A "lost film" is one for which there is no known print in existence- anywhere. A great majority of the lost films are the early silents, but films were lost up until around the 1950's.
Why did films become "lost"? Early film stock was highly flammable and film warehouse fires were not that unusual. Incredibly, sometimes studios would deliberately destroy their own films. (These films would nowadays, of course, be classified as "priceless"- both literally and figuratively.)
The deliberate destruction of these gems is on a par, although not with the same evil intention, with the Nazi book burnings of the 1930's. Actually the book burnings were better, in a way, because the books the Nazis tried to destroy still had copies in other locations and complete destruction was much harder to achieve.
Sometimes the loss was caused by simple neglect, as early cheap film stock was just left sitting around for decades and simply turned to goo. Luckily, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy, each only have one or two lost films. Happily, sometimes lost films turn up in basements, attics, closets or motion picture theaters.
Let's take a look- sadly and regretfully- at some of the greatest-ever "lost films.”
* Saved From the Titanic (1912)
The first-ever film made about the sinking of the Titanic. Incredibly, this film was made in the same year the Titanic sank. Doubly incredibly, one of the cast members was Dorothy Gibson, who was an actual passenger and survivor of the Titanic's ill-fated voyage.
* The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908)
The first film ever made about The Wizard of Oz. The film actually features an appearance by Oz author L. Frank Baum. The film was only shown in road shows as part of a theater presentation. The paint decomposed and it was discarded.
* We Must Do Our Best (1909)
Moe Howard, later the leader of the Three Stooges, did this silent Vitagraph film. He was 12 years old at the time. Billed as “Harry Moses Horwitz" (his real name), Moe plays "a bully.” Talk about prophetic!
* The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1914)
The first dramatic feature film made in color (Kinemacolor).
* Somewhere in Georgia (1917)
A low-budget six-reeler starring legendary baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb as a bank teller who joins the Detroit Tigers.
* The Indian Wars (1914)
Featuring William F. Cody, more commonly known as Buffalo Bill. Reportedly, only part of the last reel survives.
* The Patriot (1928)
Nominated for Best Picture at the second Academy Awards, it is the only "lost" Best Picture nominee. It depicts the life of Tsar Paul I of Russia.
* A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
The first movie to cost more than $1 million dollars and also the first to feature complete nudity by a major star, Annette Kellerman.
Plot: a sultan agrees to help an evil witch destroy a mysterious beauty, if the witch will bring his young son back to life.
* The Way of All Flesh (1927)
The only "lost" Academy Award-winning performance. Emil Jannings won the first-ever Best Actor Oscar for his performance in it, plus another film made the same year. (The rules were later changed.)
Parts survive, but no copies of the film in it's entirety exist.
* The Life of General Villa (1914)
Pancho Villa, the legendary Mexican revolutionary, was raising money for his revolution and director D.W. Griffith paid him to star in this film. (!!!)
* Humor Risk (1921)
The only silent film ever made by the Marx Brothers. It is not known if there ever was a public screening. Each brother put up $1,000 to finance it (Harpo plays the hero, Groucho is the villain). Harpo reportedly enters the film by sliding down a coal chute. In the end, Groucho trudges off in a ball and chain.
Reportedly, the Marx Brothers hated the film so much they had it burned.
* Convention City (1933)
Convention City was reportedly "scandalous" enough that after the motion picture production code was adopted, further screenings were banned.
Starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Mary Astor, the film supposedly pushed the boundaries of the 1930s and in fact, it may have hastened the adoption of the production code itself. Plot: drunken and sexed-up employees of the Honeywell Rubber Company get together at a convention in Atlantic City.
Dr. James Wingate, chairman of the motion picture division of the state of New York Public Education Board, which oversaw the state's censorship board, called it: “A pretty rowdy picture... with drunkenness, blackmail and lechery and not any particularly sympathetic characters or elements.” Warner Brothers Studios apparently destroyed the film and all copies deliberately.
* Cleopatra (1917)
Thought by many film collectors to be the Holy Grail of lost films, Starring the movies' first ever female sex symbol, Theda Bara.
Known around the world as "the Vamp,” Theda was a knockout; she was the Marilyn Monroe of her time. A few brief seconds of this expensive spectacle survive.
Sadly, Theda Bara's entire film canon was destroyed in a huge studio fire in the mid-thirties. She remains the only major movie star to have such a huge number of their resume (almost 40 films) completely "lost.” Just three of Bara's silents remain, including her very first, A Fool There Was (1914).
* The Mountain Eagle (1926)
Alfred Hitchcock's only lost film. Lost during Hitch's lifetime, he was apparently pleased the film was gone.
Bonus: A Lost Film Found
* Hello Pop (1933)
The third-ever film appearance of the Three Stooges. It was thought to have been lost forever after a 1967 fire destroyed a film studio vault. In 2012, Australian film collector Malcolm Smith found a copy among the many old films in his shed.