Can the Library of Congress Rescue Silent Movies?

Film Preservation Specialist Barbara Whitehead looks over an old splice in the silent film 'Little Brother' during the inspection phase at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, VA, February 10, 2011. Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center is a state-of-the-art facility where the Library of Congress acquires, preserves and provides access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of films, television programs, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
See more stories about...
Dustin Volz
Dec. 4, 2013, 4:41 p.m.

The Lib­rary of Con­gress may be able to archive bil­lions of tweets, but when it comes to pre­serving some of our na­tion’s earli­est mo­tion pic­tures, much of the battle has already been lost.

Just 14 per­cent of some 11,000 Amer­ic­an si­lent films ex­ist in an ori­gin­al and com­plete format; an ad­di­tion­al 11 per­cent sur­vive as for­eign ver­sions or in low-qual­ity formats, ac­cord­ing to a new study com­mis­sioned by the LOC’s Na­tion­al Film Pre­ser­va­tion Board. Sev­enty per­cent of the works from the Amer­ic­an si­lent-film era — defined as last­ing from 1912 to 1929 and in­clud­ing such treas­ured flicks as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Jazz Sing­er (1927) — are be­lieved to be gone forever.

“The Lib­rary of Con­gress can now au­thor­it­at­ively re­port that the loss of Amer­ic­an si­lent-era fea­ture films con­sti­tutes an alarm­ing and ir­re­triev­able loss to our na­tion’s cul­tur­al re­cord,” James Bil­ling­ton, the lib­rar­i­an of Con­gress, wrote in the study’s fore­word. “Even if we could pre­serve all the si­lent-era films known to ex­ist today in the U.S. and in for­eign film archives — something not yet ac­com­plished — it is cer­tain that we and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions have already lost 75 per­cent of the cre­at­ive re­cord from [that] era.”

The ir­re­triev­able loss of movies is something hard to ima­gine in the age of You­Tube and Net­flix, when any elec­tron­ic me­dia pro­duced and shared on­line leaves a vir­tu­ally per­man­ent foot­print, as­sum­ing that the In­ter­net doesn’t go any­where. But while arch­iv­ists al­ways knew that poor-qual­ity film stock, fires, and movie-stu­dio neg­lect have forever de­leted a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of the early chapters of our cine­mat­ic her­it­age, the new data re­veal the ex­tent of the dam­age and cata­logue the films that can still be res­cued.

Many of the si­lents that are still in us­able con­di­tion are stuck over­seas, be­cause many were sent to for­eign coun­tries for ex­hib­i­tions — and stayed there be­cause the cost of trans­port­ing the film rolls back proved too costly, said Steve Leg­gett, pro­gram co­ordin­at­or for the Na­tion­al Film Pre­ser­va­tion Board. “If the stu­di­os know Con­gress is in­ter­ested, they might come in here with some money and some help to get their titles back from over­seas,” Leg­gett said. “To do everything would cost hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, but with a much smal­ler amount of money, you can pick and choose a few titles to save.”

He poin­ted to a re­cent re­pat­ri­ation pro­ject that the Na­tion­al Film Pre­ser­va­tion Found­a­tion, fun­ded by Con­gress to the tune of $530,000 an­nu­ally, un­der­took in New Zea­l­and to sal­vage films that had been de­cay­ing in archives for dec­ades. The work led to the re­dis­cov­ery of sev­er­al si­lent titles, in­clud­ing The White Shad­ow (1924), which now boasts the earli­est sur­viv­ing Al­fred Hitch­cock cred­its.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
14 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
15 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
16 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
18 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
20 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×