The Preservation and Restoration of Silent Films

The Loss of Silent Films

Unfortunately, many films of the silent era have been lost. Many of those which haven't been lost are badly damaged. The importance of archiving the silent films wasn't realized until it was too late and many classic films were lost for good. There are many reasons for this. Due to the high cost of film and the fact that one print can be shown to thousands of people, films prints are produced in small quantities.

  • films produced in small quantities
  • after initial success, prints were destroyed to save on storage costs
  • prints were often worn out
  • with the talkie era, silent films were considered worthless
  • silent film companies go out of business
  • cost of archiving films is too high
  • chemical decomposition

Chemical Decomposition

During the silent era, cellulose nitrate film was used for the majority of films. It is a highly flammable and unstable compound, with a life of between thirty and eighty years. The decomposition of nitrate film cannot be halted, although in the right conditions, it can be slowed.

Silent Film Preservation

Preservation at the The American Film Institute

Work is currently underway to preserve the original version of The Lost World. The Dinosaur Interplanetary Gazette contains information about this project.

An effort is underway by the United States Library of Congress, Motion Picture Preservation Laboratory to preserve the Paper Print Collection of 1894 to 1915(?) motion pictures. Frank Wylie, who is involved in the project, has details available on his home page.

Polishing the Stone Face is an article on the Video Restorations of Buster Keaton's Films, part of Kino On-Line's features.

The Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc. home page has information about the efforts to preserve and distribute material related to the Thanhouser Company, and its successor company, Thanhouser Film Corporation.

The National Film Preservation Board in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Reading Room has very limited information available.

The Film Preservation Festival, from American Movie Classics, is about raising awareness of this important issue in our heritage.

Glen Pringle /
Copyright © 1995,1996 by Glen Pringle