AFI Catalog Silent Film database

We are still ploughing our way through online catalogues and databases for silent film. Next up is the AFI Catalog Silent Film database. The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films is a series of catalogues that document the American film. The project began in the late 1960s, with the printed volumes covering decades (with a couple of exceptions), starting with 1921-1930, published in 1971. Subsequently the AFI issued volumes for 1961-1970 (in 1976), 1911-1920 (1988), 1931-1940 (1993), 1893-1910 (1995), 1941-1950 (1997) and Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 (1997). Publication of further printed volumes has now stopped (it was just too expensive), and all subsequent records (for the 1950s and some of the 1970s, with a few star titles from the 2000s) have been added to the online version of the catalogue.

The Catalog is a stupendous achievement, one where the AFI’s team got better as they went along, so the volumes for the 1930s and 40s are extraordinarily rich in the detail they provide. The earlier volumes were less thorough in their cataloguing, and the 1960s volume is unusual in that it includes all films released in the USA as opposed to produced in the USA, on account of the large number of co-productions. In 1997 the online edition was published, with the inestimable advantage of bringing all of the titles (some 50,000 of them) into one place. The full database is normally accessible to AFI members only or through the paid service ProQuest, but currently the entire catalogue is open to all. Use it while you can. However, from the outset the AFI decided to make a portion of the database freely available, namely the 25,000 films originally covered by the three volumes for the silent period 1893-1930, and will presumably continue to do so. And’s that’s what we’ll cover here.

The information is uneven because the original volumes are uneven. The 1921-1930 volume, first in the series, covers feature films only – that is, films of four reels or 4,000 feet in length or 40 minutes long (to use the AFI’s own definition). The 1893-1910 volume covers the pre-feature film era and includes every kind of film, fiction and non-fiction. The 1911-1920 volume follows the 1920s volume in concentrating on feature films, so there are no short films despite their high level of production at this time. For example, if you search under ‘Charlie Chaplin’ for the teens you will only get Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Carmen and the compilation films in which he appeared (the absence of Shoulder Arms is a puzzle, however).

Theere is a simple search option (which nevertheless lets you filter requests by title, personal name, character name, genre, summary and others) and a thorough advanced search option. The records give cast, role, credits, release date, duration in feet and reels, physical properties, genre terms and subject terms – all of which are hyperlinked for cross-searching with other records, so you can discover, for instance, how many 7-reel films were produced (3,409), how many films starred Richard Barthelmess (57), how many films featured dogs (457), and how many horror films were made (just 10 for the silent period). There is a plot summary, notes, bibiliographical sources, and information on availability on DVD and VHS (possibly not completely up-to-date, especially since Laserdisc availability is also given). When you first come to a record, do note that you only get partial details at first, and you need to click on Display Movie Detail to see the full details.

The 1893-1910 records do not offer so much detail, taken as they are from copyright records for the most part, often with little more information available than title, production company and date. Some records from this period are fuller, but they seldom have cast details, and plot summaries are rare. It should also be noted that access for some titles from the 1893-1910 period is restricted to AFI members if you use the silent film database, but are available if you search through the unified catalogue, which as we’ve said is currently open to all – but won’t stay that way.

Also to be noted is that films for African-American audiences which were not always covered in great detail in the 1920s volume are given in greater detail here, benefitting from the boom in research in the area in recent years and the publication of the Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 volume of the AFI Catalog, whose relevant records have been added to the silent film database. Finally, do note that not only are short films missing from 1911 onwards, but that the AFI has not included newsreels or magazine series. They are promised for one day, but as always they have been left til last.

And so as we move well into the seventh week of Catalogue Month, the AFI Catalog has been added to the growing list of resources included in the Catalogues and Databases section of the Bioscope Library. Though it is highly pleasurable to handle the printed volumes themselves, which are handsome, weighty productions, nothing can beat the convenience or cross-linking of the online version. The AFI Catalog does aim to be definitive, though some titles are known to be missing, and there are inevitable small errors in credits and descriptions. Also, and disappointingly, the notorious fake record that the AFI included in the teens volume, for a feature film of bizarre plot and ludicrously named actors, entitled Marooned Souls, is not given on the online version. The intention was supposedly to catch out those who might copy out its records wholesale, but beyond wanting to catching out plagiarists I think they just did it for fun.

2 responses

  1. As the first Associate Editor (and historian) for the AFI Catalog, a post I briefly held before being sent to the Institute’s short-lived New York office in 1969, I thought I might fill in some of blanks on the project.

    The first volume, dealing with the feature films of the 1920s, was meant as something of a way to work out the kinks in the system, including the computerized database (which was much more complex than anything any of us had encountered before). The original plan was to eventually include all American theatrical films, shorts and features, which, alas was not to be; I once proposed that we try to expand coverage to TV, but that was seen as unrealistic.

    (Incidentally, the definition of a feature film as being at least four reels or 4000 feet long was FIAF’s, ca.1968, not the AFI’s.)

    Most of the research was based on examination of the copyright records in the Library of Congress (where the Catalog project was initially housed), published sources in the LoC, along with various outside material, ranging from my personal collection of William K. Everson’s program notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, the story department records of one major Hollywood studio (I think it was Universal), and censorship records (mostly from New York, but possibly also Pennsylvania and Maryland).

    One of my jobs in the New York office was to develop an annual version of the Catalog, possibly working with Filmfacts, an independent publication that the Institute had taken under its wing; and much of the Catalog’s 60s volume seems to have been based on entries in Filmfacts, which is also the reason why its coverage went beyond American films.

    I left the Institute after the New York office closed, though I did work with them briefly on other projects. The first volume of the Catalog was published after I left, though I did manage to do some proofing before it went to press.

    Funding for the Catalog was obviously sporadic, which largely accounts for its lack of completeness.

    I must say the experience was rather wonderful for a novice film historian such as myself and owe an enormous debt to the Catalog’s first editor, Ken Munden.

  2. Many thanks indeed for this background information and personal history. As someone who worked in the BFI’s cataloguing department for many years, I can hardly describe the mixture of admiration and envy with which we viewed the AFI catalogues, which were used constantly (especially for the wonderful subject indexing). They also taunted us because there was no official British film catalogue of comparable range and depth. There still isn’t one.

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