Of the billions of people currently populating the globe, you probably can count the number who have seen Carole Lombard's first film under that name, 1925's "Marriage In Transit," on one hand. And we're not talking about during its run in theaters, but in any subsequent showing or venue.
That's because "Marriage In Transit" and several other silents she made for Fox fell victim to a fire at the studio in 1937. Consequently, aside from stills, we have no record whatsoever of the films Lombard appeared in before her automobile accident in 1926 -- something that likely sent her career in an entirely different direction. And we're not singling out Carole; it's believed that 75 percent of silents from major studios, and 90 percent of all films made before 1929, are lost.
A tragedy, to be sure...or is it? Perhaps not, according to one bit of revisionist thinking. A recent article by Charles Epting at the Silent Film Quarterly site is titled "No More Tears Over Lost Films" (https://silentfilmquarterly.com/2018/08/25/no-more-tears-over-lost-films/).
Much of Epting's piece is focused at what he deems an inordinate amount of attention shown to the lost 1927 Lon Chaney film "London After Midnight." Unlike many of its now-extinct contemporaries, it survived for several decades after its initial run, and some saw it as late as the 1960s before it was a victim of a fire at MGM in 1967.
Epting notes that the film "received tepid reviews, at best, and was certainly eclipsed by some of Chaney's other performances from the same period." Among them may have been "Mr. Wu," released that same year and one I recall seeing on Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Nights":
The overemphasis on "London After Midnight" is along the lines of attention placed on the lost status of "Convention City" (1933) by pre-Code enthusiasts (of which I am one)...
...although its absence has more to do with censorship after the Production Code was rigorously enforced; while many pre-Code titles are missing segments deemed too racy for post-Code audiences, this is one of the few films that has vanished completely.
The overall tone of Epting's piece is, be thankful for what still exists, as much of what's missing probably is of no great artistic loss. For example, he cites silent comedy's "big three" of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, for whom all 31 of their silent features survive. Very good. But what of their female comedic counterparts (we'll cite three, Colleen Moore, Constance Talmadge and Clara Bow)? While we're not necessarily equating them artistically with Charlie, Buster and Harold, all three were popular in their day and drew big box office.
Moore's "Flaming Youth" was her breakout hit, and its title came to define a generation of flappers. Moore donated a copy of the film to a museum, which stored it for years...and it was later found to have deteriorated to the point where only segments of the movie survive. Fortunately, several of her other movies have survived, enabling us to see the on-screen vivacity which made her so beloved. Talmadge and Bow's movies also share a hit-or-miss fate.
Epting also notes that of the years in the 1920s for which box-office data is available (1922 data is absent), at least seven of the top ten moneymakers survive. He writes: "The films that were box-office flops are less likely to exist; but is that really much of a loss?" (Apply such criteria to today's market, and nearly all we'd be left with would be superhero titles.)
When this essay was made an entry in the Facebook group "FB Film Forum" (https://www.facebook.com/groups/449149135146390/), it caused consternation. Administrator Steve Finkelstein called the article "asinine," while one of the respondents accurately commented: "Celebrating what we have is not a valid reason for dismissing what we do not." From another: "And this is from a silent film magazine? Shameful."
I'm guessing that if one of Lombard's lost titles is ever found -- not out of the realm of possibility, as many silents thought "lost" for decades were recovered in unlikely places and subsequently restored -- we may be disappointed with its artistic quality. But that's not the point. Those who follow the careers of an actor, director or writer want to see as much as they can of their work, then judge for themselves.
A quarter-century ago, "I Take This Woman," Carole's 1931 vehicle with Gary Cooper, was feared lost. But the film was found and restored (in both 16mm and 35mm form), enabling fans of these two legends to see them in action. It's no masterpiece by any means, but a solid programmer for the time. I'm glad I don't have to conjecture about it anymore...with hopes I'll someday do likewise with "Marriage In Transit" or other early Lombard titles.