Want to Learn about Silent Film? Check Out These Resources

THE GOLD RUSH (1925) — Charlie Chaplin [my favorite silent film…and maybe movie in general]

About four years ago, I began exploring the history of film beginning with Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter. Of course, since then, I’ve learned there were some significant developments before that, but it started an odyssey of investment in cinema that was never a part of my life before. It’s been an enriching experience, giving me much inspiration for my own work and yielding hours of enjoyable experiences and writing about said experiences. But I had to kind of piece together how to go about exploring the earliest days of film history, and how intensely. Lately, it’s gotten more intense, but if you want to learn about the beginning of film and the emergence of cinematic language, you’re going to have to watch silent movies. Modern audiences write off black-and-white movies now, so silent ones are even more of a stretch.

But inspired by a Wall Street Journal article chronicling the surge of young people interested in silent film (just by the headline and opening paragraphs since I won’t subscribe to the WSJ), of which I am one, I thought I’d give some insight into how you should go about learning about film history. This is as someone who’s done it relatively recently, and is figuring it out as he goes. But part of the reason why young people are getting into silent film is just how easily accessible these films previously lost to time are. There are plenty of legitimately lost movies out there, but so many have been discovered in the past couple decades. The home video, DVD, and Blu-ray markets have brought bonafide classics into new light and elevated unknown obscurities. Streaming services are the easiest way to catch old movies, in spite of the fact that the main platforms (Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to a certain extent) don’t offer the vast backlog of major studios. But we’ll get to that. Below I’ll highlight some of the tools I’ve used to research old films, contextualize them with contemporary and historical reviews, and even simply watch them. I hope this helps anyone interested in watching silent film!

Wikipedia/IMDB

Someone’s been reading about THE CAT AND THE CANARY and THE DEVIL DANCER…

In spite of its ubiquitous presence in cataloging film, IMDB is not my preferred choice of searching for films. However, in tandem with Wikipedia, the pair offer a great way to simply trawl lists. I use the “categories” function on Wikipedia to search for films I’d want to watch from each year, and the corresponding “[year] in film” pages for some more general context. Of course, not every film released in a year has its own page on Wikipedia, but those that do offer more context and information about the production of the film. And to be honest, many you’d want to check out are represented in this way. But IMDB offers a more granular resort, and a (somewhat) more reliable tool to confirm production elements and dates. This is my main tool for creating and curating my watch lists.

Comprehensive Lists

OK, so you see a list of movies and maybe even scan Wikipedia or IMDB pages. But so what? How can you still tell what movies are worth watching? Well, Wikipedia is great in this way because it often offers context on the impact of a film, but there are comprehensive “year by year” highlight lists out there. Tim Dirks’ Filmsite has a pretty surface level exploration of the most important films and events throughout the years of cinema, but a great resource for the classical Hollywood period is David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s year-end “Observations on film art” series. Instead of naming their top ten films of the current year, the pair write about the best films 90 years prior, beginning in 2007 with 1917. Since they do this just once a year, it’s not a wide spanning tool for the earliest years or into the talkie era (yet), but 1917 to 1927 is about as crucial a period of silent cinema as you can get. These installments helped inform much of my lists, since they aren’t entirely the milestones you always hear about. Mubi’s Top 50 lists, beginning with 1920, are cool. Edgar Wright’s list on the same site is also just a great introduction to the site and a wide breadth of cinema as well; it’s how I found one of my favorite sites!

Where to Watch?

Let’s say you’ve got a list of old movies you want to watch. Where do you even watch them? Well, the easiest answer is YouTube. Silent films aren’t exactly controlled tightly copyright-wise, if they can be at all, so people have uploaded a vast majority of the films you might want to see there. The issue is the varying quality you can find there. Some of the uploads are of VHS transfers or have become downgraded through some other process, and others have cheap royalty-free music added to them. More careful reconstructions are the best bet, but if you can’t find them anywhere else, resorting to YouTube isn’t a bad thing. I do quite often. But my priority is searching for official streaming sources. Amazon is the only mainstream-ing service (ha) that has any kind of silent film library, whether it’s free with Prime or available for rental/purchase. Next is Kanopy, an awesome site you might have access to through your local library. It has a lot of documentaries and contemporary arthouse films, but also licensing from Kino, Paramount, and other libraries. Speaking of your library, oftentimes films released on DVD haven’t made their way to streaming platforms, even YouTube. And libraries will sometimes carry those DVDs! And this is my last resort; physical purchases of DVDs from Amazon, often out of print, of films that haven’t ended up on YouTube. There are some notable ones! Criterion and Kino DVDs and Blu-rays are great options for physical media fans, but you’ll have to resort to some pretty obscure, unofficial distributors for those movies not streaming anywhere, even on YouTube. Silent Era’s Progressive Silent Film List is an awesome way to suss out details like the preservation status of a film (many surviving yet inaccessible films reside in a university archive or private collection) and if it’s ever been released on home video. Some other streaming options: FilmStruck isn’t comprehensive by any means, but they have a good selection of silent films from TCM and Criterion, and Fandor can also clean up some other movies not found officially anywhere else. MUBI occasionally has a great silent film spotlighted, but since their films rotate out every 30 days, I can’t say it’ll always be a great resource for silent film. But it’s an awesome site regardless!

User-Generated Content

Mubi reviews and lists for Tod Browning’s THE SHOW (1927)

By its very nature, user-generated content can be kind of hit or miss, but the communities on Letterboxd, IMDB, and Mubi can be a good way to find stuff you haven’t necessarily heard of or considered. Searching for “best movies of [year]” can return lists with the usual suspects, but sometimes off-beat entries lead to a cool discovery. And of course, using the reviews of users on these sites can provide some interesting context and discussion from fellow “cinephiles.”

Reviewers

Sometimes you can come across good “amateur” reviews or retrospective pieces from major publications just by searching for a specific title. But there are a few sites of consistent quality you should just keep up with. Movies Silently comes to mind immediately. Century Film Project is a good one as well. And of course, searching for criticism about any title from established critics like Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, or Pauline Kael is a good way to go. I honestly don’t really have a grasp on how much retrospective writing Kael did, but I do know I watched a phenomenal film called MÉNILMONTANT (1926) after reading her proclamation that it was probably her favorite film. As for historic reviews (which can offer fascinating insight), you’ll probably see the name Mordaunt Hall come up as you get into the 1920s. He was The New York Times’ film critic from 1924 to ’34, and is a primary if somewhat boring voice when looking for criticism contemporary to silent film releases. If you’re able to find them or fragments of them online, The New York Times’ and Variety’s massive reprints of feature film reviews (beginning with 1913 with NYT and 1907 with Variety) are cool too.

…Me?

The most up-to-date section of my favorites list; I’m only on 1927 and I started four years ago!

As you might be able to tell, I love this kind of stuff. I write weekly film essays, each highlighting one of five favorite films from every year, based on an ever-evolving list I maintain on Mubi. I also write about old movies off that beaten path, which I hope to do more of soon. Of course, though, I’m no expert, and I’d love to hear any other resources or tools to explore film history. It can be a slog when it comes to the earliest days of film, and a disappointing one if a sought after film ends up being lost or inaccessible in some way, but it’s highly rewarding. Seeing the evolution of cinema is a fascinating experience, and believe it or not, silent movies can still emotionally impact you like any other. By the way: this methodology doesn’t only have to be applied to silent film, obviously. I hope this helps someone!

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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