The vast majority of the world’s silent-era films (1896-1929) are now considered lost – up to 80% of the titles, according to some estimates.
Australia and New Zealand’s films are no exception. At last count only around a
dozen or so examples of Australian productions survive in any screenable or
substantial form and New Zealand’s output fares only slightly better.
There are many reasons for these grim statistics:
could be destroyed through overuse, with duplicating and projection technology
taking a toll on the soft celluloid.
- The nitrate
film stock used at the time was extremely flammable and fuelled numerous
warehouse and projection booth fires.
was a lack of film stock in the region as shipments were received only rarely
from the United States and Europe.
American and European films that received international distribution,
Australian and New Zealand releases usually had far fewer prints made which
reduces the odds overall that copies survived into the modern era.
But perhaps the most common cause was the lack of
commercial interest in titles after the initial rush of their release. Films were considered
commodies and after their limited runtime were seen as more of a liability than
an asset. Far from recognizing them as culturally or historically important
records, the prints were considered more valuable for the silver in the stock
than any image they contained.
what survives from the silent era is thanks to projectionists, movie fans and
collectors who squirreled away reels in projection booths, garden sheds, attics
– or even under the bed. These film lovers couldn’t bear to dispose of films
even when their producers had abandoned them, and so luckily ensured that at
least some of our film heritage has survived to the modern age.
know today about lost films comes chiefly from reviews and promotional items
like posters and advertisments. Although no substitute for seeing the actual film
itself, these sources give us an idea as to the content, reception and
potential signficance of the title. However, it is always important to remember
that without seeing the film itself we can only speculate as to what appeared
onscreen and its effect on audiences of the time.
Much of the
world’s still-existing nitrate film has been deposited in specialized archives through
programmes such as “The Last Film Search,” run by Nga Taonga Sound & Vision
and the National Film and Sound Archive in the 1970s and 1980s. However, even
today bits and pieces of early films turn up, offering up the slim potential
for these cultural and historic treasures to come to light.