Today we celebrate National Silent Movie Day by opening the treasure chest and sharing some of the resources that the Library of Congress offers to research and expand your interest in these classic and iconic motion pictures.
The American silent feature film era lasted from 1912 to 1929 with nearly 11,000 feature films produced, but sadly today, more than 70% are believed to be completely lost and gone forever. The Library of Congress has the largest single collection of American silent feature films in the world, although many important titles are also held at other national institutions and universities.
When I joined the Library of Congress, my first reading assignment was “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929” by David Pierce. This comprehensive report, and to many the most important work ever on the subject, provides a detailed history about silent films, why they were destroyed, and the movement to preserve and restore these valuable pieces of American history. You can (and should!) read it here.
The report shares some good news, too:
Many of Mary Pickford’s films survive because she sent films in which she starred to the Library of Congress in 1946. “I wish to say to you,” she wrote, “how happy I am that my pictures will be housed in the Library of Congress and how greatly I appreciate the honor conferred upon me by your wish to have them there.”
The American Silent Feature Film Database, which was created in conjunction with “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929,” contains searchable information on the nearly 11,000 silent feature films, including 3,300 titles for which film elements are known to exist. The American Silent Feature Film Database is a cooperative project of the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center – Packard Campus (NAVCC) and the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).
The goal of the Library of Congress Silent Film Project is to borrow, catalog, digitally preserve, and ensure the availability of silent (and selected sound era) films for public viewing and research.
The Library’s National Screening Room showcases a vast moving image collection. It is designed to make otherwise unavailable movies, both copyrighted and in the public domain, accessible to the viewers worldwide. The National Screening Room contains about 465 silent films for your viewing pleasure, and is expanded on a regular basis.
The Library also works with a number of media distributors to produce and release silent films from the Library’s collections on DVD and Blu-ray. Many of these co-branded releases such as “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” (Kino Lorber) and “The Marcel Perez Collection” (Undercrank) are award-winning and all have been well received. An ongoing effort, over 250 titles have been released so far, a number of forthcoming titles are currently in production. These releases can be obtained through regular retail outlets, or for more information write to [email protected].
The Lost U.S. Silent Feature Films 1912-1929 is a listing of approximately 7,200 silent film titles considered lost. These are films in which only a fragment, trailer, outtakes or stills survive. When you review this list, you will see some good news here, too. The Library updates the document when any part of a “lost” film is found. The joy of these findings is shared by preservationists, enthusiasts and fans all over the world.
Each June, the Library of Congress hosts a silent film identification event known as “Mostly Lost” at the NAVCC’s Packard Campus Theater in Culpeper, Virginia.
The purpose of this annual event is to identify films that through nitrate deterioration, cataloguing, or haphazard editing have become separated from their proper titles. These unknown clips are submitted by archives and collectors from around the world and then screened before an audience of attendees who are ready to call out anything they recognize: locations, actors, makes of cars, perhaps even the title of the film. Due to the pandemic, the event is postponed until 2022, but for more information you can visit the webpage or contact the Mostly Lost team at [email protected].
Music is often an important part of silent film storytelling. Philip Carli, Ben Model and Andrew Simpson are resident silent film accompanists at the Packard Campus Theater. You don’t want to miss when these talented composers add live musical accompaniment during the Mostly Lost workshops or events and screenings of newly preserved silent films. In 2018, the Library of Congress posted an interview with Ben Model highlighting his work as an accompanist and his passion for helping fans rediscover overlooked or forgotten silent era gems.
If you are fascinated by film studio nostalgia, the Library has a collection of over 20 silent film movie company logos seen here.
Finally, you can find all of this and more, including the National Film Registry, the National Recording Registry, essays and photographs on the NAVCC website or feel free to “Ask A Librarian.” We are always here to help.