Silents on DVD and silents online

1. On DVD
Below is a listing of the leading sources selling silents on DVD and Blu-Ray.

  • BFI Filmstore – DVDs and Bu-Rays from the British Film Institute, with several silent titles, including Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers, Silent Shakespeare, Dickens before Sound, A Cottage on Dartmoor, R.W. Paul, Piccadilly, Fairy Tales and Electric Edwardians. Region 2.
  • Digital Meme – Japanese silents with benshi narration, including Mizoguchi’s Taki no Shiraito (The Water Magician) and Orizuru Osen (The Downfall of Osen). All regions.
  • DVD Planet – American retailer with a good selection of silent titles from a variety of labels. Region 1.
  • DVD Classik – French DVD label. mostly world classics (silent films can be found by using the date search option. Region 2.
  • Edition Filmmuseum – specialist German label, including The River, Blind Husbands, Nathan der Weise and Anders als die Andern, Danish titles such as Atlantis and Leaves from the Book of Satan, plus the Lobster Films Retour de Flamme compilations etc. All regions.
  • Eureka Video – UK DVD producer, with many classic silent titles in its Master of Cinema series, mostly European, including The Last Laugh, Diary of a Lost Girl, Faust, Metropolis, Nosferatu and Tartuffe. Region 2.
  • Flicker Alley – Specialist American label with a handful of high-quality silent titles, including the 5-disc set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and La Roue.
  • Grapevine – American label with many silent and early sound rarities, mostly American subjects, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Beggars of Life, Dancing Mothers, Within our Gates, comedies, westerns and serials. Note that these are budget productions (DVD-R), plainly presented, often with rudimentary scores.
  • Kino Lorber – leading American label with excellent, wide-ranging silents catalogue, including Battleship Potemkin, Cabiria, A Fool There Was, The Golem, It, Orphans of the Storm, plus boxed sets, slapstick compilations etc. Region 1.
  • Milestone – American specialist label with many good silent titles, including Back to God’s Country, Beyond the Rocks, The Dragon Painter, Daddy-Long-Legs, Sparrows and BFI archive subjects such as Hindle Wakes and South. Region 1.
  • MovieMail – UK DVD retailer with extensive catalogue including overseas labels. Regions 1 and 2.
  • ReelClassicDVD – American site specialising in ‘public domain’ titles, including Grandma’s Boy, Tumbleweeds, Ella Cinders and many comedy compilations. DVD-R.

2. Silents online
This is a guide to the major online sources where you can legitimately and freely view and sometimes download silent films. The Bioscope does not sanction any online source which makes available silents ripped illegally from DVDs, television broadcasts etc., and it’s important to note that most mainstream silents are not going to be found online.

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. (Note that an increasing number of these films is appearing on the LoC’s YouTube channel)

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 Bioscope guide 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. It has recent launched BFI Player, a video-on-demand service with a mixture of free and paid content which include many freely-available early film actualities made by Mitchell & Kenyon. 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.

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 Bioscope 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 Bioscope guide to which is available here, with a guide to the silent newsreel collection itself available here. The films can all be viewed for free, in somewhat frustratingly low resolution form.

Cinema in Quebec in Silent Era
A history of the early cinema in Quebec, with twenty or so films available (mostly non-fiction) from 1890s to 1920s, available in Flash, in low and high bandwidth options, with extensive background information and documentation.

Colonial Film
Resource for study of films of British empire, includes 150 titles viewable online, 30 or so silent including the British feature films Nionga, Palaver and Stampede.

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 are Lobster Films. [Note: as of summer 2013 this site has been closed, its future uncertain]

filmarchives online
Collection of mostly early non-fiction films from film archives across Europe. The same films are also available on the filmarchives online YouTube channel.

Online archive of Swedish film from 1897-1990s, with 130 titles from the silent era (actualities, newsreels, travelogues etc.) and more promised in the future. In Swedish only.

Gallaudet University Video Library
This site includes several films for the deaf made during the silent period. The Bioscope post on the collection explains the history.

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.

Images of a Forgotten War
National Film Board of Canada site commemorating the Canadian military experience of the First World War, with over 120 actuality films of the film produced by Canadian and British propaganda outfits.

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.

Kinonedelja – Online Edition
Fourteen editions of the 1918-1919 Russian newsreel Kinonedelja (Cinema Weekly) written and occasionally directed by Dziga Vertov, made available by the Austrian Film Museum. Bioscope guide here.

Amazon’s subscription-based video-on-demand service combines streaming video (for PCs, Smart TVs, tablets and other devices) with DVDs and Blu-Rays available by post. The streaming version is more restricted in what it can offer, and the titles differ according to the user’s location, but there are several silent films available – unfortunately not discoverable in one place, and not always of the highest print quality. Titles available include Nosferatu, King Lear (1916), The Battle of the Sexes (1928), and several Mary Pickfords.

This Martin Scorsese-backed online cinematatheque (previously known as The Auteurs) includes a number of silents among its selection of world cinema classics which can be viewed for a fee (£3 is the usual price). The silent titles include Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Der Golem, Der Letze Mann, The Lost World, Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Faust, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Metropolis, Storm over Asia and Spione.

Video-on-demand service offering films and TV programmes to subscribers via multiple devices. In the UK at least the number of silent titles available is few, and searching for them difficult – they include Wings and The Cat and the Canary.

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 post on the collection.

650 freely-available films covering conflicts from the First World War to Afghanistan today. See the Bioscope report on some of the remarkable First World War documentary and actuality content available on the site (when it was known as RealMilitaryFlix).

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.

Sulphur Springs Collection of Pre-Nickelodeon Films
Twenty-nine American and French films dating 1898-1906, from single-shot actualities to multi-shot dramas, including Edison films of the San Francisco earthquake and various Lubin dramas.

UCLA Preserved Silent Animation
Eleven silent animation film from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, from 1900 to 1928, covering different types of animation, backed up with extensive notes. All content is downloadable.

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. Bioscope guide here.

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?). Moreover there is much original, or semi-original content to be found there in the form of tributes (fan productions adding music to silent videos), mashups (rather more creative edits blending modern music with silent montages) and new soundtracks.

There are many other sites with a small number of clips, and some which are only available to university users (e.g. JISC MediaHub, 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.

Please let me know of any sites which fit the Bioscope’s criteria which aren’t listed above, and I’ll add them.

19 responses

  1. I think what’s criminal is film archives not simply
    digitalizing their early films and put them online.

    They are paid by society to do this job.

    I think the younger Youtube generation understands this, and eventually in less than 50 years, much of the silent era should be freely available online.

    Stop claiming you work hard when you only have done half the job. How many dvds are already obsolete? Try getting Lumière’s First Films?? Already rare, 10 years later. That’s absolutely ridiculous.


  2. You are confusing public with private sector. Most film archives do not own any rights in the films that they preserve, so they are unable to make them automatically available online, even if they could afford to do so. Commercial archives (i.e footage libraries and studios) are under no public obligation to make their holdings available to anyone, and will do so only if it makes financial sense. Unfortunately, silent films are a very specialised taste, and it is difficult to justify making them available on commercial grounds. The fact that Lumiere’s First Films DVD may have gone out of print only proves the point.

    We would all love to see the whole of the silent era available. One day we will. More will appear online as it falls out of copyright, and as costs of digitisation fall. It may take fifty years, it may only take ten or twenty. Whether the YouTube generation will be interested in the films of a hundred years ago, however, is open to question.

  3. Dear Urbanora,

    They are no way for me to watch Henley Regata by
    Birt Acres anywhere, unless I’m brittish and in a special library. This is in 2009, can you imagine that?

    If the rights are the problem, than the funds
    should go in solving that problem. It’s hard for me
    to understand that whoever owns the rights to
    Henley Regata 1894 (or 1895) would argue “No,
    I don’t want people to see that film”, or “People
    who want to see that film should pay me 200
    pounds because we all know this is a blockbuster”.

    There is only the disparate fanatic like me
    who wants to see this film, and the people
    working in archives don’t seem to do their
    best to make that available, including
    solving problems with copyrights.

    Actually, the BFI are especially bad, I’m not
    really sure what they hope to achieve. I feel
    like we saw so many Mitchell and Kenyon
    DVDs because the givers insisted they were
    for the public. But because no other givers
    insisted on this before, we have a hard time
    finding anything else unless it’s published
    in rare products that are too costly to distribute
    for the few people that it will interest.

    And why are some films tagged “Copyrights, BFI”.
    Since when do you appropriate copyrights just
    by owning anything? This is another problem
    if someone actually gave the rights, adn BFI use
    this to control their output.

    I was looking for Egg-Laying Man (Hepworth) the other
    day, apparently only avalable in a BFI tv program
    that was never released in DVD. Great.

    I thinking, if your mind says “No”, if your
    mind is bent toward that kind of thinking,
    than it will never happen. What we need
    in archives centers is people who think “yes”,
    and who meet the rightholders, and arrange
    for this diffusion of ancient art.

    When you go to a museum, a lot of works
    have rightholders. Curators are still able
    to exhibit them, publish catalogs, or
    even online versions of exhibits (Moma are
    especially good at that). Theer is no way this
    can’t be done for cinema. Rightholders must
    be met and dealt with, and exhibition should
    be as much the priority as preservation.


  4. Birt Acres’ supposed film of the Henley Regatta does not exist, and I have never heard of Hepworth’s The Egg-Laying Man existing either. There are more early films exhibited online today than has ever been the case before, and the number is certain to grow. I find your arguments ludicrous, and your understanding of archives to be a parody of reality.

  5. I am researching films produced by the Wilkes-Barre company United States Motion Picture Corp. between 1915 and 1922. I have found that the Prelinger Archive has one online called “Her Fractured Voice” and has a lot of early film digitized, though not always easily catalogued.

  6. Hello,

    me and my organisation are plannig an theatre festival for 2011. The main theme will be Shakespeares “Ein Sommernachtstraum”. For a great finish of our Festival we planing to show the silent movie “Ein Sommernachtstraum” by Hans Neumann(1924/25) in conection with live music.
    My question is, how can I get this film and the musicreader with the music of Eric Borchard.
    Do you have any options to help me?

    Greats and thanks for helping although my English is terrible.

    Mathias Pfeiffer


    Dear Urbanora, I send you a link with the last Jordi Sabatés´work about Cinema
    & Music. It is a DVD´s track of “LE PIANO MAGIQUE. JORDI SABATÉS RECREA
    A SEGUNDO DE CHOMÓN”. Jordi Sabatés is a spanish pianist and composer.
    He has a show with Segundo de Chomón´s films and live music: “JORDI SABATÉS
    RECREATES SEGUNDO DE CHOMÓN”. Chomón is a spanish film maker (1871-
    1929). You can see more about Jordi Sabatés Silent Film Music in the web
    Thanks for your time. ANNA POMEROL