It is believed that 80 to 90 percent of the films produced from 1895 to 1929 have been completely lost or destroyed, which makes early film research a daunting task. Part of the early film demise can be contributed to the fact that prior to 1951 film stock was composed of nitrocellulose(usually referred to as “nitrate”) Nitrocellulose is a highly flammable material which if stored improperly will deteriorate into a dry black powder. This resulting power is highly explosive and has been the chief culprit in numerous film vault fires.
Economics has also been a major factor , rather than pay for storage on the hundreds of silent films in their catalog studios chose to destroy their silent film collection since they saw no need for them as the popularity of talkies increased. In fact if a film production needed a large fire the studios would sometimes fuel those fires with the nitrate film footage, many films were destroyed in this manner over the years.
In 1948 Universal Studios destroyed its silent library of close to 5,000 films that it had in its film vault to recover their silver content. In 1967 a fire in the film vault of MGM erupted destroying hundreds of silent films including the last known print of Lon Chaney’s classic London after Midnight (1927), which is undoubtedly the most sought after of all of the lost films. Several other vault fires have taken their toll thousands of films throughout the twentieth century. There is a glimmer of hope however, in recent years studios have begun to recognize the value of these lost films and great strides have been made to not only locate the lost films but to restore them as well.
Another hurdle in film history research is the fact that many of the companies who produced these early films no longer exist and those that do have either lost or destroyed the documents from those earliest films. Fortunately, there are some surviving documents, photographs, playbills, reviews, and personal memoirs that we can rely on to help us explore the contributions of the early film pioneers.
Comparing these early films to the modern cinema is like comparing cave paintings to a Rembrandt. The film industry has come a very long way in a very short period of time. Needless to say no other art form has advanced as fast as the film media has in its relatively short one hundred some odd year history. Nor has there ever been an art media that has generated so much controversy and commerce as film. Movies have proven to be a razor sharp double edge sword, praised for entertaining the masses and blamed for every social woe from bad manners to serial killers. The fact that it is, is our fiction reflects our reality, albeit it a bit twisted and perhaps magnified many times it is still our cultures reflection we see on the silver screen. These early films are a gateway to the past, allowing us to peek in on a bygone era and affords us a tiny glimpse of its values, fears, hopes, and dreams.