Watching silents online

Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle and Max Linder, from

The recent post on the British Film Institute’s YouTube page made me think it would be useful to provide a round-up of the major online sources where you can legitimately and freely view and sometimes download silent films. It’s important to note that most mainstream silents are not going to be found online (except illicitly) but only on DVD (if at all). Online sources are most likely to have very early and non-fiction films, either because there are no rights issues or, conversely, because it is to someone’s advantage to advertise such content for footage sales (notably the newsreel libraries).

If you follow the Online Videos link in the Categories section on the right-hand column you’ll find all the posts in the past which have discussed such sources, in one form or another, but here’s that handy overview:

American Memory
The Library of Congress’ American Memory digitised materials site remains a world beater. There are several sections on the site which include silent films, such as Edison titles, early animation, variety films and films of New York – see the Bioscope’s guide to the site for more information.

First-rate Australian educational resource, with 100 years of Australian feature films, documentaries, television programmes, newsreels, short films, animations, and home-movies, including much silent material. The guide written here will help locate things.

Black Film Center/Archive
A selection of downloadable early films (QuickTime) showing African-Americans, including Edison’s The Pickanninies (1894) and A Morning Bath (1896). Produced by Indiana University’s Department of Afro-American Studies.

British Film Institute
The BFI has several outlets for online video. Its Screenonline resource is an encyclopedia of British film and television, with extensive silent film materials (with strong emphasis on non-fiction) but licensing issues means that the video content itself is only accessible to schools, colleges and libraries in the UK. Free to all is its YouTube channel, which has a fascinating mix of oddities, including many silents. Its Creative Archive site makes a small number of mostly silent videos available for free download and re-use, under licence.

British Movietone News
Unlike British Pathe (see below), this freely-available British newsreel collection (covering 1929-1979) is little-known outside the commercial footage sector. However, it also contains a fascinating and varied collection of pre-1929 material, much of it the Henderson Collection of early film subjects. The post on this collection supplies a guide to some of the gems to be found there. It’s all freely-available, but prior registration is required.

British Pathe
This British newsreel collection covers the period 1896-1970, though the pre-WWI material is a peculiar mishmash of news and some fiction material, a guide to which is available here, with a guide to the silent newsreel collection itself available here. The films can all be downloaded for free, in somewhat frustratingly low resolution form, for which prior registration is required.

QuickTime extracts from the films of D.W. Griffith – Biograph shorts as well as the feature films – part of the range of interconnected silent film sites maintained by David B. Pearson.

The Early Cinema
A selection of Quick Time movie clips of films made by Biograph and Edison from the 1897-1905 period, which derive from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection.

Europa Film Treasures
Rich pot pourri of mostly silent films from archives around Europe, bringing together dramas, comedies, tricks films, travel, animation, propaganda and pornography. The Bioscope report on the resource is here. The site owners, Lobster Films, promise an improved service (some have had problems with download times) soon.

Gallaudet University Video Library
Uncovering something of the history of deaf people and silent cinema has been one of the real pleasures since starting the Bioscope; this site includes several films for the deaf made during the silent period. The Bioscope post on the collection explains the history and how to find the relevant titles.

Gaumont Pathé Archives
Database of the French Gaumont, Pathé and Éclair newsreels, from 1896, searchable by keyword and date. It has large number of streamed video copies of the newsreels, for which log-in access is required.

Internet Archive
The Internet Archive’s Movies section offers a huge number of freely available and downloadable movies, which we must assume are all in the public domain (under US law). The silents can mostly be traced through the keywords option under Feature Films, and range from early Chaplin to 1930s Chinese dramas. Key titles available include 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Man with a Movie Camera, Battleship Potemkin, Nosferatu, Sherlock Jr, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Open Video Project
An international repository of digitised video content designed for the research community, which includes nearly 200 early Edison titles, most of which won’t be found on the American Memory site (see above). More information on the contents is in the Bioscope posting on the collection.

650 freely-available films covering conflicts from the First World War to Afghanistan today. See this report on some of the remarkable First World War documentary and actuality content available on the site.

Scottish Screen Archive
Over sixty films from the silent era are available among the 1,000 or so films included on this exceptional resource from the Scottish Screen Archive, Scotland’s national film collection.

A range of silent comedy clips from David B. Pearson in MPEG4 format: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Normand, Langdon, Arbuckle, Linder, Semon, Pollard, Lane…

Videos with Bibi
YouTube is awash with silent material, much of it lifted from DVDs. It’s immoral if not criminal for the most part, but it also makes so much available that most would never otherwise see, and some of what’s available is legitimately there (how is the average punter to judge?). This site provides a guide to vintage film content on YouTube, and has a silents section.

Clips from 100 years of filming wildlife, with thirteen (so far) precious titles from the silent era, from filmmakers such as Percy Smith, Oliver Pike and Cherry Kearton. More information here.

There are many other sites with a small number of clips, and some which are only available to university users (e.g. Film and Sound Online, which has many First World War titles from the Imperial War Museum). There are a number of download sites offering public domain (US) titles, but most of these films turn up on the Internet Archive in any case. Undoubtedly others that should be listed above that I’ve forgotten or never knew about in the first place. Do let me know of other such sites and I’ll add them to this post to make it a standard reference guide.