Locating a lost silent film

Locating a silent film bearing the “lost” status can be a challenge to the researcher who is interested in finding out if a print of the film does in fact exist, whether it be in a film archive or a private collection. A film archive, like any other museum archive, constantly accessions and deaccessions objects in its collections. Trying to locate a lost silent film can be a challenge, since silent film loss is around 75% according to a study conducted by the Library of Congress. This high percentage is due to many reasons, from the film reels being melted down for their silver nitrate content, to the flammability of the nitrate material that 35mm film reels were made of. There was also the problem of a number of these silent films being considered “disposable”, regardless of who made them, as in the case of Edwin Thanhouser. While the American Silent Feature Film Database at the Library of Congress is to some degree a useful tool, it is not always updated regularly, thereby necessitating contact with the film archive supposedly holding a print of the film in question, whether it be EYE in Amsterdam, British Film Institute (BFI), George Eastman Museum, or another of the many film archives throughout the world. In some cases, silent films made between 1928 to 1930 may have a higher survival rate. For example, our subject, Tom Tyler, has three silent films made in 1930 which have not only survived but been restored and digitized for DVD. There is also the issue of his later silent films – those made for Syndicate – which are more likely to exist in the United States, compared to his earlier FBO films, nine of which exist in western European film archives.

So what is the best way to seek out a lost film?

It helps if the film being sought has the primary basic information, which includes title, year released, major star, and production company. In fact, when conducting an inquiry about a particular lost film to a film archive, the more brief and concise the inquiry, the better. Film archivists do not have a lot of time to waste on log email inquiries and so far as finding a lost film or two, there really is no need for a lengthy inquiry. As for online tools, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) is an excellent source containing a list of major film archives globally, although Wikipedia also has an extensive list of film archives. Many universities in the United States have films archives too, like UCLA and USC (Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive). The individual inquiring about the existence of a lost film may not gain an immediate result, but should not give up either. Actively seeking out new sources that might provide leads to locating a lost film, whether it is a forum like Nitrateville or a membership in an organization like The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) may turn up the lost film when it is least expected.

Silent film lost…?














From The Film Daily, September 22, 1929


…or found?


Researching for a new concept in writing

Approaching research for an article on a specialized subject is as important as writing the article itself. When it comes to research where multiple sources, dates, even identical titles are involved, checking and re-checking the facts must be done while making notes for the article to be written. For example, if research is being conducted on a silent film actor who made a silent film – and later on a talkie – bearing the same title, and a second actor made a silent film of the same title one year later after the first actor (it has actually happened!), confusion can arise. Likewise, knowing where to begin research on the silent film actor is important too. Did the actor in question get his start in live theatre, or in films? Was the actor credited under more than one name? This is just scratching the surface of the actor’s career work, not even delving into personal details such as birth date and birth location which can also at times conflict if there is no consistency of information across various sources.

Researching a silent film actor need not be confined to seeking out the best local university libraries and physically visiting them, poring over large texts for hours at a table. Thanks to the Internet, websites such as IMDB and IBDB (Internet Broadway Database) are usually helpful with research although at times can be incomplete (it has been said there is no such thing as a “complete acting credits record” in IMDB). However, they are a good start in becoming familiar with the work of the person being researched. Archives.org or Lantern.mediahist.org are two top websites containing primary sources for silent film research. Sources like Motion Picture Daily News and Motion Picture Magazine often contain information such as press releases, rare photo shots, film rankings and release dates.

From Motion Picture News Motion Picture News Nov-Dec 1925

While in the process of researching, concentrate on one aspect of the silent film actor being written about. Did this person specialize in stuntwork on silent film? Did the actor’s film studio and management promote these stunts as being the highlight of the films the actor made? If the answer is yes, then concentrate on those interesting facts, even if it is already general knowledge the actor in question got his start in Hollywood as a stuntman. Details like this can make for an interesting article, particularly if told in a narrative manner:

Even more daring stunts would follow in the next handful of [Tom] Tyler’s silent films. In “The Wyoming Wildcat” (Motion Picture News, Nov./Dec. 1925), Tom leaped off the top of a steep cliff into a rapid whirlpool below to rescue his love object, played by Virginia Southern. He managed to stay afloat of the watery trap, with the girl safely tucked under his strong arms, as he swam to shore and revived her, eventually winning her hand at the end of the story.

Press release and review from Motion Picture News Nov-Dec 1925

Once the article is completed, do not throw out the researched material. Chances are it can be referenced again in the future for another article with a different slant.