Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway once won a bet writing a devasting six-word short story. For sale: baby shoes. Never worn. As a silent film fan, I can think of an even shorter heartwrenching tale. Silent film. No Prints Extant.
According to a 2013 Library of Congress report, 75% of American-made silent, feature films produced between 1912 and 1929 are forever lost. Whether through natural deterioration, improper storage, or willful neglect, thousands upon thousands of the earliest motion pictures have been wiped off the map.
In a bitter-sweet celebration of the third annual Silent Movie Day, I’ve compiled a list of the twenty lost silent films I most want to defy the odds to rise from the dead and miraculously appear in an archive. I’ve tried to go a bit off the beaten path although I’d love as much as the next guy if we discovered a complete print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight or Theda Bara’s Cleopatra.
And just so everybody’s not depressed by the vast amount of lost films, I’ve added a related surviving silent film to each entry!
1. The Fairy of the Cabbages (1896)
A still from the 1900 film is often mistaken for Guy-Blache’s 1896 film.
Notable Cast/Crew: Alice Guy-Blache (director)
Plot Synopsis: Two young newlyweds find a baby in a cabbage patch with the help of a farmer.
Often misidentified online as Alice Guy-Blache’s 1900 remake, the lost 1896 version of The Fairy of the Cabbages is not only the first women-directed film but also one of the earliest narrative films. While Guy-Blache would revisit the film’s basic premise of showing babies popping up in cabbage patches, the 1896 minute-long film didn’t feature a fairy like the more well-known 1900 version.
Rediscovering such an early film would bolster our knowledge of early cinema and allow us to see Guy-Blache develop her storytelling techniques using the same basic plotline multiple times in a decade.
Similar Surviving Film: The Fairy of the Cabbages (1900) and Mid-Wife First Class (1902) are Guy-Blaches’ later two films that return to the cabbage patch.
2. The Horitz Passion Play (1897)
(Left) Ad for a multi-media presentation of the Horitz Passion Play (Right) The play’s actors parading in front of the camera.
Notable Cast/Crew: Horitz Passion Play actors
Plot Synopsis: A collection of over sixty separate Biblical scenes, stretching from Adam and Eve to Christ’s crucifixion, performed onstage.
While most 19th-century films ran no longer than a minute, filmed boxing matches and religious pageants pushed filmmakers to adapt their equipment to photograph for much longer than sixty seconds. In 1897, a crew filmed select scenes from a famous annual Easter pageant—with roots stretching back to the 13th century—performed in the modern-day Czech Republic city of Horitz.
Screened in an hour-and-half-long program with a lecturer, glass lantern slides, organ music, and hymns, The Horitz Passion Play introduced thousands of people throughout the world to the possibilities of the cinema. Four brief introductory sections have been found and identified in the last decade giving hope that even for the oldest lost silent films there is always a chance of at least some fragments popping up over a century later.
Similar Surviving Film: The Passion (1898), the only surviving 19th-century filmed passion play, features thirteen chapters recreating Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
3. 100 Years of Mormonism (1913)
A still from the film’s portrayal of Joseph Smith dictating The Book of Mormon.
Notable Cast/Crew: Hobart Bosworth, Nell Shipman (writer)
Plot Synopsis: A recounting of Mormonism’s early years, from Joseph Smith’s publication of The Book of Mormon to the Brigham Young exodus to the Salt Lake Valley.
1912 saw the release of the first American-made feature films including titles such as Oliver Twist and Cleopatra. These early American feature films were all produced by independent producers farther removed from the Edison Trust who stubbornly stuck to one and two-reelers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known colloquially as the Mormons) financed their own feature production in hopes of painting a more favorable portrait of the church.
Beyond further fleshing out the transformation of the feature film in the early 1910s, discovering this film would also give me a chance to see an early depiction of the history I learned growing up as a kid. Several still-living pioneers lent real handcarts used in their westward trek as props for the film lending a unique authenticity to the film. Odds are an ancestor or two of mine make a brief appearance.
Similar Surviving Film: From the Manager to the Cross (1912) was one of the earliest American feature films and boasted on-shot location shooting in Egypt.
4. The Jungle (1914)
(Left) Ad leaning heavily on the novel’s infamous depiction of the meat-packing industry. (Right) Film still shows the book’s socialism wasn’t left on the cutting room floor.
Notable Cast/Crew: George Nash, Gail Kane, Upton Sinclair (cameo)
Plot Synopsis: After immigrating from Eastern Europe, Jurgis and his family struggle to make ends meet in the heavily exploitative Chicago stockyards.
Upon its release in 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shocked the public with its depiction of the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry. The first screen adaptation of the classic novel features Upton Sinclair himself introducing the film in its first reel and leaning fully into the book’s pro-socialist messaging.
Motion Picture News wrote that “the scenes showing the rotten meat, the sausage made with dead rats, the ham filled with maggots are naturally nauseating, but undeniably realistic”. Who wouldn’t want to see that?!
Similar Surviving Film: The Italian (1915) centers on an immigrant family where spoiled milk, not rotten meat, plays a crucial role.
5. Romeo and Juliet (1916) x2
Francis X. Bushman’s and Beverly Bayne (Left) and Theda Bara and Harry Hilliard (Right) as Romeo and Juliet.
Notable Cast/Crew: Francis Bushman, Beverly Bane; Theda Bara, Harry Hilliard
Plot Synopsis: Two star-crossed lovers from dueling households attempt to escape and elope against the families’ wishes.
I previously wrote at length about the two lost dueling Metro and Fox 1916 adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and how they battled it out at the box office. The Metro version boasts star couple Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne and aimed to please high-class patrons with a faithful adaptation. The Fox version rested on the laurels of Theda Bara at the height of her popularity and sought to bring Shakespeare to the masses. Which of these two lost silent films would be better?
Similar Surviving Film: Hamlet (1921) features the popular silent star Asta Nielsen playing against type and genre in this silent Danish Shakespeare adaptation.
6. The Apostle (1917)
(Left) Ad for a Buenos Aires screening of the film. (Right) Cristiani’s concept art.
Notable Cast/Crew: Quirino Cristiani, Federico Valle (directors)
Plot Synopsis: A political satire of Argentinian politics told with cut-out animations.
Often cited as the earliest animated feature film, Cristiani’s film only screened in Buenos Aires before being destroyed in a 1926 vault fire. A miraculous resurrection of The Apostle—this now lost film having been made a decade before Lotte Reingier’s groundbreaking animated feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)—would fill in the missing gaps of both silent animated and South American films.
Similar Surviving Film: El Mono Relojero (1938) is the only surviving animated work from Cristiani’s trailblazing filmography.
7. Birth Control (1917)
Most theaters only allowed adults to see a movie with such controversial subject matter.
Notable Cast/Crew: Magaret Sanger
Plot Synopsis: A documentary that follows Magaret Sanger educating the public on birth control methods while running into the law and opposition at every turn.
At a time when many states had strict laws against publicly spreading birth control information, Margaret Sanger advocated for a woman’s right to access birth control through pamphlets, public events, nationally reported hunger strikes, and even film. Her 1917 film—simply titled Birth Control—became one of the first films banned using the 1915 Mutual v. Ohio Supreme Court decision that declared motion pictures were not protected as free speech.
Controversy might help ticket prices but an outright ban dramatically decreased its chances for long-term survival. Nevertheless, the idea of finding this banned film remains as tantalizing as ever. According to the appeal decision, the court described the ending as Sanger standing “behind prison bars serving her sentence, with the subtitle: No matter what happens, the work shall go on.” While Sanger’s film didn’t survive, her ideas and work sure did in the ensuing century.
Similar Surviving Film: Where Are My Children? (1916) sees Lois Weber advocating for birth control and eugenics (yikes!)
8. Riders of the Purple Sage (1918)
Promotional material for the first adaptation of Zane Grey’s classic novel.
Notable Cast/Crew: Dustin Farnum, Frank Lloyd (director)
Plot Synopsis: A former Texas ranger sharpshooter finds himself in Mormon country pursuing his abducted sister.
The first of five screen adaptations of Zane Grey’s 1912 Western classic novel of the same name, 1918’s Riders of the Purple Sage is the only classic version to faithfully follow the novel’s depiction of the fictional Mormon settlement of Cottonwood. When Fox re-released the film in 1921, Utah Senator Reed Smoot persuaded the company to promise to never screen the film again on the grounds that it portrays Mormons in an unsavory light. Whether the studio destroyed the film or simply held it from further distribution, the 1918 version quickly joined the long list of lost silent films.
Finding an extant copy would not only provide a fascinating look into the portrayal of Mormon characters onscreen but also showcase one of the earliest film adaptations of Grey’s novels.
Similar Surviving Film: Riders of the Purple Sage (1925) deletes any references to Mormon to become a breezy Tom Mix programmer.
9. The Miracle Man (1919)
A still from the only surviving material of the film.
Notable Cast/Crew: Thomas Meighan, Bette Compson, Lon Chaney
Plot Synopsis: Four con artists meet their match when their latest scam involves a Miracle Worker who has the power to heal the sick.
Heralded as one of the greatest silent films by contemporary reviews, George Sloane Tucker’s The Miracle Man is adapted from a popular George M. Cohan play and a best-selling novel. A surviving two-minute clip—featured in a 1931 Paramount promotional film celebrating the first twenty years of the studio—showcases both the film’s high production values, stellar direction, and superb acting from the leads. The performances of Meighan, Compson, and particularly Chaney caught critics’ and audiences’ attention and capitulated each to sustained stardom through the 1920s.
Similar Surviving Film: The Miracle Man (1932), as I recently reviewed, doesn’t quite live up to the silent’s reputation.
10. The Homesteader (1919)
The film targeted black audiences with its all-black production crew and cast.
Notable Cast/Crew: Evelyn Preer, Oscar Mischeaux (director, writer, producer)
Plot Synopsis: A black homesteader in North Dakota faces backlash from his white community when he pursues a relationship with a white-passing black woman.
Oscar Mischeaux started his pioneering film career off with a semi-autobiographical adaptation of his 1917 novel. Thought to be the first feature film directed by an African American, The Homesteader faced numerous obstacles during its production, from low production costs to opposition from some white theater owners.
With minimal prints struck for exhibition, it’s unlikely Mischeaux’s debut feature film will pop up in an archive anytime soon but one can keep hoping it’ll one day jump off the lost silent films list.
Similar Surviving Film: Within Our Gates (1920), Mischaeux’s second feature film, tackles racism like no Hollywood film of the era would dare to.
11. Remodeling Her Husband (1920)
A lantern slide ad for Gish’s directorial debut and finale.
Notable Cast/Crew: Dorothy Gish, James Rennie, Lillian Gish (director)
Plot Synopsis: Hijinks ensue as a woman marries a man hoping to reform him into a proper gentleman in spite of his eye for flappers.
Remodeling Her Husband was a Gish family affair. Dorothy Gish and her husband starred as the leads with Lillian directing—her first and only time in the director’s chair—a script she had written under the pseudonym Dorothy Elizabeth Carter. Add in famous Alongquin writer Dorothy Parker providing the title cards and you have an all-female creative team besides cinematographer George W. Hill.
Playing with the rapidly changing cultural mores surrounding marriage in early 20th century America, the film would make an exciting showcase for Gish’s vision behind the camera.
Similar Surviving Film: Why Change Your Wife? (1920), Cecil B. DeMille’s frothy sex comedy, similarly tackles marital infidelity and sexual desire.
12. Humor Risk (1921)
The Four Brothers—Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo, Chico— in 1921.
Notable Cast/Crew: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx
Plot Synopsis: The first and only two-reeler in a planned series featuring the four Marx brothers.
The film only screened once to a matinee full of kids with a less-than-stellar audience response, leading to its subsequent failure to reach wide release. Most of the information about Humor Risk comes from the brothers’ personal recollections decades after the making of the film.
Luckily because of the Marx brothers’ and their films’ devoted following, plenty of informed detective work has been done to learn more about their lost silent two-reeler. Of course, nothing would clear up any remaining questions better than finding a complete or even partial print of the long-lost film.
Similar Surviving Film: Too Many Kisses (1925) has Harpo Marx as a comic relief character in the earliest surviving appearance of a Marx brother on film.
13. The Lying Truth (1922)
Ad for Marion Fairfax’s first and only directed film.
Notable Cast/Crew: Noah Beery, Majorie Daw, Tully Marshall, Marion Fairfax (director)
Plot Synopsis: In an attempt to increase sales for his struggling family newspaper, the new owner creates a bogus murder story only to be accused of murder himself when his brother’s body turns up in a nearby lake.
A successful Broadway playwright, Marion Fairfax quickly became respected in the industry for her movie scripts for silent directors like William DeMille and Marshall Neilan. In 1921, she struck out on her own creating the Marion Fairfax productions. Producing several films through her independent company Fairfax directed the film The Lying Truth with her husband character actor Tully Marshall in a supporting part.
We know Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blache as talented directors of the era. It’d be great to add another talented women director of the era and Fairfax seems like a possible option with previous success in the film industry.
Similar Surviving Film: The Grim Game (1919) stars Harry Houdini who also sees his fake murder plot intended for increased newspaper sales backfire on him.
14. The Power of Love (1922)
(Left) Spalding, Beery, and Bedford in a film still. (Right) Fairall’s 3D Camera.
Notable Cast/Crew: Noah Beery, Barbara Bedford, Aileen Manning
Plot Synopsis: In Spanish-ruled California, a woman falls for a pious outsider after being betrothed to a villainous, powerful social elite.
While the film was released in 2D format in 1923 under the title The Forbidden Lover, The Power of Love first wowed audiences in Los Angeles and New York as the first 3D feature film. After years of experiments, inventor Harry K. Fairall developed a camera with two lenses used to shoot the film. In its review following the first 3D screening in Los Angeles, Motion Picture World explained the process.
There are projected on the screen simultaneously two positive prints superimposed, which have been photographed at the same time through a single camera having two lenses, separated a distance equivalent to the position of the human eyes. Viewing the pictures through the spectacles having a blue and a red lens, which are complementary colors, makes possible stereoscopic vision, each eye seeing a single picture of its own, which is necessary to obtain relief and perspective
Despite Motion Picture World’s rave review, the technology most likely proved too cumbersome and complicated to distribute across the country. Given that the 2D version of the film is also lost, finding the 3D version would be extraordinary.
Similar Surviving Film: Audioscopiks (1935), an early 3D short film, received a nomination for Best Short at the 1936 Academy Awards.
15. The Cheat (1923)
A poster emphasizing the scandalous nature of the film’s climax.
Notable Cast/Crew: Pola Negri, Jack Holt, George Fitzmaurice (director)
Plot Synopsis: A disinherited socialite becomes entangled with a predatory swindler who demands sexual favors in exchange for a much-needed loan.
A remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 hit, the 1923 version of The Cheat stars Pola Negri in her second American film. I imagine that Negri playing the central character would be a huge improvement over the histrionic Fanny Ward in the 1915 version although I’m skeptical Charles de Rocheforte could match the energy of Sessue Hayakawa. The inventive lightning of the original sets the bar high but I’m hopeful if we ever found the 1923 version it’d at least be a fascinating comparison.
Similar Surviving Film: The Cheat (1915) catapulted DeMille into the best director discussion while a Hayakawa gives a showstopping villainous performance; Tallulah Bankhead headlinesThe Cheat (1931) and despite her best efforts can’t breathe new life in this clunky Pre-Code remake.
16. Hollywood (1923)
Poster and ad boasting the many star cameos in Hollywood.
Notable Cast/Crew: James Cruze (director), Over fifty celebrity cameos
Plot Synopsis: An aspiring actress travels from Indiana to Hollywood with her grandfather only to find he is better cut out for the movies than her.
As seen in the various A Star is Born and Merton of the Movies iterations and films like Souls for Sale and Movie Crazy, Hollywood has always loved to gush over itself onscreen. James Cruze’s Hollywood could very well be the first film to shine a light on Hollywood by filling itself with dozens of celebrity cameos.
Some cameos are names every classic movie fan knows today: Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford. Other cameos are long-forgotten stars who would only be recognized by 1923 audiences: Hope Hampton, Owen Moore, Agnes Ayres. Whether the film is any good or not hardly matters since finding a copy would bless us with this many appearances of early 1920s audience favorites including Roscoe Arbuckle’s first onscreen role since his infamous murder scandal.
Similar Surviving Film: Show People (1928) tells a heart-warming love story filled with cameos from late 1920s silent stars.
17. Human Wreckage (1923)
(Left) Bessie Love’s character gets her narcotics fix onscreen. (Right) Film poster posthumously banks on Wallace Reid’s name.
Notable Cast/Crew: Dorothy Davenport, James Kirkwood, Bessie Love
Plot Synopsis: Following a prescription for narcotics by his doctor, a lawyer struggles to overcome his drug addiction while advocating for tougher drug laws.
Leading lady Dorothy Davenport’s husband Wallace Reid infamously died at the tragically young age of 31 from a morphine addiction. Davenport co-produced and starred in Human Wreckage—released only five months after Reid’s death in January 1923— to alert the public to the danger of narcotics.
A decade before the Hollywood Production Code forbade any reference to drugs, several cities banned Human Wreckage for its frank depiction of drug addiction and use—needles and all. A pivotal film in the career of one of early Hollywood’s most successful female producers and writers, Human Wreckage would no doubt add another missing piece in the history of not only drug addiction onscreen but the triumphs of women in early Hollywood.
Similar Surviving Film: The Red Kimono (1925), another Davenport-produced film, centers on educating its audience on the dangers of prostitution.
18. A Woman of the Sea (1926)
(Top) Edna Purviance in a production still for the unreleased film (Bottom) Certificate of Destruction.
Notable Cast/Crew: Edna Purviance, Josef von Sternberg (director), Charlie Chaplin (producer)
Plot Synopsis: A fisherman’s two daughters feud over the love of a man from the city.
David Zaslav isn’t the only one who has destroyed a movie simply for a tax write-off. Charlie Chaplin has blood on his hands too.
After championing Josef von Sternberg’s small-budget debut film Salvation Hunters, Chaplin produced Sternberg’s next film and cast his own frequent leading lady Edna Purviance hoping to boost both of their careers. After a tepid test screening under the title The Sea Gulls, Chaplin declined to release it thinking that the film had little plot and that Purviance didn’t cut it as a dramatic actress. (Fun fact: Sternburg credited the Pacific Ocean as a character in A Woman of the Seas.) The film stayed in his vaults until 1933 when Chaplin burned the negative in front of five witnesses.
Similar Surviving Film: Docks of New York (1928), another lyrical Von Sternberg production heavily reliant on a large body of water to create a moody atmosphere.
19. Kiss Me Again (1925)
Monte Blue and Clara Bow in a Moving Picture World Ad for Kiss Me Again.
Notable Cast/Crew: Ernest Lubitsch (director), Marie Prevost, Monte Blue, Clara Bow
Plot Synopsis: A husband attempts to win back his wife after she asks for a divorce in order to marry her new music teacher.
Lubitsch’s The Patriot might top a lot of the most wanted lost silent films lists but his marital comedy Kiss Me Again deserves more attention. Even if only playing a supporting character, Clara Bow seems like a perfect match with Ernest Lubitsch’s tongue-in-cheek humor. Lubtisch’s sound remake That Uncertain Feeling might be regarded as a lesser Lubitsch; nevertheless, it would still be great to see another of his early American films right when he really started to hone his craft after making great films like Rosita and Lady Windemere’s Fan.
Similar Surviving Film: The Marriage Circle (1924) similarly plays with Lubitsch’s fascination of martial infidelity and suspicion.
20. To Build A Fire (1928)
Two surviving stills from Claude Autant-Lara’s experimental film.
Notable Cast/Crew: Claude Autant-Lara (director)
Plot Synopsis: A 20-minute, widescreen adaption of the Jack London short story of the same name.
Inspired by the widescreen scenes in Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Autant-Lara set out to make a short film utilizing a similar technique. Using the newly patented hypergonar—an anamorphic device similar to CinemaScope—Autant-Lara achieved a more seamless image than Gance’s triptych Polyvision method.
As one of the surviving stills shows, the film often used the extra image space to project multiple images, relying on this technique rather than title cards to convey the character’s inner emotions and thoughts. Add the fact that London’s short story is a personal favorite and there is even more reason to hope a print pops up of this technological marvel in the future.
Similar Surviving Film: The Big Trail (1930), while not shot with anamorphic lenses, exists in a rare 70mm widescreen version that doubles the length of the usual 35mm film of the time.
Check Those Attics!
Lost silent films pop up all the time—have you seen the minute clip recently unearthed from Theda Bara’s Cleopatra?—so fingers crossed some if not all of the films listed above somehow find their way onto an eBay auction or simply laying in a mislabeled film canister deep in an archive.
In the meantime, celebrate Silent Movie Day by thanking the archivists, technicians, historians, and musicians for keeping the silent films we have in tip-top shape and working on releasing more archival treasures to the public. Learn about, watch, and buy physical releases of the many silent films that have survived to ensure we keep getting more accessible silent films.
What are your most wanted lost silent films?