Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Madame Sans-Gêne

I recently stumbled upon Madame Sans-Gene, a silent movie from 1924 shot in black and white and starring Gloria Swanson. In fact it's a 'lost movie' - a film that is no longer know to exist anywhere be it in studio archives or private collections. Apparently this is very common;  Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation claims that "half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever." The German film archive Deutsche Kinemathek says the same thing. Various factors have contributed to the complete loss of these films. Notably the use of nitrate film until the 1950s which is both highly unstable with a tendancy to decay badly, and also highly flammable. Spontaneous combustion  made studio fires far more common than they are today, destroying entire archives at a time. Even more tragically, many silent films were destroyed upon the introduction of 'talkies' since they were percieved as having no commercial value. Which means that in some cases there is little or no remaining evidence of the films that spanned the careers and made global stars of actors such as Theda Bara Clara Bow Pauline Frederick or Elsie Ferguson with the result that they are largely forgotten today. Unsurprisingly, early advocates of film preservation such as Charlie Chaplain or Douglas Fairbanks endure in popular culture; their comrade in arms Harold Lloyd, whose own archive was destroyed by fire in 1940, does not.

How sad that an entire career can be rendered so fleeting by fire, neglect or changes in technology. Now all that remains are movie posters and publicity photos from the set.

More info can be found about lost films, among other places, here and here