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  • Posted 6 years ago

Vault and Nitrate Fires- A History

1914: Lubin fire in Philadelphia destroys Oliver Hardy's film debut as well as footage of McKinley?s ambulance leaving the Expo after he was shot. Also lost in this fire Hobart Bosworth's version of The Sea Wolf.

1914- Los Angeles: The lab shared by Keystone and Ince Films has a fire destroying films.

1915- Edison's vault may have had a fire.

1924 Universal (East Coast)Vault Fire includes negatives to Universal films 1913-1924

1933 Warner Bros/First National Vault Fire destroys most of 1928-1930 Vitaphone talkies

1937- 20th Century-Fox (NJ)- Negatives for most of , if not all, pre-1935 Fox films destroyed. Big problem was that original negatives and fine grain masters were stored in the same vault.
"Cleopatra" starring Theda Bara is lost, so is "Way Down East" as well as films starring William Farnum, Harry Carey and Tom Mix are lost. Also companies such as Educational Pictures, World-Wide that Fox sub-distributed for are lost.

1940s- Museum of Modern Art suffers four major vault fires one which is said to have wiped out 2/3rds of the collection including Hans Richter's hand painted color animation Rhythmus 25.

1943- Harold Lloyd's personal vault has a fire. Losses include the Lonesome Luke series and the original camera negative of Safety Last!

c. 1950s- RKO has a major vault fire that results in the loss of Citizen Kane. Other RKO titles believed lost include Case of the Sgt, Grischa, Freckles, Laddie,Leathernecking, The Monkey's Paw, West of the Pecos, White Shoulders, Hit the Deck (soundtrack only survives) and Runaround.

1959 the Cinematheque Francaise has a vault fire that destroys films including Von Stroheims The Honeymoon.

1961: 20th Century Fox's New Jersey vault has a fire where the explosion could be heard for three miles. Lost films include most of Theda Bara's work.

1965: MGM has a vault explosion and fire that destroys the entire contents. Films include A Blind Bargain, The Divine Woman and London After Midnight.

1967 National Film Board of Canada Vault Fire

1993- Henderson Film Lab Fire in London. Destroys the original negatives of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy as well as Ealing Studios Comedies.

Also at some point, George Eastman House had a vault fire that destroyed part of their collection.

Non-fire destruction

1948: Universal decides to toss out all of its silent library that it still has vaulted. By this time only a few hundred titles remain from the 5,000 films the studio produced prior to converting to talkies. The films, as well as screen tests and trailers, are destroyed to recover their silver content.

Decomposition has destroyed many films.

Paramount produced some 1,200 silents and by the late 1960s only about 250 survived.

Fox produced about 1200 silents and only about 120 are thought to still survive.

Warner Brothers silent library is just as depressing.

MGM silents from 1924-1929 seem to have had the best survival rate.

It is believed that less than 20 of 1917-1922 Goldwyn silents survive.

Frances Goldwyn ordered all of the post -1922 Goldwyn silent films destroyed (except the Winning of Barbara Worth because it starred Gary Cooper) because she believed they had no value. About that same amount of Metros pre-merge silents survive.

Roger Mayer went to work at MGM in the early 1960s and continued the preservation work begun by Louis Mayer of transferring their films to safety stock and insuring back up copies were being made. He couldn't work fast enough to stave off decomposition.

Only about 24% of silents are said to still survive.


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David Pierce

03 Apr 15, 05:50 PM

Much of the factual information in this post originated in "The Legion of the Condemned - Why American Silent Films Perished," by David Pierce, Film History, 1997, Vol. 9, No. 1. For additional information, see "The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929," by David Pierce, National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress, 2013. Available for free online at


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18 Jan 15, 01:57 PM

There is one nitrate fire that is not listed here. I was able to obtain the vault records from Stanley Stark of what was susposta go the AAP when they bought the library. There were only 2 vaults each of silent shorts and 2 vaults of early talkies. Only one vault of each were sent to AAP. I asked Stanley why they didn't follow up and complain, his response was there was no TV value so they didn't care. (Note: In the part talkie vault not shipped was SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN) Then a few years later Coleen Moore was showing IRENE 16mm (with color segment and music score) around. She told me that Jack Warner had given her the print. That they had made it up for television and it didn't sell. Now if they had sold their backlog to AAP where did the preprint come from. Also about this time it was reported in Boxoffice magzine the their was a nitrate vault fire at Warner Bros, Due to their skulduggery we all loose.


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18 Jan 15, 01:34 PM


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03 Dec 12, 06:35 PM


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17 Jun 09, 12:49 PM

What's also depressing is that a lot of the early films were DELIBERATELY destroyed by the studio. Especially the silents. At the time (pre-1930) the studios figured that silents had no commercial value since talking pictures were here to stay. Some studios would also destroy the films to get the silver out of them. Also, Warner Bros. got rid of a lot of early talkies because of their Vitaphone process. The sound was not printed on the film, but was on a separate 16" disc. Many of the discs got separated from their respective films. So, Warners was stuck with essentially a 'silent' talking film. So, they just discarded them.

It's a shame that film preservation wasn't very high on the studio's list when it was needed most. God only knows how great those movies were. 


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13 Jun 09, 07:22 PM

This makes me very depressed.


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13 Jun 09, 03:16 AM

Actually, Buster Keaton's films were thought lost in a vault fire.  However, in 1952, James Mason and his wife (at the time), Pamela, bought Keaton's Beverly Hills Italian villa.  In the gardening shed, one day, Mason discovered prints of Keaton's films that had been stored there since the late 1920s.  He understood their historical significance and was instrumental in getting properly preserved.


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13 Jun 09, 12:50 AM

Very interesting. All of Buster Keaton's negatives were lost in a vault fire.


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