Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans


Lost souls


Many people would regard John Ford as the greatest director of Westerns of them all. They could be right. He was certainly a towering figure of the genre. Film scholars have examined his pictures intensely and many books have been written about his work. Ford started on Westerns, right back in 1913, working for his older brother Frank at Universal, as actor and grunt, and his first pictures as director (as Jack Ford) were also Westerns, with Harry Carey, in 1917. He probably helmed thirty Westerns in the Universal years. Clearly, those film historians and authors I mentioned would want to see these films and study them carefully, to trace Ford’s development.


Frank and Jack Ford in the early days


But they can’t. With very few exceptions, these pictures have been lost. Among those exceptions are two of the 1917 Harry Carey pictures, Straight Shooting and Bucking Broadway and we also have one from 1918, Hell Bent (click the links for our reviews) but where are the rest? Lost.


And by the way, the vast majority of Francis Ford’s Westerns, as actor and director, no longer exist. He would have a far higher profile if that were not so. As it is, he is mostly just remembered as ‘John Ford’s brother’.


‘Important’ John Ford films like the first version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat or Ford’s first ‘Three Godfathers’ picture, Marked Men, both 1919, have gone.




Even when Ford moved to Fox and started making pictures with big star Buck Jones, also continuing with Carey who moved there too, we have Just Pals, a delightful 5-reeler of 1920 with Buck, but then nothing till The Iron Horse in 1924.


And Ford is not alone. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that more than 90% of American films produced before 1929 are lost, and the Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are lost forever. 5 percent (or 562 films) of those that have survived in their original 35mm format are incomplete, and 11 percent of the films that are complete (1,174) only exist as foreign versions or in lower-quality formats.


Why is this?


It’s especially surprising because during most of the 20th century, US copyright law required at least one copy of every American film to be deposited at the Library of Congress at the time of copyright registration. Surely then we should have a complete catalog?


No. Bizarrely, the Librarian of Congress was not required to retain those copies. “Under the provisions of the act of March 4, 1909, authority is granted for the return to the claimant of copyright of such copyright deposits as are not required by the Library.” Many were simply not kept.


There are really two main reasons for this great loss.


The first was technical. The first film stock was perishable in the extreme. In the early days, all film stock was manufactured on a nitrate base, and film, if not kept in ideal conditions, could simply deteriorate and break down into a sticky mess.




Fire was also a major hazard. Nitrate film is highly flammable, and as it deteriorates it becomes even more at risk of fire. When improperly stored, for example in the sun, it can spontaneously combust. Laboratory experiments have seen nitrate film burst into flame at temperatures as low as 106°F (41°C). Nitrate film fires were virtually impossible to extinguish. A significant number of accidents fatal to films (or even to projectionists) occurred in theatrical projection booths, where the heat of the projector lamp made ignition a real possibility.


This film will self-destruct


Eastman Kodak introduced a non-flammable 35 mm film stock in 1909 but the plasticizers used evaporated quickly, making the film even more dry and brittle than usual, causing reels to break, splices to part and perforations to tear, so in 1911 the major American film studios returned to using nitrate stock. In some ways it’s a miracle that as many silent movies survived as did.


You might think that it wouldn’t matter too much if some prints were lost out in theater world. The negatives were still preserved carefully by the major studios, right? Nope. There were big fires at studios which wreaked havoc, such as the 1937 storage-vault fire that destroyed all the original negatives of pre-1935 films made by Fox Pictures and in more modern times the 1965 MGM vault fire which destroyed hundreds of silent films and early talkies.


Aftermath of the Fox fire


MGM too


The other reason, though, and perhaps even more responsible for the loss than degradation or fire, was a matter of culture and attitude. Motion picture screenings in the silent days were seen in the same way as live performances: they happened, perhaps they were reported on, then they were over. There was no concept of preservation of an artifact.


Furthermore, many pictures were just junked as technological innovations came along. When sound came in, silent films were considered worthless and just thrown away. The same with color: many Technicolor two-color negatives from the 1920s and 1930s were discarded when more sophisticated color came in and studios simply refused to reclaim their earlier films, still being held by Technicolor in its vaults.


Film preservationist Robert A Harris has said, “Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house.”


As the Smithsonian Magazine put it, “While fire may be responsible for destroying entire vaults of film history, it does not account for all lost silent films. An enormous number were junked as valueless in the sound era; some were snipped to pieces, others cannibalized for their set pieces that were repurposed for talkies.”


Some used prints were sold to scrap dealers. They could be recycled for their silver content.  Some films were edited into short segments for use with small, hand-cranked 35 mm movie projectors, which were sold as a toy for showing brief excerpts from Hollywood films at home.


Often studios didn’t even keep written records of film details, and exhibitors were notably cavalier about titles, screening pictures under whatever name they thought would sell. There were many silent films about Jesse James, for example, judging by the number of titles mentioned in the press and reviews, but several of these could be the same film.


Nowadays major film studios have specialized departments staffed by experts dedicated to the preservation and restoration of old films. But that is relatively recent. Some studios were better than others. MGM was historically one of the better companies in that regard, Paramount one of the most neglectful. Paramount did not even begin preserving titles until the 1980s and has reportedly lost more than two-thirds of its once huge library of more than 1,000 silent films. They are great now, as my recent experience with North of 36 demonstrated.


There were exceptions among individual artists. Mary Pickford’s filmography is nearly complete. Her early years were spent with DW Griffith, and she gained control of her own productions in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She originally intended to destroy these films but later relented. She also recovered as many of her Zukor-controlled early Famous Players films as were salvageable. Similarly, Harold Lloyd and Cecil B DeMille were early champions of film preservation, although Lloyd lost a large number of his silent works to a vault fire in the early 1940s. DeMille kept his prints in a concrete vault in his Hollywood home, and more than 40 of his early features have survived.


Cecil conserves


In a 1956 speech DeMille said, “The [motion picture] industry will not come of age until it makes a determined effort to keep its own great classics alive — and to present them regularly to the public in a manner worthy of their merit and worthy of the great names who made them.”


But the likes of Pickford and DeMille were the exceptions, not the rule.


For example, only three of the films of Fox’s William Farnum, an early screen Western star, have survived. Big Farnum pictures like the Raoul Walsh-directed The Conqueror of 1917, for instance, or The Man Who Won, William A Wellman’s first Western, in 1923, are gone. The work of many other noted actors and directors has simply disappeared.


Very little left of Bill


Films were sometimes even destroyed deliberately. In 1921, actor Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was charged with the murder of actress Virginia Rappe. Following a series of trials, he was ultimately acquitted, but not before his name had become so toxic that studios undertook the systematic destruction of all films he starred in. When big Paramount Western star Fred Thomson died in 1928, after treading on a rusty nail and contracting tetanus, his pictures were pulled from theaters all over the country. It was considered poor taste to profit from a deceased actor. In his book Jesse James and the Movies, Johnny Boggs tells us that in 1951 producer Harry Joe Brown was approached by a major TV network interested in buying Thomson Westerns for broadcast. “When Brown admitted he had burned the negatives, the network official ‘nearly swooned’”.


Only stills survive of Fred as Jesse – thanks to Harry


This loss went on into the talkie era. For instance, a print of the 1936 John Wayne Western The Oregon Trail is nowhere to be found. OK, we’re not talking about the loss of the Mona Lisa here but heck, it’s a Duke oater.



Sometimes, higher standards of preservation abroad have saved the day. Films thought lost have turned up in Australia, New Zealand, France and elsewhere. The Czech Republic has the largest collection of American silent films found outside the US.


JAW readers may have noticed that Jeff is fond of a silent Western, and you will find many reviews of such pictures in the index, but how many times has he bemoaned the loss of key ones! Not to mention all those pictures which do still exist but are moldering in some vault never to see the light of DVD or Blu-ray. It’s tragic. I suppose we should be grateful for what we do have, and just enjoy those, but we can’t help regretting the great loss.


Early Westerns by Ford, yes, but also those ones in the 1910s that Raoul Walsh directed and/or starred in as actor. William Wyler’s first 29 pictures were Westerns, starting with The Crook Buster in 1925 – all gone. The early Western work of many great directors is lost to us.


The same with actors, of course. We can’t watch many of the Westerns of great stars who started in the silent era. Some early Gary Cooper pictures, for example, are lost or damaged – the only existing copies of Nevada in 1927, for example, are in terrible condition and can’t be seen. Take a look at the Wikipedia page on William S Hart’s filmography: see how many are marked “lost film”, “1/2 reel” or “survival status unknown.” Ah, me.


Bill lost



12 Responses

  1. Excellent article. The disrespect THE art form of the twentieth century has been treated at times is appalling. That MGM fire lost the chance of ever seeing a longer cut of Huston’s ‘Red Badge of Courage’. Always found that frustrating.

  2. I believe sadly Wayne’s longer cut of ‘The Alamo’ has been left in ruins. That they can’t even use it anymore. Pitiful really. Would liked to have seen that on Blu restored.

    1. I’ll be writing again about the 1960 THE ALAMO shortly, as part of my current ‘Celluloid Alamo’ season. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of the picture but I have revised my opinion in certain respects after a recent re-watch. Coming soon!

  3. Even when a silent film survives, there are often entire reels missing. According to Wikopedia, Pioneer Trails, from 1923, runs 70 minutes, but the version I just watched on Harpodean runs 34 mins.

    1. Yes, many silent movies have missing reels. There was also a habit of cutting down 6 and 5 reelers to make shorts.

  4. Thank goodness something like ‘The Big Trail’ even survives. It was a near run thing. That widescreen version is a thing of beauty and we are so lucky to have it.

    1. I agree, there are, fortunately, some ‘important’ films that have survived – one gets the feeling more by luck than judgment!

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