Lost Treasures of the Cinema

  • B.D Garga
  • 2624 Words

It is a fair assumption that more movies (of the silent era, at least) have disappeared than have survived. How much of the work of Lumière, Méliès, Feuillade, Ince, Griffith, Sjöström, Dupont, Pabst, Chaplin, Max Linder, Clair and other great pioneers of the cinema has been lost to posterity through willful destruction or plain neglect? How many millions of metres of priceless documentary material, that could bring alive a whole era, have vanished?

Some years ago, I was engaged in making a film anthology of the Indian cinema. Enthusiastically, I drew up a list of significant films and proceeded to search for them. In Calcutta, I went to see the proprietor of a well-known film production company and asked him to let me use excerpts from them. These included both silent and sound films. He took one look at the list and handed it back to me, saying, "I don't have any of them".

"What happened to them?"

"They were lying around for quite a while, then we decided to send them to Madras."

"Why Madras?"

"Because the junkmen there,  for some reason, paid a better price than in Calcutta."

To my horror, I was to discover later that of the total production of some 1,300 silent films, not even half a dozen had survived. Of these, two, The Light of Asia (1925) and A Throw of Dice (1929) were Indo-German co-productions, copies of which had somehow found their way to the Cinémathèque Française and the National Film Archive of Great Britain.

The lost films included such well known works as Balidan (Sacrifice) based on a play by Rabindranath Tagore; Mrichakatika (The Little Clay Cart), an adaptation of Sudaraka's Sanskrit classical play of that name(3rd-4th century A.D.), and a film on non-violence called The Wrath, in which the protagonist was a Gandhi-like character. There were numerous mythology films done in the style and on the scale of the Italian super production Cabiria (1914), and our own variations on Pearl White's The Perils of Pauline (1914) .

Vandalism was not confined only to the silent cinema. Hundreds of well known sound films had been made over to junk dealers as a matter of routine. There was no trace, for Instance, of the first Indian sound film, Alam Ara (1931). Consequently, the history of Indian cinema has yawning gaps that no amount of academic research can now close.

India is not the only case. The destruction of films has continued unabated all over the world. The great director Fritz Lang, in a foreword to Herman G. Weinberg's nostalgic book, Saint Cinema, recalls the lost films of H. d'Abbadie d'Arrast, who died in1968, the creator of "eight of the loveliest films ever made by anyone". Lang says: "His films are lost forever, like many other films important for the art of the cinema and for its historians, because studio policies aimed at the destruction of old films printed on inflammable nitrate stock.

These same studios, as Erich von Stroheim has pointed out, "were not above salvaging the few cents worth of silver which formed part of the cellulose base." In 1956, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Cinémathèque Française, its director, Henri Langlois, gave an alarming recital of films lost or destroyed through neglect or wanton callousness. 

The answers I received in response to a questionnaire I recently sent to several film archives, are enlightening.

Eileen Bowser, Associate Curator ofthe Department of Film in the Museum of Modern Art, New York:

"There is no law against the destruction of films in this country. I wish there was, but it is unlikely we could achieve such a law under our system. There is a form of legal deposit In that if you wish your film to be protected by copyright, you must eventually deposit a copy of it in the Library of Congress. "Of the lost films in the United States", she added, "There are hundreds of significant American films that have been lost over the years, not necessarily because of destruction, but because nitrate films have been allowed to deteriorate. A few years ago, we did an exhibition of still photographs and brought out a publication called 'Lost Films', to call attention to some of the important films which had disappeared, which had the result of finding a few of them."

lb Monty, Director of the Danish Film Museum:

"We could draw up an enormous list of Danish silent films that have been lost. Out of a production of around 1,700 silent films only around 225 have been preserved."

Jörn Donner of the Svenska Film Institute, Stockholm:

"Many of the significant films from the silent period have disappeared; according to our estimates about two thirds of all films and about half the valuable films."

Kevin Gough-Yates, Deputy Curator of the National Film Archive, London:

"There is no law in England against the destruction of films... There are many significant films that seem to have been lost, not only British ones.

Merton of the Movies, for example, is *one that cannot be found, but there are many others." He further added,  "My own view is that unless the government Introduces legislation to enforce producers to deposit material with the national archive much material will be lost."

What about the socialist countries where production is state-sponsored and controlled? It came as a revelation to me when Jan Zbigniw Pastuszko, Director of the Polish Film Archive, wrote to say that there was no law against the destruction of films in his country. Poland, he said, aimed at preserving films produced before 1945, but present-day films were left to fend for themselves.

Dr. Sandor Papp, Director of the Hungarian Institute of Film Science and Archives, informed me that the Hungarian Film Archive "has been functioning since 1948, and from 1957 as an independent organization. Most of the films before this period, including about 50 per cent of those made between 1930 and 1944, have been lost."

In India, the largest producer of films In the world, the situation is even more dismal. The National Film Archive of India was established in 1964, although a recommendation that one should be created was contained in an Enquiry Committee report published as far back as 1927-28. The proposal was revived in 1951 with much greater emphasis by another committee appointed by the Indian government. The National Film Archive finally came into being thirteen years later.

According to an official publication (Reference Annual, 1974), the "Archive's collection, as of December 31, 1972, totalled 835 films, consisting of 624 Indian and 211 foreign films", a far from impressive figure considering that in the same year, India produced 414 feature films, not counting the vast number of documentary and reportage films. Since the advent of sound (in 1931) India has produced well over 11,000 feature films and perhaps an equal number of short films . It is apparent that most of these have either perished or are in various stages of deterioration.

Indian laboratories in all the major centres of film production Bombay, Calcutta and Madras still hold hundreds of nitrate base films which nobody claims, yet in the absence of a legal fiat to do so, the laboratories are unable to make them over to an archive. To the trade wing of the industry, the moment a "property" ceases to be "productive", it is best forgotten. 

The researcher and the historian apart, the man who really feels concerned about it is the creator of the film. But not having any commercial control over it, he is a helpless spectator of the destruction of what is really part of himself. 

A few years ago, Jean Renoir, the famous French director, was desperately looking for a copy of his film The River (1951), which he had shot in India and which he so dearly loved. The negative of the film was fast deteriorating but the producer (a Hollywood florist) was in no hurry to do anything about it. In the absence of an adequate authorization, the laboratory was reluctant to take out a print. One can imagine Renoir's agony. As it happens, the film has since been revived commercially, but a master's work could have been lost forever.

Not every film-maker, however, has the means and the foresight of a Renoir or a Chaplin. Nor are the archives over-anxious to save all the films. Most curators select films for preservation according to their pet preferences.

Are these preferences and prejudices justified? Do we know which of the current films will interest scholars thirty or a hundred years from now? Doesn’t this indifference to some or preference for others constitute a kind of vandalism? I had better leave the answer to the man most qualified to give it, and who, more than anyone else, has put the world cinema in his debt: Henri Langlois.

Garga and Henri Langlois prepare for the exhibition at the Cinematheque, in 1969. Seated on the bench is Lotte Eisner.


In an interview with Rudolph Chelminski of Life, Langlois said, “The most important role of a cinematheque, is to preserve. There are many things which seem to be without value, to which time gives style which are invisible today. Baudelaire and the Eiffel Tower are examples. Other cinematheques before the war had plenty of money and could have saved many films. Why didn’t they succeed?  Because they thought of choosing,  while they really ought to have been thinking of saving everything.

Judging like criticism is a game. It is gambling with the future. So I take all films - I have no reason to refuse any of them. I even have films I detest.  I never accepted that films couldn't be saved.Once I got a bunch of the old films and sent them out to a lab to be cleaned and put on new reels. They sent them right back. They’re all stuck together, they said. You might as well chuck them in the garbage can. Well I’m just a poor dope not a chemist. So I sat down and unstuck them image by image, washed off the sections and hung them out to dry on clothespins.

 Henri Langlois

Perhaps, this is a film lover’s approach. Certainly,  there aren't many around. What is of paramount importance is the preservation of films, all films no matter where they are produced. They should be treated on a par with the rest of our artistic heritage - a heritage in which all of us have a stake.

Saved in the Nick of Time
Three dates stand out in the dramatic story of old films and their preservation: 1895, when the cinematograph was invented; 1914, when films first began to be hired out; and the mid-1930s, when the first film libraries were founded.

In all the arts, there are works which have been lost to posterity. All trace of them has disappeared forever. This is hardly surprising in the case of pre-medieval music and musical notation for dancing. But it has taken only a few decades for similar havoc to be wrought on works of the cinema, the youngest of the arts, although films are relatively easy to preserve.

One could draw up a long list of fine films which today only exist in histories of the cinema, beginning with the often quoted examples of Broken Blossoms (1919), by D.W. Griffith, the first great American director, and Jacques Feyder's L'Atlantide (1921), of which only stills remain.

The first well-known film library, the Cinémathèque Française, was founded in Paris in 1936 by an ardent cinema buff, Henri Langlois. Langlois already had a small collection of old films, which he had been buying for four or five years. It was then relatively easy to get hold of "antique" films, dating from before the introduction of the rental system, because the original owners eventually got rid of them and they ended up in fleamarkets and junkshops. At that time, of course, people did not realize all the precautions that were needed to preserve old film stock.

Furthermore, a number of the major studios kept extensive film archives; as a result, it has been possible to re-issue many interesting films in recent years and to put together documentaries and comedy films from old newsreels and shorts. But at the time, no-one bothered to keep old films: once their commercial career was over, producers lost interest in them.

Even before film libraries started to become more numerous, however, private collectors were at work, and film stars and directors in particular, had already begun to save copies of their films. Mary Pickford, for instance, is said to own copies of nearly all the films in which she and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., appeared.

Perhaps the most interesting story, however, is that of the three great stars of early American film comedy: Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Comedy films, whether shorts or feature-length, date less and are often a better reflection of the vitality of cinematic art than straight films.

The first comedies were made around 1905-1906, in France and Italy, with Max Linder, André Deed, Charles Prince (Rigadin), etc. It was not until 1910 that Mack Sennett in the United States set out to emulate the French and Italians, Immediately achieving immense popularity. The next few years saw the débuts of the great stars of comic films: Lloyd (the most popular in the U.S.A.) and Chaplin in 1913, Keaton in 1917.

According to the histories of the cinema, Lloyd made 180 shorts, Chaplin 66 and Keaton 67. Between 1921 and 1923, a turning-point in the history of the cinema, all three of them began to make full-length films: Keaton made most, 63 films of more than four reels (1,200 metres), Lloyd 18 and Chaplin 14.

As they approached the height of their popularity, they tried to collect copies of their own films. Apparently, Keaton was the least successful; he was the least wealthy of the three, and retrieving 63 feature films is no mean task. Harold Lloyd, who left the cinema in 1947 and became a successful businessman and President of the Beverley Hills Chamber of Commerce, was more or less successful, and his collection is famous throughout the United States. As for Chaplin, he owns and markets all his feature-length films. It is to be hoped that sooner or later all these treasures of the U.S. cinema will end up in America's greatest film collection, that of New York's Museum of Modern Art.


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