We all know that the early years of cinema are not known for their farsightedness in preserving the history was being creating. To many on the business side of things, movies were a disposable commodity. Once every possible penny had been wrung out of audiences through exhibition, prints were often disposed of unceremoniously, with no thought given to possible future reuse. The problem became exasperated once talkies came on the scene, with boat loads (literally) of believed to be obsolete silent films dumped into the Pacific. More films were lost to studio fires and to having their silver nitrate content stripped for the war effort during World War II. Those films that did manage to survive all of the above were still vulnerable to the inevitable chemical breakdown of their emulsion and film stock.
It wasn’t until the advent of television in the 1950s that studios began to realize that there could be a secondary market for their entire old product and began to think about more than casually preserving their history.
Even then, much had been lost. While the occasional long-thought-lost film does manage to surface from the dusty back shelves of an archive or film collector’s private horde, most are forever gone.
Film Threat has just finished publishing a list of what they consider to be the top 50 lost films of all time, and it is hard to find fault with any of the entries on the list. It’s also heartbreaking to see the wide diversity of subjects covered here, with missing cinema moments ranging from the first Technicolor film and feature-length American color film, The Gulf Between (1917), to the only filmed performance of ragtime great, composer Scott Joplin to King Kong Appears In Edo (1938), which is believed to be the first Japanese giant monster film. While it is understandable, but no less regrettable, how Sergei Eisenstein’s first sound film, Bezhin Meadow (1937), could have been lost during a bombing raid in World War II, it boggles the mind that something like James Dean’s screentest for the role of Curly in the musical Oklahoma! (1954) could have been so casually discarded. Of course, this was long before anyone had even conceived of something like DVD supplemental features.
What’s even more amazing is how recent some of the films on the list are, with titles and fragments from the 1960s, 70s and 80s being named.
Surely not all the films on the list are masterpieces, but they have their historical imperatives for being preserved. Undoubtedly, many of the films that we consider lost today were turkeys in their time, and probably would not attract the interest of anyone but the most diehard film historian. Even then, they may have yielded some glimmer of value. Then again, will future film historians, generations from now thank us for having the foresight to preserve something like Norbit?