Why Are So Many Old Films Missing?

Andrew Saladino, from The Royal Ocean Film Society, makes a serious point in his telling video essay. How were so many films lost, and who are the people working to bring movies back to life?

According to Saladino, nearly half of the major films created before 1950 have been lost. Studios didn’t think they would find any use for out of date movies. Why keep a film that won’t have a regular audience? As such, it’s down to restoration, digitization and safekeeping that we have a rich library of classic films. These “unsung heroes of cinema” are exactly the kind of person that undergoes these efforts, without much recognition.

Looking beyond retaining a film for future generations to enjoy, film restoration opens up technological advances, which come hand in hand with ethical issues. Should Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” been colorized? Should “Star Wars: A New Hope” have been altered during the restoration process, by George Lucas? Saladino shows how even the white balance in certain scenes was changed, which could be argued as changing the tone of the scene in general.

Movies aren’t released when everybody on the crew is happy, they’re released when they’re good enough to make money. As such, film restoration presents a window of time in which a director (or somebody else) can alter the original movie. Is it right to take creative liberties with movies after they’re made? Or should restoration be a controlled and sterile process in which the original film is retained in full?

[Via The Royal Ocean Film Society]

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John Sheehan's picture

Movies were seen as a disposable product by the studios pre-1950s. I was reading George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992 by Mark A. Vieria over Christmas, and it spoke of how the studio system pumped out films and promotional material with no eye on using these films beyond the original run. We're lucky to have Hurrell's and other studio photographers' work from that era, because after the images ran in magazines and in promotions the studio saw no further use for them.

In a way it's understandable from the studio's perspective. There was no real secondary market like TV, home video, or streaming back then. It wasn't until TV needed content to fill screens that pre-1950's movies found a place to be seen again, outside of some theaters that showed older films.

The Holy Grail of lost films for horror fans is Lon Chaney's London After Midnight, a movie I fear we'll never see outside of stills and descriptions.

Harmy is a living legend and should be worshipped.