In his history of France in the 1930s, The Hollow Years, Eugen Weber mentions, almost in passing, ‘Of two thousand French films shot between 1930 and 1950 only a quarter survive, and most of those that we still view are more or less glum.’ Leaving aside the matter of glumness, this is a staggering number of lost movies, which left me wondering if France was exceptional in this regard or whether other countries had experienced a similar loss. Unfortunately, Weber provides no reference or citation for this assertion, though given his distinction as a historian there’s no reason to disbelieve him.
I’ve always tended to think of lost movies as being from the silent era and a quick look at the (admittedly very incomplete) Wikipedia page of ‘Lost French films’ confirms this impression. Almost all the items listed are silents and many are short films made by the cinematic pioneer, Georges Méliès. But Weber is referring to the first two decades of talking pictures (the first French talkies were released in 1930). How did so many talkies come to be lost?
All movies during this period, not just French ones, were printed on nitrate film. This material was not only highly flammable but also deteriorated rapidly if not kept in controlled conditions. In 1937, a fire in the storage vault of the US company Fox Pictures destroyed all the negatives of the company’s pre-1935 films. Cinema in this period was not regarded as an art form that was worth spending large amounts of money on preserving. It was, from its earliest days, a cold-bloodedly commercial enterprise. Production costs meant that it had to be. The twin perils of catastrophic loss, as in a fire, and the simple entropy of physical decay, account for some of the losses
But in fact, and again this does not just apply to French movies, the bulk of loss was down to deliberate destruction. In his book, The Classic French Cinema, 1930-1960, CG Crisp writes of lost French movies:
Those losses arise from the fact that the films were subject to a purely commercial regime, which saw them thrown out once audiences lost interest, or processed to salvage reusable materials. By about 1920, the earliest films had all begun to seem ‘out-dated’: Pathé had stripped the gelatine off all his early productions to recuperate the base, and Méliès burned all his copies in 1923, giving away the negatives to a salvage merchant. Again after 1930, silent films came to seem ‘out-dated’ and suffered the same fate. Toward 1950, the switch from nitrate to celluloid caused past production to be abandoned for a third time.
France does seem exceptional in its losses. ‘The situation is much worse in France’ according to Crisp. Other leading cinema nations — Germany, Sweden, the UK, and the UK — began to establish national film archives in the 1930s. France relied on the efforts of individuals such as Henri Langlois, who co-founded the Cinémathèque Française.
You cannot but wonder what treasures have been lost. Would Eugen Weber’s impression of the glumness of French films between 1930 and 1950 have held if a more comprehensive archive was available? Impossible to say, and as his book describes in immense detail, the Thirties was not a happy decade for France. And worse was to come, of course, in the Forties. But it’s a reminder of the fragility of art and of how contingent its survival can be. Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, survives in a single thousand-year-old manuscript, and even that was nearly lost in a house fire in 1731. As for was lost when Alexander the Great razed Persepolis, or when the Library of Alexandria went up in flames, that is almost beyond speculation.
In our own age, film preservation is supported with as much scholarly solemnity and resources as the field of Renaissance painting. Digital is now the medium and cloud-based backups are the recovery method. What could possibly go wrong? Digital, short of a civilisational breakdown or an EMP catastrophe, is forever, isn’t it? (Though what might happen if the AIs decide that movies are a distraction from the beauty of mathematics and the value of science?) One problem is that digital formats and standards change, and there is, as far as I know, no internationally agreed standard for film preservation. In any case, servers crash, backups fail, and archives are hacked.
Samuel Johnson thought that public inscriptions should be in Latin because the language had survived for more than two thousand years and was likely to persist further into the future than an upstart tongue like English. He had a point, reinforced by the traditional choice of medium for these inscriptions. Much of what we know of the ancients is inscribed on stone. Perhaps an alternative to digital preservation would be for the classic movies to be carved, frame by frame, onto stone tablets, thereby ensuring their survival through the coming millennia.
[The picture at the top of this post shows Theda Bara in the 1917 film Cleopatra, one of the movies that was lost forever in the Fox Pictures fire of 1937.]