Auld Lost Cine

Here's a sobering stat: Nearly 90% of studio films are lost or destroyed

Jerry Lewis on set
Jerry Lewis on set

There are all kinds of lost films, from those films finished but never got a theatrical release to films that are no longer known to exist in any format to films that only exist in shortened, re-edited, or truncated form.

There are innumerable films that were finished and never released. Jerry Lewis' infamous The Day the Clown Cried (1972), in which Lewis plays a clown in a Nazi concentration camp, has long been tied up in litigation. There is some question as to how much of the film has been completed. Litigation over rights prevented Alfred Hitchcock's Rope from being shown for a number of years. Tom Schiller's 1984 film Nothing Lasts Forever, the subject of a recent Chronicle feature, was never released theatrically reportedly due to copyright issues.

It is sobering to consider the staggering percentage of American studio films of which there are no known prints. The estimate for lost Hollywood prints, says archivist Caroline Frick of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, "is still close to 90 percent – but more along the 87 to 88 percent." Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote in 1993 that "the most familiar statistic, which has attained its authority primarily through repetition, is that we have lost 50% of all titles produced before 1950."

There were any number of reasons for these films being lost. Sadly many of the early silents were deliberately destroyed as after the coming of sound the studios regarded them as worthless. Some films were destroyed by less deliberate means, too. Safety stock was introduced for Hollywood film production in 1950. The common stock before that was silver nitrate, a very volatile film stock, chemically unstable and highly combustible. Over the years there have been a number of significant fires in films vaults. These fires have destroyed many prints, including quite a few titles of which the print destroyed was the sole known remaining copy.

If silver nitrate's volatility wasn't bad enough, there was, no surprise, a certain amount of silver that could be gotten by melting down a film. The studios were not above this practice. In pursuit of relatively small amounts of silver they destroyed many prints.

A lot of films that are considered lost actually ended up – and still remain – in the hands of collectors. The studios, citing their copyright ownership, have gotten the feds to crack down on collectors, the industry treating them as thieves rather than enthusiasts or preservationists. Consequently, collectors are very close-mouthed about the contents of their collections, certainly not volunteering rare titles of which they own prints.     

The most famous example of this crackdown was the 1974 FBI raid on actor Roddy McDowall's house, where it was estimated his collection was worth five million dollars. In order not to be charged McDowall named names of other collectors including Rock Hudson, Mel Tormé, and comedian Dick Martin. Film collectors were already underground, and the fear of similar studio crackdowns and confiscations of their collections drove them even more underground.

Gradually over the years films presumed lost or footage of films considered truncated have emerged. Often found these have been found in foreign film vaults. It's long been known that Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis only existed in an incomplete form. In 2008 missing reels for the film were discovered in a museum archive in Argentina.

Other times films have reemerged because collectors donate prints. Still, given that it is a 20th-century art form, the number of films missing or unavailable for other reasons is tragic.

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lost films, Jerry Lewis, Alfred Hitchcock, Tom Schiller, Caroline Frick, Metropolis, TAMI, Texas Archive of the Moving Image, James Billington, Roddy McDowall

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