A lost film is a feature or short film that is no longer known to
exist in any studio archives, private collections, or public archives,
such as the U.S. Library of Congress.
Lon Chaney in London After Midnight (1927), one of the most
sought-after lost films. The last known print was destroyed in the
1965 MGM vault fire, leaving only a set of production stills as a
3 Reasons for film loss
4 Later lost films
Lost film soundtracks
6 List of lost films
7 List of incomplete or partially lost films
8 Rediscovered films
9 Stock footage
10 In film
11 See also
13 External links
During most of the 20th century, U.S. 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, but 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." Of American silent films, far more
have been lost than have survived, and of American sound films made
from 1927 to 1950, perhaps half have been lost.
The phrase "lost film" can also be used in a literal sense for
instances where footage of deleted scenes, unedited, and alternative
versions of feature films are known to have been created, but can no
longer be accounted for. Sometimes, a copy of a lost film is
rediscovered. A film that has not been recovered in its entirety is
called a partially lost film. For example, the 1922 film Sherlock
Holmes was eventually discovered, but some of the footage is still
Most film studios routinely had a still photographer with a
large-format camera working on the set during production, taking
pictures for potential later publicity use. The high-quality
photographic paper prints that resulted – some produced in
quantity for display use by theaters, others in smaller numbers for
distribution to newspapers and magazines – have preserved
imagery from many otherwise lost films. In some cases, such as London
After Midnight, the surviving coverage is so extensive that an entire
lost film can be reconstructed scene by scene in the form of still
photographs. Stills have been used to stand in for missing footage
when making new preservation prints of partially lost films.
Reasons for film loss
Theda Bara in Cleopatra (1917). Four-hundred stills and twenty seconds
of the film itself are known to have survived. Because a small loop of
film exists, Cleopatra in the loose sense could be considered a
"partially lost film".
The First Men in the Moon (1919), a lost British film, reputedly "the
first movie to ever be based entirely on a famous science fiction
Most lost films are from the silent film and early talkie era, from
about 1894 to 1930. Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation estimates
that more than 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost and
Library of Congress
Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are
The largest cause of silent film loss was intentional destruction, as
silent films were perceived as having little or no commercial value
after the end of the silent era by 1930. 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."
Many other early motion pictures are lost because the nitrate film
used for nearly all 35 mm negatives and prints made before 1952 is
highly flammable. When in very badly deteriorated condition and
improperly stored (e.g., in a sun-baked shed), nitrate film can
spontaneously combust. Fires have destroyed entire archives of films.
For example, a storage vault fire in 1937 destroyed all the original
negatives of Fox Pictures' pre-1935 films. The 1965 MGM vault fire
resulted in the loss of hundreds more silent films and early talkies.
Humor Risk (1921), now long-lost, was the first
Marx Brothers film.
Pictured in a photograph the same year, from (left to right), are
Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico.
Nitrate film is chemically unstable and over time can decay into a
sticky mass or a powder akin to gunpowder. This process can be very
unpredictable: some nitrate film from the 1890s is still in good
condition today, while some much later nitrate had to be scrapped as
unsalvageable when it was barely 20 years old. Much depends on the
environment in which it is stored. Ideal conditions of low
temperature, low humidity, and adequate ventilation can preserve
nitrate film for centuries, but in practice, the storage conditions
were usually far from ideal. When a film on nitrate base is said to
have been "preserved", this almost always means simply that it has
been copied onto safety film or, more recently, digitized; both
methods result in some loss of quality.
Eastman Kodak introduced a nonflammable
35 mm film
35 mm film stock in spring
1909. However, the plasticizers used to make the film flexible
evaporated too quickly, making the film dry and brittle, causing
splices to part and perforations to tear. By 1911, the major American
film studios were back to using nitrate stock. "Safety film" was
relegated to sub-35 mm formats such as
16 mm and 8 mm until
improvements were made in the late 1940s.
Tenderloin (1928), starring Dolores Costello, was the second Vitaphone
feature to have talking sequences. It is considered a lost film
because only its soundtrack is known to have survived.
Some pre-1931 sound films made by
Warner Bros. and First National have
been lost because they used a sound-on-disc system with a separate
soundtrack on special phonograph records. If some of a film's
soundtrack discs could not be found in the 1950s when 16 mm
sound-on-film reduction prints of early "talkies" were being made for
inclusion in television syndication packages, that film's chances of
survival plummeted: many sound-on-disc films have survived only by way
of those 16 mm prints.
Gold Diggers of Broadway
Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), the third
Warner Bros. film shot in
Technicolor, is a "partially lost film".
Before the eras of sound film, television and later home video, films
were viewed as having little future value when their theatrical runs
ended. Thus, many were deliberately destroyed to save the space and
cost of storage; many were recycled for their silver content. Many
Technicolor two-color negatives from the 1920s and 1930s were thrown
out when the studios refused to reclaim their films, still being held
Technicolor in its vaults. Some used prints were sold to scrap
dealers and ultimately cut up 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 movies at home.
As a consequence of this widespread lack of care, the work of many
early filmmakers and performers has made its way to the present in
fragmentary form. A high-profile example is the case of Theda Bara.
One of the best-known actresses of the early silent era, she made 40
films, but only six are now known to exist.
Clara Bow was equally
celebrated in her heyday, but 20 of her 57 films are completely lost,
and another five are incomplete. Once-popular stage actresses such
Pauline Frederick and Elsie Ferguson, who made the jump to silent
films, are now largely forgotten with a minimal archive to represent
their careers; fewer than 10 movies exist from Frederick's 1915–1928
work, and Ferguson has just two surviving films, one from 1919 and her
only talkie from 1930.
John Wayne in the lost Western The Oregon Trail (1936)
This is preferable to the fate of the stage actress and Bara rival
Valeska Suratt, whose entire film career has been lost. Western hero
William Farnum, a Fox player like Bara and Suratt, was one of the
screen's big Western actors rivaling the likes of William S. Hart, Tom
Mix, and Harry Carey. Farnum has about three of his Fox films extant.
Other male performers, such as
Francis X. Bushman
Francis X. Bushman and William Desmond,
had numerous film credits, but films made in their heyday are missing
due to junking, neglect, or studios being defunct. Nevertheless,
unlike Suratt and Bara, these men continued working into the sound era
and even into television, thus their later performances can be
observed and appreciated.
Occasional exceptions exist; almost all of Charlie Chaplin's films
from his entire career have survived, as well as extensive amounts of
unused footage dating back to 1916. The exceptions are A Woman of the
Sea (which he destroyed himself as a tax writeoff) and one of his
early Keystone films,
Her Friend the Bandit (see Unknown Chaplin). The
filmography of D. W. Griffith is nearly complete, as many of his early
Biograph films were deposited by the company in paper print form at
the Library of Congress. Many of Griffith's feature-film works of the
1910s and 1920s found their way to the film collection at the Museum
of Modern Art in the 1930s, and were preserved under the auspices of
curator Iris Barry. Mary Pickford's filmography is complete: her early
years were spent with Griffith, and she gained control of her own
productions in the late 1910s and early 1920s. She also backtracked to
as many of her Zukor-controlled early Famous Players films as were
salvageable. Stars such as Chaplin and
Douglas Fairbanks enjoyed
stupendous popularity, and their films were reissued over and over
throughout the silent era, meaning prints of their films were likely
to surface decades later. Pickford, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Cecil
B. DeMille were early champions of film preservation, though Lloyd
lost a good number of his silent works in a vault fire in the early
Later lost films
An improved 35 mm safety film was introduced in 1949. Since
safety film is much more stable than nitrate film, comparatively few
films were lost after about 1950. However, color fading of certain
color stocks and vinegar syndrome threaten the preservation of films
made since about this time.
Most mainstream movies from the 1950s onwards survive today, but
several early pornographic films and some B movies are lost. In most
cases, these obscure films go unnoticed and unknown, but some films by
noted cult directors have been lost, as well:
Several films by
Kenneth Anger from across his career have been lost
for a variety of reasons.
Ed Wood's 1972 film, The Undergraduate, has been lost, along with his
1970 film Take It Out In Trade, which exists only in fragments without
sound. Wood's 1971 film
Necromania was believed lost for years, until
an edited version resurfaced at a yard sale in 1992, followed by a
complete unedited print in 2001. A complete print of the
previously lost Wood pornographic film The Young Marrieds was
discovered in 2004.
Tom Graeff's first feature film, The Noble Experiment (1955), in which
director/writer Graeff plays a misunderstood genius scientist, was
considered lost until found by
Elle Schneider during the production of
a documentary about Graeff entitled The Boy from Out of This World.
Most of Andy Milligan's early films are considered lost.
Many short sponsored films—films made for educational, training, or
religious purposes—from the 1940s through the 1970s are also lost,
as they were thought of as disposable or upgradable.
Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's first roles, including Big and
Little Wong Tin Bar, was considered lost until a 2016 discovery and
The first three films of noted Finnish melodrama actor and director
Teuvo Tulio were lost, along with several other films that were of
interest at least for historians of Finnish cinema, when the film
depository of the company
Adams Filmi burned down in Helsinki in 1959.
Sometimes, only certain aspects of films may be lost. Early color
films such as Lucien Hubbard's The Mysterious Island and John G.
The Show of Shows
The Show of Shows exist only partially or not at all in color
because the copies that were made of the film that exist were created
on black-and-white stock. (See List of early color feature films.)
Two three-dimensional films from 1954, Top Banana and Southwest
Passage, exist only in their flat form because only one print, made
for either the left or right eye, exists.
Lost film soundtracks
Some films produced in 1926–1931 using the
system, in which the soundtrack is separate from the film, are now
considered lost because the soundtrack discs were lost or destroyed,
while the picture elements survive. Conversely, and more commonly,
some early sound films survive only as sets of soundtrack discs, with
the picture elements completely missing (e.g., 1930's The Man from
Blankley's, starring John Barrymore) or surviving only in fragmentary
Gold Diggers of Broadway
Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) and
The Rogue Song
The Rogue Song (1930),
two highly popular and profitable early musicals in two-color
Many stereophonic soundtracks from the early to mid-1950s that were
either played in interlock on a 35 mm fullcoat magnetic reel or
single-strip magnetic film (such as Fox's four-track magnetic, which
became the standard of mag stereophonic sound) are now lost. Films
such as House of Wax, The Caddy, The War of the Worlds, The 5,000
Fingers of Dr. T, and
From Here to Eternity
From Here to Eternity that were originally
available with 3-track, magnetic sound are now available only with a
monophonic optical soundtrack. The chemistry behind adhering magnetic
particles to the tri-acetate film base eventually caused the
autocatalytic breakdown of the film (vinegar syndrome). As long as
studios had a monaural optical negative that could be printed, studio
executives felt no need to preserve the stereophonic versions of the
List of lost films
Main article: List of lost films
List of incomplete or partially lost films
Main article: List of incomplete or partially lost films
Main article: List of rediscovered films
Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's first acting roles were in Big and Little
Wong Tin Bar, a 1962 martial arts film thought to be lost until it was
rediscovered in 2016.
Occasionally, prints of films considered lost have been rediscovered.
An example is the 1910 version of Frankenstein which was believed lost
for decades until the existence of a print (which had been in the
hands of an unwitting collector for years) was discovered in the
1970s. A print of Richard III (1912) was found in 1996 and restored by
the American Film Institute. In 2013, an early
Mary Pickford film,
Their First Misunderstanding, notable for being the first film in
which she was credited by name, was found in a
New Hampshire barn and
donated to Keene State College.
Beyond the Rocks (1922) with
Gloria Swanson and
Rudolph Valentino was
considered a lost film for several decades. Swanson lamented the loss
of this and other films in her 1980 memoirs, but optimistically
concluded, "I do not believe these films are gone forever". In 2000, a
print was found in the Netherlands and restored by the Nederlands
Filmmuseum and the Haghefilm Conservation. It turned up among about
2000 rusty film canisters donated by an eccentric Dutch collector,
Joop van Liempd, of Haarlem. It was given its first modern screening
in 2005, and has since been aired on Turner Classic Movies.
In the early 2000s, the 1927 German film Metropolis—which had been
distributed in many different edits over the years—was restored to
as close to the original version as possible by reinstating edited
footage and using computer technology to repair damaged footage. At
that point, however, approximately a quarter of the original film
footage was considered lost, according to Kino Video's DVD release of
the restored film. On July 1, 2008, Berlin film experts announced that
a copy of the film had been discovered in the archives of the film
museum Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which contained all
but one of the scenes still missing from the 2002 restoration.
The film now has been restored very close to its premiere version.
In 2010, digital copies of ten early American films were presented to
Library of Congress
Library of Congress by the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, the
first film installment from the Russian state archives to be
Television material existing on film has sometimes been recovered. The
1951 pilot of
I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy was long believed lost, but in 1990 the
widow of one of the actors, Pepito Pérez (who played Pepito the
Clown), found a copy. It has since been shown on television. Sometimes
a film believed lost in its original state has been restored, either
through the process of colorization, or other restoration methods. The
Cage, the original 1964 pilot film for Star Trek, survived only in a
black-and-white print until 1987, when a film archivist found an
unmarked (mute) 35mm reel in a Hollywood film laboratory with the
negative trims of the unused scenes.
Similarly, a number of videotaped television programmes, previously
thought lost (see wiping) have been recovered as overseas Kinescope
film prints from private collectors and various other sources over the
Several films that would otherwise be entirely lost survive in the
form of stock footage used for later films.
Universal Pictures feature film
The Cat Creeps
The Cat Creeps (1930) is a lost
film and its only remaining footage was included in a Universal short
film called Boo! (1932). However, UCLA still has a copy of the
James Cagney film Winner Take All (1932) used scenes
from the early talkie
Queen of the Night Clubs
Queen of the Night Clubs (1929) starring Texas
Queen of the Night Clubs
Queen of the Night Clubs was not a lost film in 1932, no
prints of the film have survived through the decades, and only that
footage included in Winner Take All remains.
Actress turned gossip columnist
Hedda Hopper made her screen debut in
Fox Film called
The Battle of Hearts
The Battle of Hearts (1916). The star of the film
was William Farnum, then at the beginning of his long Fox contract. 26
years later in 1942 Hopper produced her short series Hedda Hopper's
Hollywood #2. In the short, Hopper, Farnum, her son William Hopper,
and William's wife Jane Gilbert view portions of Battle of Hearts.
These brief portions of that movie survive within the Hopper
documentary. More than likely Hopper had an entire print of the movie
in 1942. However, like many early Fox films, Battle of Hearts is now
lost or missing.
One of Charlie Chaplin's best-known works, the 1925 silent film The
Gold Rush, was re-released in 1942 to include a musical track and
narration by Chaplin himself. The reissue would end up having the
unintentional result of preserving the film, as the original 1925 film
(though generally not considered a lost film) shows noticeable
degradation of image and missing frames, damage not in evidence in the
The Polish film O czym się nie mówi (pl) from 1939 contains
three short fragments of Arabella from 1917, one of Pola Negri's early
films, which later became lost.
Several films have been made with lost film fragments incorporated
into the work.
Decasia (2002) used nothing but decaying film footage
as an abstract tone poem of light and darkness, much like Peter
Delpeut's more historical
Lyrisch Nitraat (Lyrical Nitrate, 1990)
which contained only footage from canisters found stored in an
Amsterdam cinema. In 1993, Delpeut released The Forbidden Quest,
combining early film footage and archival photographs with new
material to tell the fictional story of an ill-fated Antarctic
Fox Film Corporation feature
Charlie Chan Carries On
Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) only
exists in a trailer made to promote the film, and in a Spanish
language version Eran Trece ("They were thirteen").
Peter Jackson's mockumentary Forgotten
Silver purports to show
recovered footage of early films. Instead, the filmmakers used newly
shot film sequences treated to look like lost film.
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse double feature,
Planet Terror and
Death Proof segments have references to
missing reels, used as plot devices.
Masters of Horror episode "Cigarette Burns" deals
with the search for a fictional lost film, La Fin Absolue Du Monde
(The Absolute End of the World).
Archive Treasure Hunt
List of lost films
Lost television broadcast
List of missing treasures
List of unpublished books
Preservation (library and archival science)
^ The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 by David
Pierce, September 2013
^ Report of the Register of Copyrights for the Fiscal Year
1912–1913, Library of Congress, 1913, p. 141.
Dave Kehr (October 14, 2010). "Film Riches, Cleaned Up for
Posterity". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-15. It’s bad enough,
to cite a common estimate, that 90 percent of all American silent
films and 50 percent of American sound films made before 1950 appear
to have vanished forever.
^ Brian Dzyak (2010). What I Really Want to Do on Set in Hollywood: A
Guide to Real Jobs in the Film Industry. Crown Publishing Group.
pp. 303–. ISBN 978-0-307-87516-7.
^ Robert Godwin, H.G. Wells The First Men in the Moon: the Story of
the 1919 Film, Apogee Space Books, ISBN 978-1926837-31-4- see web
page at Apogee books (retrieved 5 May 2014).
^ Silent Era: Presumed Lost
^ Film Preservation Archived March 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.,
The Film Foundation.
^ Ohlheiser, Abby (December 4, 2013). "Most of America's Silent Films
Are Lost Forever". The Wire. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
^ Robert A. Harris, public hearing statement to the National Film
Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,
^ "$45,000 Fire Drives Families From Homes in Little Ferry", Bergen
Evening Record, July 9, 1937, p. 1. Quoted by Richard Koszarski in
Fort Lee: The Film Town, Indiana University Press, 2005, pp.
339–341. ISBN 978-0-86196-652-3.
^ Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907–1915, Charles
Scribner's Sons 1990, p. 74–75. ISBN 0-684-18414-1.
^ Clara Bow.net
^ New Yorker:In the Vault
^ Mason, Anthony (24 September 2013). "Lost
Mary Pickford movie
discovered in N.H. barn". CBS News. Retrieved 24 June 2014.
^ Faraci, Devin (July 3, 2008). "METROPOLIS REBORN". CHUD. p. 1.
Archived from the original on July 5, 2008.
^ "Lost scenes of 'Metropolis' discovered in Argentina". The Local. 2
July 2008. Archived from the original on August 20, 2008.
^ "'Lost' silent movies found in Russia, returned to U.S." cnn.com.
October 21, 2010. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
^ Bob Furmanek, post to Classic Horror Film Board, April 21, 2008. The
reconstruction used the soundtrack of Roddenberry's 16mm print for
those scenes otherwise without sound.
List of 7000+ Lost American Silent Feature Films
American Silent Feature Film Database at the Library of Congress
Subterranean Cinema a website about the search for lost and rare
List of lost silent films at www.silentera.com
List of lost films
List of lost films of the 1970s at The Weird World of 70s Cinema –
Archived index at the Wayback Machine.
Vitaphone Project, restoring
Vitaphone films and finding Vitaphone
Josef von Sternberg. The Case of Lena Smith Book on Josef von
Sternberg's last silent movie—one of the legendary lost masterpieces
of the American cinema; Published by the Austrian Film Museum
Film Threat's Top 50 Lost Films of All Time
Lost Films database
Allan Ellenberger's blog on the many fires at Universal Studios
A Lost Film a blog about lost films, outtakes, etc.
List of lost films
List of incomplete or partially lost films
List of lost or unfinished animated films
List of rediscovered films
List of rediscovered film footage
1937 Fox vault fire
1965 MGM vault fire