Here are some general questions and answers about silent films. If you have a specific enquiry about early and silent cinema, particularly if you are researching aspects of silent film history, please use the comment box at the bottom of this page to post your question. I’ll try to answer what I can (or find someone who can), and post answers on the blog where suitable. If you would rather get in touch privately, contact details are on my personal site, www.lukemckernan.com.
Q. How do I found out more information on a silent film?
A. There is no central register of silent films, either those that were made or those that still survive. The nearest to a central register in the Internet Movie Database. However, this does have to be treated with caution. It does not have everything, and for the silent era in particular it has many gaps and inaccuracies. The databases of the many film archives around the world are a good guide, though the filmographic information available is uneven, and naturally they limit their records to what they hold. Contact details and links for archiv es worldwide can be found on the Federation of International Film Archives (FIAF) site. The best sources are the various national filmographies that have been produced. Examples include Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, Lundquist and Luritzen’s American Film Index 1908-1920, the American Film Institute Catalog, and the Filmographie des longs métrages sonores du cinéma français.
FIAF has produced Treasures from the Film Archives, which started out as a book publication listing extant silent short films around the world, and is gradually expanding in disc form to cover silent features and non-fiction titles. There are a number of excellent online databases which list silent films made as opposed to those which which survive, aside from the IMDb. The American Film Institute makes its catalogue 1893-1930 freely available to all. Do note that for 1911 onwards the catalogue covers features only – for a comprehensive record, cross-refer to Lundquist and Lauritzen’s American Film Index (not available online). The British Film Institute’s collections database is an exceptional resource, though the information on silents ranges from the amazingly detailed to the frustratingly slight. Another good source is Germany’s Filmportal.
Q. Where can I find information on silent film personalities?
A. The Silent Era site is a good place to start, with its many star biographies. There are many individual websites for silent film stars – check the People section on the links given on the right-hand side of this page. Among the many printed sources, good guides include the Encyclopedia of British Film, the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema and the Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia.
Q. Where are silent films held?
A. Silent films exist in three main places: public film archives, commercial company vaults, and with private collectors, though for most they exist chiefly on the racks of video stores. A list with contact details for most of the public film archives is given on the FIAF website. Such archives will vary in the degree of access they can provide, and whether there is a charge involved in viewing films. Always make an appointment in advance if you are planning a viewing. Note that just because an archive holds a film does not necessarily mean that you can see it, because they may not have a viewing print available. And remember that most public archives do not own the rights to the films that they preserve, and do not usually allow copies to be made for private users.
There is no central catalogue of extant silent films, though the FIAF Treasures from the Film Archives disc aims eventually to develop into such a resource. There are union catalogues bringing together data on collections from several archives: Moving Image Collections (MIC) and the European filmarchives online. Commercial companies, film and television, will hold silent films, but public access to such archives is nil. One source worth knowing about is WorldCat, an attempt at a universal library catalogue, bringing together the databases of many libraries worldwide, often including their video/DVD collections.
Q. Where can I buy silent films on DVD?
A. If you are in America, or are seeking Region 1 DVDs, the best place to start is the list of DVDs provided by the Silent Era website. A list of some of the key retailers is given under DVD and Video in the list of links on the right-hand side of this page. These include Eureka, Kino Lober, and Milestone Films, while more unusual films (which generally means non-fiction) may be found at the British Film Institute or Edition Filmmuseum. General retailers with good silent film lists include MovieMail (in the UK) and DVD Planet (USA).
Q. How many silent films have been lost?
A. Calculations on this vary, but the figures usually quoted are 80% to 90% of all silent film production worldwide. For some countries, such as Japan, the figures is in the high nineties. Thousands of silent films were junked when they became financially worthless, notably with the arrival of sound films. The first national film archives did not become established until the mid-1930s, partly in response to the loss of the silent film heritage, but by then it was too late for many silents. Discoveries continue to be made, both individual titles and entire collections, but the majority of silent films made 1894-1929 are lost for good. See the Bioscope post Losing films for more information.
Q. I’m just getting interested in silent films. What should I see and what should I read?
A. What you should see is down to individual taste, but a good starting point would be to investigate the ‘Top 100’ silents voted for by readers of the Silent Era site and try and check out the top ten. It’s hard to disagree with choices like The General, Pandora’s Box, Metropolis, Sunrise and The Passion of Joan of Arc. For the non-fiction film, try Electric Edwardians, or Man with a Movie Camera. As for reading, most would say Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By or Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns. There’s a ‘top ten’ reading list suggested on The Bioscope.
Q. Where can I see silent films screened?
A. There is nothing quite like seeing a silent film screened in an audience, with live music. The Silent Era maintains a selective listing of upcoming screenings in the USA, while Nitrateville has news of American and British screenings. Silents are often show as cinematheques and specialist film theatres: in the UK, check out the BFI Southbank and the Barbican in London.
Q. What silent films can I find online?
A. Legally or illegally? There is a huge amount of silent film available one way or another online, but it is sad to see films which have been ripped off DVDs painstakingly put together by companies like Kino and Milestone, often at much trouble and expense. Among the wholly legitimate sources, see the Bioscope’s guide to online silent video sources.
Q. Where else can I join in discussions on silent films?
A. The best place is the discussion forum, Nitrateville which populated by knowledgeable and obliging enthusiasts. Another, well-established forum is Golden Silents. A more fan-oriented list, is the Yahoo Group for silent films.
Q. Aren’t all silent films in the public domain?
A. No. Film copyright is an immensely complicated field, which people want to see simplified for their own advantage, inevitably. Firstly, there is more than one kind of right which can relate to a film – not just in the film itself, but in the literary rights, music rights, the rights in new intertitles etc. Rights also vary from territory to territory, and different countries have different laws, of course. And rights also vary according to whether you are talking about screenings, commercial releases, use of clips in other productions, etc. Moreover, films that were once out of copyright may have come back into copyright, owing to change in term decreed by new laws. For the USA, you can check through the Copyright Office databases, or consult with the Library of Congress. All films published in the USA to the end of 1922 are public domain in the USA, bar a handful of exceptions (but note that these films may have copyrighted elements, such as a new score). For a guide to USA copyright, see www.copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm. The UK does not have the same concept of public domain as exists in the USA, where copyright has to be renewed. In the UK, film is treated the same as other creative works under the seventy-year-rule. That does not mean seventy years after the film’s production, but seventy years after the death of its principal creators: usually the director, producer, art director and writer. The British Film Institute should be able to advise on specific titles. In general, never assume, always take advice.
Q. Where do I find cinemas from the silent era?
A. There are a number cinemas still operating which were showing films in the silent era, through very few from before the First World War period. The best single source is the worldwide directory of cinema, Cinema Treasures. There are some national guides, such as The London Project, the Utrecht Project, and the huge Dutch database Cinema Context.
Q. How can I find work in film archives?
A. Have a worthwhile skill. Check out the training courses and qualification schemes worldwide. A summary of some of these is given on the FIAF website.
Q. What was the first…?
A. Never ask what the first of anything was for silent films (e.g. first film, first feature, first cinema, first film star etc.). Whatever answer you will get will be wrong. There’s always an alternative answer that could be given, because the definitions are so vague. It’s tempting (I lapse into first-ism myself), but just don’t do it…
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