Have films been lost due to legal issues, like Nosferatu almost was?

The 1922 German film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” was ruled to be an illegal adaptation of Dracula, and the court ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed. Some copies survived, so the film was saved for future generations

But were there any films that genuinely had all copes destroyed (as far as we currently know) because of legal issues, and hence are considered lost?

Lots of films/videos with nudity and sexual acts by underage actors and actresses are illegal and ordered destroyed. The most famous is the early films by Traci Lords when she was 16.

For mainstream, of course Wiki has a list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lost_films

For what it’s worth, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, had a point. She didn’t have much of an income after Bram’s death, so an unauthorized adaptation – which paid her no royalties – was an abomination to her, and was hurting her financially. So naturally she went after them.

I sympathize, but I’m glad she didn’t succeed. Nosferatu , for al its faults, is a great piece of filmmaking.

But in answer to your question, I don’t know of any other films lost solely to legal actions. A lot of films have been lost for other reasons, and the distribution of some films has been curtailed by legal actions (such as Disney’s suppression of the 1940 film version of Swiss Family Robinson , which competed with their 1960 version. It’s still difficult to get hold of, although not impossible), but that’s not the same as “lost”.

there was a big fire in LA that wiped out music tapes not sure if films were burned too.

There have been lots of vault fires in which films were destroyed:


They were regrettable, and such fires were probably responsible for more film destructions than legal actions were. So, I suspect, were studio decisions to toss films viewed as “worthless” (who needs to pay to store something like that?) and simple neglect until the film had deteriorated. But it’s not quite what the OP is looking for.

I understand that copies of the silent version of The Lost World were thrown out because the studio planned to do a remake in the 1940s that never happened, and they didn’t want to store a “useless” film. They kept the 16 mm version that was used for educational programs and the like.

Film historians and dinosaur film fans are glad that they didn’t toss them all. They were even more glad when people were able to glean segments from film archives around the world and two different groups were able to re-assemble a 95+% complete version of the film. They’re both available on DVD (I have both). But that wasn’t legal; it was just corporate stupidity and s\hort-sightedness.

Not quite what the OP was looking for, but close:

Wow – here’s another example of a film destroyed for legal reasons. It doesn’t seem to have been any more effective than the case of Nosferatu, because the film still exists

Ummm, it’s on Disney+. Any time Swiss Family Robinson comes up in a recommendation or a search, it gives you both the 1940 and 1960 versions.

But that’s only recently. Disney’s been pretty much sitting on it for decades, and not letting it out of the bag.

Doesn’t help me. I don’t have Disney + and don’t plan to get it.

I got Disney+ as part of package so I took a look. I don’t think you’re missing much. There’s some occasional good usage of B&W and the limited special effects are sometimes artistic, but there’s nothing else special there.

Anyway, there will likely be an opportunity to get a free trial of Disney+ if you want to see it. We’ve tried out a couple of those free trials to get a look at some shows and decide we don’t want to pay for the channel.

I’ll toss in a brief mention of the film The Unknown from 1927. It wasn’t lost due to legal issues but the last print might not have been found except for some “Who’s on first?” type of confusion. All copies had been believed lost except perhaps for some bootleg copies on 9.5mm film. Then in 1968 a 35mm print was found in France mixed in among numerous other films simply labeled l’inconnu , French for “unknown”.

This is a notable and significant silent film starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. From IMDb:
“Joan Crawford always considered The Unknown a big turning point for her. She said it wasn’t until working with Lon Chaney in this film that she learned the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting in front of a camera. She said that was all due to Chaney and his intense concentration, and after that experience she said she worked much harder to become a better actress.”

I find this dubious and the Wikipedia article cites it to a popular (non-academic) print book about “scandals” in general, so something was probably lost playing telephone from the original source to the book to the article. Sure, they probably withdrew the films from circulation because no one wanted to show them, and didn’t prioritize preserving films that had no future potential for revenue from distribution, but there would be no reason to spend money actively seeking out and destroying films when simply failing to actively preserve them was more than enough.

Birth Control (1917) – Pioneering sex education activist Margaret Sanger wrote, directed, and starred in this film about her efforts to expand birth control options for women. As noted by the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, the film was only shown once to about 200 people at a private screening. Then, New York license commissioner George Bell banned it, calling it “immoral, indecent, and contrary to public welfare.”

After the ban was appealed, Birth Control became the first film outlawed under the 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision. The ruling stated First Amendment free speech protections did not apply to films, because films weren’t art, but merely a business. Although the decision was overturned in 1952, Birth Control was never shown again; all copies were lost.

It’s likely The Day the Clown Cried is “lost” in the sense that it will likely never be seen by the general public:

Viewings and footage[edit]

On April 9, 2012, Flemish public service broadcaster VRT re-released—on its cultural website Cobra.be—a film piece its predecessor BRT had aired 40 years earlier to the day on the film show Première-Magazine . It includes behind-the-scenes footage shot in a Paris circus and some takes with sound from the film.[30] On February 3, 2016, German public TV ARD aired a 2-hour documentary called Der Clown .[31] German film maker Eric Friedler shows interviews, a 31-minute version of original footage and re-staged scenes from the original scripts with some Swedish actors who participated in Lewis’ movie. Finally, the film shows the first full interview with Lewis about his work after 43 years. The documentary was later put on DVD and shown theatrically at the Deutsches Filminstitute. In June 2016, a 31-minute version from Der Clown was uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo by editor Kay Brown, and dubbed into German with English subtitles, marking the first time a version of The Day the Clown Cried was made available to the general public.[32][33] It has since been removed.

Fans and critics alike hope for the film’s eventual release. The Jerry Lewis official museum website (archived) states: “The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation”.[1]

In June 2018, at a public auction of items from the Lewis estate, were an original annotated script, polaroids of exteriors, and an original costume.

In a January 2019 interview with World Over, Lewis’ son Chris stated there is no complete negative of the film and that outstanding copyright issues prevented a release.

Possession by the Library of Congress[edit]

On August 5, 2015 the Los Angeles Times reported that Lewis had donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress,[39] under the stipulation that it not be screened before June 2024.[40] The Library of Congress intends to eventually screen it at their Audio Visual Conservation campus in Culpeper, Virginia.[41] Rob Stone, curator of the Library of Congress, has stated that they will not be able to loan the film to other theaters or museums without permission from Lewis’ estate. Stone has also stated that they do not have any intent to release the film in any form of home media.[42] In a December 2018 article for The New York Times , Stone stated the LOC does not have a complete print of the film.[43]

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_the_Clown_Cried

I know a little too much about porn.

If Deep Throat wasn’t deemed not obscene in New York, it may have disappeared completely.

On the non-porn side, there’s Cannibal Holocaust where if the actors who “died” onscreen hadn’t appeared on Italian TV and the director testified in court how the special effects where done, the suspected “snuff” film would have been withdrawn from public viewing.

If Disney decided to release Song of the South , there would surely be lawsuits to keep it from ever being released again.

I don’t think law would have anything to do with Song of the South. Culturally it might be shunned, but I don’t think any law forbids its existence or release.

^^Right. Who would sue and for what?

What kind of lawsuits? The ‘slaves were all happy and liked to sing’ thing is not at all the kind of image Disney wants to present to the world, but there’s nothing illegal about the movie and the rights to it are uncontested. The last official release of it was in 2000 on VHS in the UK, and there weren’t any legal issues with it that I am aware of or could find.