sent in every individual frame on paper for copyright, which were classified as photographs. As a result, many of these films exist not in their original celluloid forms, but from these paper prints that are still stored in the Library of Congress today.
Another common misconception is that only obscure films are at risk. This is not the case. Robert A. Harris, the leading expert in the film restoration field, explains in an interview with the AV Club:
The rights for five films—Rope, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, and Vertigo—reverted to Hitchcock in 1967… Hitchcock, whose work I love, was a superb master craftsman when it came to filmmaking and a really lousy archivist. Basically, he got some really bad advice. And that advice was, “Take your camera negatives, your black-and-white separation masters (which protect the negatives), a 16mm and a 35mm soundtrack negative (which is used for making prints), and junk everything else worldwide”… Then they took [what they kept] and stored it in a non-air-conditioned, unheated warehouse in Los Angeles, where it stayed from 1967 to 1983, when Universal got it… by the time they got [the films], they were faded. They were gone.
This sounds like a rather outlandish situation, but Harris’s anecdote shows that even the great Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces were just a few years away from being completely lost. This preposterous scenario is far more common than one would hope. Harris has worked on restorations for Spartacus, My Fair Lady, and many other popular, mainstream films in a similar critical condition.
A third misconception is that modern films are safe. In the same interview, Harris mentions the critical condition of The Godfather, from the early 1970s, being “…butchered by the laboratories. It was handled horribly, like a piece of garbage.” While no modern films were made in the period nitrate film was in use, they were shot on acetate film. Unfortunately, although acetate film is far less flammable than the nitrate film before it (hence why it was dubbed “safety film,”) it deteriorates in much the same way. Peter L. Williamson, Technical Co-ordinator at the Museum of Modern Art, describes this decaying process:
First, a faint odour of acetic acid which grows stronger, although there is no damage to the film; then, the base begins to shrink, warp or buckle; thirdly, the emulsion begins to soften and become soluble. Fourthly, the bond between the base and the emulsion may break, with the emulsion becoming wrinkled; finally, the whole roll of film fuses into a single sticky mass.
This process became known as “vinegar syndrome” due to the vinegary smell the film begins to exude. As a result, most any film made prior to the advent of polyester film (introduced in the 1990s) is vulnerable to becoming lost at any moment. That is, if nothing is done to preserve them.
As discussed previously, nearly every film ever made is at risk of becoming lost forever. This is the main challenge with film preservation; with so much material to preserve, it quickly becomes evident that without an infinite amount of resources, it is impossible to preserve everything. So, how does one choose what to preserve? Professors Bob Epstein and Howard Suber, the founders of UCLA’s motion picture archive, stress the importance of avoiding “value judgements,” saying “The group of films chosen for the Museum of Modern Art collection in the 30s by Iris Barry, are very different from the group that would be chosen today.” These value judgements can have very serious repercussions. Henri Langlois, a pioneering film archivist, was once offered a print of a Theda Bara film, Salome, but passed on it due to “silly prejudices.” Today, most of Theda Bara’s filmography has been lost due to a 1937 fire in the facility that was used to store most of Fox’s pre-1933 films, and fires in the remaining places that had archived her most well-known films, such as Cleopatra. Langlois later remarked “From that point on, through trial and error, I saw that people, intent on triage, who think they have taste, me included, are idiots. One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what’s of value.” Essentially, one cannot know what will be considered important in the future, and what is valued at the time of archiving may not be valued in the future.
For better or worse, this ideology was only loosely followed in the beginning, with preservationists focusing on preserving the Hollywood Studios’ catalogs first. For the first half of the 20th century, the large studios had no archives that were able to properly preserve their film prints. If they weren’t at risk of being junked, they were at risk of exploding in “what amounted to little more than storage huts, with no temperature of humidity control.” While the studios neglected to dedicate the resources to proper film archives, other organizations saw the importance of preservation from the beginning. One of the oldest film archives in the world was founded by James Card in 1947, the George Eastman Museum. Other notable archives and their curators from this time period were: Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque, Iris Barry at the Museum of Modern Art, and Ernest Lindgren at the British Film Institute. However, most archives and the industry-wide stress for the importance of film preservation didn’t begin until the 1960s. In 1967, the American Film Institute was founded to educate film history and to collect films for preservation. It began with collecting all of RKO’s back catalogue, followed quickly by Paramount’s remaining silent films, though more were discovered later. In 1968, UCLA set up their own archive on the West Coast, and it began with Paramount’s sound features, with other studios quickly following. By the 1970s, with archives springing up all over the world, American films were well protected, with many nitrate films being transferred over to safety film, which was projected to last for 400 years. That is, until it was discovered acetate film began to deteriorate within several decades. A new solution had to be found.
It is impossible to mention film preservation without mentioning Martin Scorsese, whose own efforts include the formation of the Film Foundation in 1990, which works “in partnership with archives and studios… to restore over 850 films, which are made accessible to the public” Scorsese has pushed for the creation of a solution to the problems inherent to acetate, which was once hailed as the solution to the problems of nitrate film. In the 1980s, to combat color fading, Scorsese sent a petition to thousands of filmmakers, directed at Eastman Kodak to “be held accountable for the colour instability flaws inherent in the stock… we beseech you to act immediately. We will not tolerate token gestures.” Kodak responded by saying the issue was more complex, and that YCM separation masters, three strips of monochrome film that are not prone to color fade, which represent the yellow, cyan, and magenta color information of a film, should be made to ensure the preservation of a film. However, most studios only created YCM separation masters for their box office hits, with Variety estimating only “20% of each studio’s current output was being preserved on separation masters.” This did not dissuade Scorsese, who continued his efforts until they were rewarded with Kodak introducing low-fade stocks in 1981. Scorsese’s efforts continue to this day, with his Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project tackling the preservation of films made abroad.
A solution was eventually found to combat the deterioration of acetate in the 1990s: polyester film. International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) archivists concluded, “Among the bases available for film, polyester is undoubtedly the most stable – both chemically and physically,” it did not suffer from vinegar syndrome, and could last up to “1,000 years of satisfactory life.” Today, there are digital solutions in place alongside archival polyester prints to ensure the continued survival of our film heritage, and emerging technologies like Microsoft’s “Project Silica” which preserves digital data on small glass discs. However, like acetate film before it, it remains to be seen if these will become permanent solutions.
But what about those films that weren’t made by a major studio, by filmmakers typically ignored by film history, newsreels, avant-garde, independent, or never released theatrically such as home movies? These films have no funding from studio programs, are just as at risk as the major Hollywood films, and have recently been found to have great historical significance. This is what Gregory Lukow of UCLA Film and Television Archive refers to as the “Orphan Film” metaphor. In his 1999 paper, “The Politics of Orphanage: The Rise and Impact of the ‘Orphan Film’ Metaphor on Contemporary Preservation Practice”, Lukow states that the rise of the orphan film term began in the early 1990s, mostly as a result of the passage of the National Film Preservation Act of 1992. In defining the orphan film, Lukow states:
The definition of the orphan is not always or necessarily a simple matter of declaring a specific film title to be unpublished or never copyrighted or not renewed or in some other way having entered the public domain… Rather the initial key criteria should be that there is no private sector entity actively responsible for such materials. Purely in terms of historical chronology, what if a given set of films were clearly still within their term of copyright, but the corporate rights holder no longer exists or was dissolved without a clear disposition of assets, or the materials have otherwise fallen through the proverbial cracks. Such situations do not describe rare occurrences, but rather the classic cases of thousands of films abandoned or held against debt in laboratories across the country.
Clearly, the definition of an orphan film is somewhat complex, but it can be simplified as such: if the film material is not under copyright, or if no private sector entity is responsible for that material, then it can be considered an orphan film. Today, the orphan film is given much precedence in the preservation field, since they are at risk of disappearing. Many archives put on programs dedicated especially to the orphan film, such as the National Film Preservation Foundation’s “Saving ‘Orphan’ Films” program, introduced by its Executive Director, Jeff Lambert. However, the defining program is New York University’s “Orphan Film Symposium”, held since 1999. According to their website, the symposium showcases “a wide array of rare and rediscovered orphan films – silent, experimental, independent, scientific, documentary, educational, newsreel, sponsored, nontheatrical, fragmentary, amateur, industrial, personal, incomplete, and other films from outside the commercial mainstream.” Today, the value of these forgotten works are considered just as culturally significant as the Hollywood pictures that preservationists focused their energy on in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The “value judgements” of today more closely follow the ideals described by Bob Epstein and Howard Suber, with equal commitment given to the preservation of any kind of film, funds permitting.
Films that were once considered lost turn up all the time, much more often than one would imagine, and each rediscovery adds to, and in some cases alters, our understanding of film history. In the words of David Shepard, an Associate Archivist for the AFI: “In every case, good, bad or magnificent as the film itself might be, each restoration adds to our knowledge, and is as significant to film history as the unearthing of one more ancient human skull is to the palaeontologist.”  No more can this recovery of knowledge be more evident than the uncovering of 533 silent films in Dawson City in 1978, many thought lost forever or completely forgotten entirely. In 2017, Bill Morrison, known for his documentary Decasia, began working with these recovered films to assemble Dawson City: Frozen Time, a documentary which evokes the time period from which these films originated. Among the recovered films were countless newsreels, giving insight into the town in its heyday. More than just film history, this project invites us back to the era in which the films originate and imparts upon us knowledge of this bygone time.
Recovery may also change the reputation of an actor’s career or of a film itself. One of the most sought after lost films is Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight. The only surviving print went up in flames in the fire at the MGM lot in 1967 and was hailed as a lost masterpiece, with Chaney once calling it his “greatest collaboration” with Tod Browning, director of Dracula. However, Dr. Jon Mirsalis, a Chaney biographer, says:
The photos of Chaney as the vampire look fascinating and it’s a Tod Browning film, so I’m sure that contributes to the excitement. In reality, the film is probably a stinker. Film historians Bill Everson and David Bradley both saw it in the 50s before the print was destroyed in a vault fire, and both told me it was a dog. ‘Three minutes of vampire footage and five reels of Polly Moran comic relief’ is how Bill described it.
If the film is ever recovered, its reputation will certainly be in question. Chaney is often thought of as a horror actor, but this is only due to his surviving films emphasizing horror elements, like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Many of his lost films, like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, Riddle Gawn, The Miracle Man, portray him in a variety of roles. For example, the film Mirsalis recovered in 2006, Poor Jake’s Demise, is a straight comedy. With each new recovery, Chaney’s legacy as a horror icon shifts to that of an incredibly versatile actor. Another “film” whose recovery induced a massive shift in reputation was the 2013 recovery of nine missing Doctor Who episodes, found in Nigeria by Phillip Morris. Fan reception to one of the serials, titled “Enemy of the World”, went from being known as a meandering political thriller considered skippable to an essential “visual feast from beginning to end,”  as fan Stuart Milne writes. This recovery is the most recent of a handful of recoveries starting in the early 1980s, when the BBC began archiving their programs. With each new recovery, the perception of each program changes.
One of the most well-known landmarks in the history of film preservation is the recovery of extant footage from Metropolis from the long-abandoned Museo del Cine in Argentina. Metropolis is regarded as one of the most important silent films ever made, being one of the most expensive productions and becoming hugely influential in the sci-fi and horror genres. However, it was subject to numerous cuts after its German premiere, and much of the film was lost, with little hope for its complete recovery. Although, a close look at the history of the film’s distribution revealed that an Argentinean distributor, Adolfo Z. Wilson had bought the complete Metropolis and brought it to Argentina, where it changed hands several times before a 16mm copy was deposited at the Museo del Cine. This copy lay hidden until a friend recounted to Fernando Peña that he had seen a 2 ½ hour version of the film, which at the time did not exist. Peña then tracked the existence of the film to the Museo del Cine, but due to several factors was unable to visit the museum for several decades. It wasn’t until his former wife became director of the museum that he was able to look for the film, and it was immediately found. After nearly 80 years, the complete Metropolis had finally been found. Twenty-five minutes of previously missing footage were inserted into the 2002 restoration of the film, and this version premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to critical adulation. This was considered the film equivalent of finding the holy grail, and its recovery served as an inspiration for film preservationists and cinephiles throughout the world that no matter how unlikely, there is always the possibility a lost film can be recovered.
Another significant landmark for film preservation is the recovery and reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic, Napoléon, which suffers a similar history as Metropolis. The film premiered at 4 hours at the Paris Opera in April 1927, but Gance’s definitive cut ran at nearly 10 hours. It is hailed as a masterpiece by those who saw it, but concerns over showing a film of such an extended length meant it was subject to extensive cutting without Gance’s involvement. By the time it reaches the United States, it is reduced to 100 minutes, and is a considerable failure. Over time, the elements of the film were misplaced and scattered across numerous other projects, and it was Kevin Brownlow’s passion and work to reconstruct Napoléon from these fragments. Beginning in 1969, Brownlow’s reconstruction efforts lasted several years before the first version was shown in 1979, with Gance himself attending. Brownlow’s efforts continued as more footage was rediscovered, with his 2000 restoration running at 5 ½ hours. Brownlow’s efforts extend far beyond the restoration of Napoléon. He began collecting films at the age of 11 and is responsible for interviewing major figures of the silent era. Brownlow’s efforts cannot be understated as to their importance in preserving the legacy of silent film. Without his efforts, much of the history of cinema would be lost today.
As discussed earlier, orphan films can be defined vaguely, but their recovery changes our understanding of film history the most. For instance, Oscar Micheaux was a black filmmaker who made all-black productions for African-American audiences. Micheaux was an independent filmmaker, self-financing and self-distributing his own films throughout the 1920s. Forgotten for decades, in the 1970s a single print of his most famous production, Within Our Gates, was found in Spain, titled La Negra. As Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage explains, the film “is a complex plot of love, betrayal, murder, rape, lynching, gambling, miscegenation, racial uplift, white bigotry, and black migration from the rural South to the urban North,” and has come to be seen as an important document in the role black filmmakers played during the silent era. Other important figures in film history have only been recently rediscovered, such as Alice Guy, the first female director, and the first to employ a narrative to film. In the year 2000, only 40 of her films were known to exist, owing to her obscurity. Of the 1,000 plus films she likely directed, fewer than 200 remain today. However, recent reevaluations by feminist film scholars have helped to identify and restore both the films of Guy and her reputation in film history. With the recovery of more orphan films, we can only improve our understanding of film history in all its forms.
By understanding how films have come to be lost, the history of their preservation, and their recovery, a greater understanding of the importance of film preservation can be achieved. Much of cinema’s history has been lost due to poor preservation practices and the volatile nature of nitrate and acetate film stock. Thanks to the efforts of a few archives around the world, like the Eastman Museum, the Film Foundation, MoMA, AFI, UCLA Film and Television Archive, BFI, and others, many films survive today. The recoveries of long lost films like Metropolis and Napoléon helps us to reevaluate cinema’s history, with works from marginalized groups helping to provide a more complete picture of cinema’s rich history. However, it can not be taken for granted that the preservation practices of today will continue, so we must be ever vigilant to ensure the security of our film heritage. Film preservation is incredibly important work to ensure the availability of films for future generations. The thought that some of our favorite films may never be seen again if left neglected is unbearable. To support these efforts, please donate to any one of the film archives listed.
Eastman Museum: https://www.eastman.org/support
The Film Foundation: http://www.film-foundation.org/donation
UCLA Film and Television Archive: https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/support/make-contribution
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 Christina Newland, “Frozen in time: the miraculous gold rush movies buried under the Yukon ice,” The Guardian, last modified July 28, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/28/dawson-city-frozen-time-yukon-gold-rush-capital-documentary
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 Susan King, “For generations, Kevin Brownlow has been the voice for silent films,” Los Angeles Times, last modified April 26, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-classic-hollywood-kevin-brownlow-20190424-story.html.
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 W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “Why I’ll Watch Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates until I Wear It Out,” Perspectives on History, last modified September 1, 2010, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2010/why-ill-watch-oscar-micheauxs-within-our-gates-until-i-wear-it-out.
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 Tod Lock, “Where are the Missing Films of Alice Guy-Blache?,” Heritage Auctions, last modified October 8, 2019, https://blog.ha.com/2019/10/where-are-the-missing-films-of-alice-guy-blache/.