Silent cinema abounds online. A laptop session is not the same as a screening, but what you lose in live musical accompaniment you at least gain in quantity. That is no reason to neglect the quality of what you are watching, though. Contrary to what you may have heard, not everything from the silent era is public domain, and restoration work and suitable music will immeasurably improve your viewing experience. So, it takes a little local knowledge to navigate to the silent movies that are both legal to view and a pleasure to watch.
Notoriously averse to films that date from much before the 1980s, Netflix is unlikely to be your first stop for silents. That said, when Netflix does early cinema, it does it intriguingly well. You’ve just missed the Pioneers of African-American Cinema collection, and Native American drama The Daughter of Dawn (1920), which recently expired from the platform, but Netflix is still showcasing the work of early female directors in its Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers series. Each ‘episode’ is an individual film, by directors including Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, Mabel Normand and so on. Among the less familiar titles, try the whimsical wish-fulfilment comedy The Dream Lady (1918), directed by Elsie Jane Wilson and starring Carmel Myers as a woman who channels an inheritance into an unusual business proposition.
Amazon is an impressively generous resource for vintage cinema, though the quality can be hugely variable. Simply put, you mostly get what you pay for. The silent classics such as Nosferatu (1922) that are streaming for free on Prime are often fuzzy and poorly scored – not the recent lovingly produced restorations available on disc or streaming for an extra fee here and elsewhere.
That said, you may find a perverse pleasure in the more eccentric offerings here, from rough-and-ready compilations of silent movie kisses to, say, a version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) with dubbed dialogue. The point is that if you search further, and raise your standards, you’ll find some gems here. There are beautiful versions of favourites such as Wings (1927) and all of Charlie Chaplin’s features available for a small cost, but also a vast catalogue of more obscure silents in perfectly watchable prints. With a little digging you can find solid-gold but lesser-spotted silent treasures such as G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), for example, and for silent movie fans of a certain vintage, the Giorgio Moroder version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) may be a tempting trip down memory lane.
Scrolling through the Amazon Prime catalogue, you could easily curate yourself an entire home festival of Greta Garbo movies, starting with The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924) and The Joyless Street (1925) and continuing through a smattering of her Hollywood silents and on to her sound work. It’s hard to imagine a much more captivating use of your bandwidth.
Beware, though, that often the artwork and credits don’t match the film on offer, so, for example, Amazon seems to offer The Unknown (1927), a wonderful silent melodrama starring Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney, but in fact it’s the 1946 haunted-house mystery of the same name. Always watch the trailer first, if available – not least to check the audiovisual quality of what you are about to pay for.
There is gold in these digital hills. The silent offering on BFI Player falls largely into two categories: the classic and the esoteric. In the former category, there is a cascade of silent features and shorts taken from across the globe, including Man with a Movie Camera (1929), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), two Oscar Micheaux features, Hollywood favourites, some Fritz Lang, Ozu’s early masterpiece I Was Born, But… (1932) and lots of Chaplin.
There’s also, naturally, a special focus on British silent cinema: Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith plus some relative rarities from Adrian Brunel (Man without Desire), Cecil M. Hepworth (Helen of Four Gates) and Graham Cutts (Cocaine). Don’t miss out on later sound-era films that were shot silent though, such as Lorenza Mazzetti’s haunting Together (1956).
BFI Player really comes into its own in the early cinema period. There are more than 700 Victorian films on the platform, from early travelogues and street scenes to glimpses of notable figures, including Queen Victoria herself, W.G. Grace and Pope Leo XIII, alongside very early fictions such as R.W. Paul’s Come Along, Do! from 1898 (part of a large collection of his work).
Then there are more than 1,500 films streaming from the 1900s and 1910s, which again include a bewildering variety of scenes shot around the country, from church fairs to rugby matches, as well as some early fiction, animation and utterly fascinating First World War propaganda films. There are more travelogues, and ‘Topical Budget’ newsreels, from the 1920s too. In fact, to find the most unusual content here, you may well want to search geographically rather than historically: the Britain on Film map allows you to search for footage from your hometown, or whichever part of the country you want to see right now – and much of that will be silent.
Silent film lovers will find themselves spoiled for choice online, even if funds are too tight for rental or subscription fees. There are of course public-domain silents all over YouTube and the other streaming platforms, uploaded by who-knows-who, from who-knows-where. Discerning viewers, though, will note that many film archives have their own dedicated YouTube and Vimeo channels, with high-quality uploads of archive films, accompanied by the proper provenance and credits. Try the BFI, Belgium’s Cinematek or Australia’s NFSA on YouTube for starters. The Eye Filmmuseum in the Netherlands is showcasing its stunning Jean Desmet Collection on its YouTube channel, as well as a collection of fragments it is calling Bits & Pieces.
Then there are some particularly strong archive streaming websites. Here in the UK you can access archive films, often amateur ones, at sites run by people such as the East Anglian Film Archive, Screen Archive South East, the Media Archive for Central England or London’s Screen Archives. Further afield, The Danish Film Institute recently digitised its entire collection of silents, which you can stream on Stumfilm.dk – many have both English subtitles and scores, and this is the perfect way to get your fix of Asta Nielsen, Carl Theodor Dreyer and their peers.
There are some wonderful things streaming in America that can be viewed over here too. For now at least, the Film Foundation is currently screening the new restoration of Maurice Tourneur’s beautiful The Broken Butterfly (1919). The National Film Preservation Foundation website features a virtual screening room replete with silents, including features such as Hell’s Hinges (1916) and rarities such as Orson Welles’ lost-and-found slapstick treat Too Much Johnson (1938), and the Library of Congress website offers films dating back to the 1890s.
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