A collection of news and information pertaining to silent era films.
Copyright © 1999-2017 by Carl Bennett and the Silent Era Company.
All Rights Reserved.
Frequently Asked Questions
We receive a large number of inquiries each year and, while we are flattered that you trust us with your questions, many times we must put off responding to them until extra time is available or when we can do a little research to adequately answer the question. Most of the time many of the questions can be addressed, if not outright be answered, by the responses on this page.
Some of the questions regard legal issues. We do not offer legal advice or opinions, or attempt to pronounce legal statements of fact. Most of these legal questions involve issues of copyright control. Contact the Library of Congress for information on the status of works copyrighted in the United States.
Q: How can I determine if a film I am interested in still exists?
A: You can attempt to look through books for such information, although only a handful of recently published books list the survival status of particular films and those are usually books that focus on the films of a particular actor. Ronald S. Magliozzi’s Treasures from the Film Archives: A Catalog of Short Silent Fiction Films Held by FIAF Archives (Scarecrow Press, 1988) is a good source of information on surviving short films, but is hardly a complete catalog. You can attempt to continue searching for information on the Internet. That is a hit or miss proposition, but you can start with our Website Links page. You can look through catalogs to see if the film is being offered on home video. Begin with the public-domain videotape companies listed on our Website Links page, and either browse their online listings of videotapes that are available or contact the companies to inquire whether they have a printed catalog that may be mailed to you. Another possible source for information are Internet newsgroups such as Usenet’s alt.movies.silent newsgroup. You can access the FAQ page for alt.movies.silent for additional information.
Our main suggestion involves a moderate amount of work and a lot of patience. You can contact the film archives and film studio libraries of the world to inquire whether they are holding surviving prints of the film you are interested in. Start with our Silent Era Information Resources page. You will want to contact the motion picture curator or the film library’s chief librarian. You may ask most film archives whether they hold any film regardless of the country of origin, but the film studio libraries only hold films that they still control through copyright. Restrict your inquiry to one succinctly-asked question (and provide a self-addressed and prestamped envelope for mail responses) to facilitate quick responses. Most archives are more willing now than in the past to respond to such inquiries, but remember that all film archives are underfunded, understaffed and overworked. So, do not be surprised if you receive no response from them at all.
Q: I’m trying to locate a particular film in a 16mm reduction print. Can you help me find it?
A: The 16mm print market is not as active as it was before the arrival of home video, but several companies still offer 16mm reduction prints of silent era films for sale and for rental. One such company, Kit Parker Films, closed down their film distribution business in 2001, but several other sources for new and used 16mm prints remain active. For 35mm and 16mm rental prints, go the the ClassicMovies.com site. For new 16mm and Super8 reduction prints, you can check out FilmClassic.com. For a list of 16mm rental print distributors, consult David Pierce’s Silent Film Sources page (but note that the page hasn’t been updated since 1999). You can also consult links on Thomas Miller’s 16mm Film Links page. Some prints are available for purchase through online auction sites such as eBay, but locating a particular title will probably be a long, frustrating and possibly fruitless effort.
Q: I’m trying to locate a particular film on DVD or videotape. Can you help me find it?
A: For silent era films available in North America on DVD, consult our complete list of Region 1 Silent Era Films Released on Home Video. We also provide a selected list of NTSC-compatible VHS videotapes (that are not currently available on DVD) on our Silent Era Films Released on Home Video page. For hard-to-find silent era films on home video, we recommend you look through the online catalogs of the public-domain videotape dealers listed on our Website Links page. A number of companies have begun offering some silent era films on DVD-R, a format that is playable on many DVD players and personal computers. If you were to ask us for a particular title’s availability, these are the sources we would consult to answer your inquiry.
Q: Where can I get a catalog of silent films? Do you have a catalog of silent films that you sell?
A: At this time, we do not sell products of any sort through the Silent Era website. As a service to our readers, we do provide Internet links to companies that do sell the products we refer to in the Silent Era website. Any links to products sold by Amazon.com helps support the Silent Era website. Amazon.com shares with Silent Era approximately five percent of the purchase cost of any items sold through links from our pages. As for catalogs of silent era films, most of the public-domain videotape dealers listed on our Website Links page have printed catalogs available on request.
Q: I am trying to locate silent era films on PAL or SECAM compatible DVDs or videotape. Do you know where I can find them?
A: PAL and SECAM are television formats that are incompatible with and differ slightly from the NTSC format utilized in North America and Japan, and are prominent in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. We have only recently begun to provide a list of silent era films available on home video formats for PAL or SECAM systems, but these listings are far from complete at this time. European readers can search for silent era films on PAL compatible DVD and VHS on the Amazon.com sites for the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
Q: I have recovered several cans of nitrate film prints. Can you tell me if the films I have are rare or whether they are worth any money?
A: Any nitrate film print is rare, valuable, and dangerous enough to be of immediate concern. While these prints are rare, we hope you’ll not expect to make a lot of money from them. Some archives may be willing to purchase film prints, but only those films that are highly-desirable and previously thought to be lost will attract any possible buyers. And, any money spent acquiring the film print will only diminish the archive’s scarce funds to preserve the film print. Most nitrate film prints are far more valuable for historical and cultural reasons than for the financial value that could be realized by their recoverers. Most prints are valuable as unique editions of films that may or may not have previously been known to survive, and may contain footage that has not survived in any other print. You should also know that nitrate films prints are a hazard to retain. Nitrate filmstock is highly flammable and can emit harmful gases. For those reasons alone, you should contact a major film archive and arrange to have the film prints donated in your name so that they may be stored safely (in climate-controlled vaults) and copied to preservation negatives and prints. The North American archives we recommend you contact are the Library of Congress, the George Eastman Museum and/or the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Contact information for such institutions is available on our Silent Era Information Resources page. We urge you to do the right thing and place those hazardous nitrate film prints into qualified hands immediately.
Q: Do you have information about the copyright status of a particular film?
A: For films copyrighted in the United States, contact the Library of Congress. The LoC is the authority to consult as to the U.S. copyright status of films. Do not trust anyone but the LoC to give you the correct answer as to whether a film has passed into the Public Domain or is still under copyright control. In the 1990s, many films that were determined to have lapsed into the Public Domain were suddenly protected again with changes in U.S. copyright laws. Any film under an active copyright is protected from unauthorized copying and selling (in duplicate film print, home video, or digitized forms, in whole or part), and from unauthorized public exhibition. The LoC may also by able to provide information as to the current holder of a copyright on a film originally copyrighted in the United States. Any public exhibition or duplication of a copyrighted film must be given in writing by the current copyright holder, their successors or their authorized agents. For more informtion, see www.copyright.gov/. You may conduct your own simple searches of the LoC copyright database at www.copyright.gov/records/.
Q: Is it legal to publicly show any silent era film?
A: If a film has not lapsed into the Public Domain, any public exhibition or duplication of a copyrighted film must be given in writing by the current copyright holder or their authorized agents. Some copyright holders grant licenses to film distributors who are authorized to collect fees and supply film prints for exhibition in theatrical and/or nontheatrical markets (universities, nonprofit organizations, etc.). Such public exhibition of copyrighted films are subject to fees and restrictions, depending on the type of exhibition. Any film that has fallen into the Public Domain may be shown without an agreement with or compensation to the previous copyright holders or their successor. However, it is very likely illegal to publicly present a Public Domain film from a Blu-ray Disc or DVD edition, and it is prudent to first obtain clearances from copyright holders on the “special contents” of a home video edition prior to any public exhibition. Distributors of Public Domain films may charge what amounts to a rental fee for use of actual film prints that they themselves own. It is common sense to confirm a film’s copyright status (see the previous question) before the public exhibition of any motion picture.
Q: Do you know where films may be rented for public showings in our community center, public library, church or school?
A: First, to locate 16mm film prints, see our response regarding 16mm prints noted above. Second, nonprofit exhibitions of 16mm, Blu-ray Disc, DVD, laserdisc or VHS videotape editions of silent films will often be copyright protected for the provider of the film print utilized for the edition and for the musical performance accompanying the film, and will first require a performance clearance from the edition producer acting on behalf of themselves and their contractual partners in the edition. Some edition producers may grant a public performance clearance to a nonprofit organization for free, given (among other possible stipulations) that they receive advance notice of the event, that they can limit the audience size, and that the event is not a cash fundraiser. We can try to assist you in locating a particular edition producer, but we do not have contact information for all producers of silent film editions that are intended for home use.
Q: Can I use footage from home video editions in my video mashup or in my documentary on silent films?
A: I am not a copyright attorney and what I know of copyright law could fill a thimble. However, my understanding of US copyright law is that creative works that have fallen into the Public Domain (that is, works created [published] prior to 1923) remain in the Public Domain. Film restorations, or even silent film presentations that are released on home video, can be copyrighted in so far as they represent new work.
In the example of a film released in America in 1921, there is no requirement to obtain copyright clearances from the original copyright holder or their successors to make a video transfer of an archival source print and release that on home video. In the case where a modern producer has perhaps corrected sequences in the source print that were obviously in the wrong order, digitally cleaned dirt and print damage, created new intertitles and scored the presentation with a new recording of the original film score — these all can be protected under modern US copyright law. That is why American home video producers claim copyright on the “special contents” of a Public Domain film release. It would be actionable if someone copied that video transfer to release their own home video edition, or cut portions of it into a documentary or a video mashup, or even to project it during a commercial public performance. That being the case, alternately, a modern producer could commission a second video transfer of the exact same archival print utilized for the first video transfer and release their own home video edition of a film or produce a new documentary without any copyright infringement on the first work.
Under these circumstances, it would be prudent to either obtain clearances from producers for the partial use of the video transfers that they have commissioned or to create new video transfers from Public Domain source prints. As long as the proper clearances were obtained for existing video transfers utilized in a new film production, a modern producer could mix their footage with new video transfers that had been independently commissioned and claim copyright on the entire new work.
Please note: These comments do not constitute a legal opinion on copyright law and cannot be used to establish the copyright status of a historical or modern creative work. You should obtain the legal opinion of a professional copyright consultant or the Library of Congress prior to the usage of any work that could be deemed a new creative work and thus would be protected under current copyright law.
Q: Can you tell me where to find information on a particular person?
A: The Internet is probably your best first source of biographical information on silent era actors, directors, writers, production people and producers. Use a popular search engine such as Google or Yahoo! to locate websites and webpages that may contain useful information. You can try searching the online catalog of your local public or university library. Your library is still a great source of information, but may require more mining through materials to locate the data you need. Sometimes a library is only as good as their card/computer catalog. Also try searching the Internet for genealogical information on the abundance of websites that provide information on family histories. These sites rarely yield information on many silent era people, but you never know when something useful can be uncovered. And necrophiles can search the search the few websites that catalog the final resting places of persons of note, such as www.findagrave.com.
Q: Do you know how I can locate a particular person or their estate?
A: For living persons, we try to respect the privacy of surviving silent era people, and contemporary writers, researchers, archivists, musicians, et al. At times, and at our discretion, we may forward an inquiry from our readers to another person. That person may opt to respond to inquiries directly or through the Silent Era editor. In some cases, the person you may wish to contact may maintain a website that contains contact information as a courtesy. You can try an Internet search through Google, Yahoo! or another search engine to locate particular websites. For estate inquiries, we will pass along contact information if we have such in our databases. Again, an Internet search may prove to be helpful. The Internet Movie Database contains some estate information on their pages on individuals.
Q: How many adult stars from the silent era are still living today?
A: With the recent passing of Anita Page (2008), Fay Wray (2004) and Mary Brian (2002), I know of no other adult stars from the silent era who are still living. There are, however, a small number of surviving child actors from the silent era, including Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy).
Q: Can you tell me where to find photographs of a particular actor or from a particular film?
A: There are a small number of Internet sources for low-resolution photos of silent era actors and films. Some sites are established and maintained by film enthusiasts that provide their content for no cost. Some sites are professional stock photo companies that provide low-resolution to high-resolution photos over the Internet and charge a fee for any use of the images they control or license. Some of these sites are contact points for retailers that will sell collectors contemporary silent era photographs originally struck for promotional use in newspapers and magazines, and at motion picture theaters. You may also find advertisements for these retailers in modern publications that specialize in silent films and golden age films. Internet auction sites such as eBay are another online source for silent era film photographs.
Q: I am trying to locate a particular silent era magazine with a particular article in it. Where are the best sources to find these magazines?
A: Try a good university or public library.
Q: Do you know where I can find silent era sheet music or information on sheet music from that era?
A: Information about silent era sheet music is one of our weak areas of advice. We do not know much about sheet music resources and have not researched nor collected silent era sheet music. However, obvious resources might include any major university music library and the main branches of the public libraries of major cities. Some libraries will be far better resources than others depending on whether a collection of silent era sheet music has been established there. Contact music librarians in these institutions for help with your research needs. If you have information or advice on researching silent era sheet music, please consider contacting the Silent Era editor about writing an advisory article for the benefit of others.
Q: Can you tell me when a particular silent era film will be released on DVD or Blu-ray Disc?
A: Rarely. Often, our readers may hear of the announced DVD and/or Blu-ray Disc release of a silent era film at the same time as the Silent Era website. We are sometimes privy to information concerning a DVD release that is in production, but we prefer to wait to report its impending release until it has been formally announced by its production company or we are requested by a producing company to publicize a disc’s current or future production.
While it is a mystery why some silent films have not yet been released on DVD home video, it is usually because the controlling company has not determined that there is sufficient consumer demand for the film to warrant the expense of producing a home video edition. And while it may seem logical that video masters of these films may have already been produced for videotape or laserdisc and that those transfers could be released on DVD at very low cost, the quality of such preexisting transfers may be too low to produce a satisfactory DVD release, with its higher-resolution and with higher consumer expectation of quality. In some cases, a DVD silent film release is delayed while new home video rights are negotiated between controlling parties and home video companies.
At some point, the Silent Era website may choose to spearhead an online signature campaign with the intent to prove to controlling companies that there exists a waiting and ready-made demand for a home video edition of a particular silent era film. The Silent Era website may also opt to publicly support a third-party campaign of this sort.
Q: I have a DVD where a line runs horizontally through the top part of the picture. Is that a flaw in my DVD?
A: It is a flaw, but not in the DVD. Before the complete standardization of motion picture cameras worldwide, the spocket holes on a reel of 35mm film negative and their relationship to the camera’s exposure frame could be anywhere the manufacturer placed them. Sometimes the top most sprocket hole (of four per frame side) would align centered on the line between two successive exposed frames, sometimes the four sprocket holes aligned centered with a single exposed frame, as became the standard. Prints from such a camera could be shown on projectors equipped with an adjustable framing gate (move up or down to match the framing of the print in relation to its sprocket holes). These prints however were a problem after camera standardization when lazy film labs duplicated these prints, either for rerelease or to create a new subnegative. With the framing off in relation to the gates of their film printers, part of the top of the following frame might show at the bottom of the current frame when the finished print is projected on modern equipment. That is sometimes why some 16mm reduction prints and home video presentations overcrop (show only the centermost part of the image) these prints, to keep the resulting misaligned framing from being seen. However, this easy-way-out solution also eliminates image information on the sides (or both the sides and the top, depending on the cropping) of the original print framing.
Recently, intending to maintain as much of the original camera image as possible, preservationists making preservation prints prepared from these misaligned (usually duplicate) prints copy the main portion of a severed frame with its corresponding orphaned sliver of a frame to again create the whole original image. However, this creates the effect you have noticed: a portion of the image that jumps around slightly where it sometimes overlaps the portion of the image it touches and sometimes doesn’t. That line (now at the top of the frame, in our example) is the remnant of the frameline created by the misaligned duplicate print, previously splitting the frame. The positioning of the line reflects the amount of frame misalignment in each reel of the source film print. For now, this is the best way to preserve misaligned prints. You may note that the home video edition of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) prepared by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates sometimes reveals just such a line. (Shepard sometimes chose to show the entire frame with the misalignment remnant line visible and sometimes chose to crop it out.) Another presentation with a visible remnant line is Kino International’s home video edition of F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). Although the line visible in such a home video can be distracting, you can see the film image that the filmmaker originally shot without excessive cropping of the image.
Sometime in the future, when the great amount of money that would be nessessary is available, some preservationist may chose to scan the entire film and digitally eliminate the remnant line and other flaws from all of the tens of thousands of frames in such a print. From such a corrected digital master several new preservation film negatives could be made, from which prints and home videos without the line could be made.
Q: I have written a book on a silent era topic. Do you know who might publish it? Will you mention it in the Silent Era website?
A: While we would like to be helpful to writers who are looking for a book publisher, we do not have the time to directly answer inquiries of this sort. A little research will reveal which book publishers will be more receptive to book proposals on silent era topics. Some publishers produce many more book titles on silent film topics than others. Browsing through a good library or an online book retailer will produce a list of such publishers. When a book on a silent era topic is pending publication, feel free to contact the Silent Era editor directly or have your publisher’s publicity department do such concerning the new release. We are more than happy to announce a book’s publication on the main page of the Silent Era website to help promote its availability. If you would like to have the book reviewed by one of Silent Era’s book reviewers, please contact the Silent Era editor to arrange the delivery of a review copy directly to a reviewer.
Q: Can I write for the Silent Era website?
A: Yes, but be advised that at this point we cannot pay for submissions. Writers receive byline credit and links to their websites (if applicable) and retain copyright control of their creations (we protect your submission under our blanket website copyright). If you would like to propose an article or would like to review a book or home video product that is of silent film interest, contact the Silent Era editor for approval and writing guidelines. If you are submitting a press release about an event of silent film interest, please submit it to the Silent Era editor.
Q: I would like to make a contribution to help support the work done on the Silent Era website.
A: At the present, we do not accept financial contributions. And while we are flattered that you value the Silent Era website enough to want to support the work we are driven to do, we encourage you to instead contact one of the major film archives and arrange to contribute to their film preservation fund in your name (or in our name, if you so wish). You can find contact information for those archives on our Information Resources page. Or, if you insist, you may indirectly support the site by doing your Amazon.com online shopping through any of the Amazon links on the Silent Era website. Purchases made through our links provide us with a small percentage of the sale price, which we use to pay for website hosting fees, domain registration fees and software upgrades. We are not performing this work to make a profit and look on the Silent Era website as a free public information service.
We also get ridiculous questions.
Q: I am a student and have to write a paper on silent films. Information on silent films is hard to find, so I was wondering if you could give me some?
Q: Can you provide me with a history of silent film production in New York? Hollywood? Fort Lee, New Jersey?
A: Don’t take this as cruel callousness, but do your own research. We don’t have the resources in time or materials to provide responses to such vague and large-scale requests for information. The Internet is certainly available to you for research, and larger cities have fine public and university libraries with books and other materials on silent films. The Silent Era website will continue to provide online information on the films and people of the silent era of cinema, but we will never be a resource comparable to a well-stocked library.
Q: I remember a scene from a silent film where a woman was tied to some railroad tracks. Can you help me identify this film?
Q: Many years ago I lived next door to an old woman whose husband acted in a film where a train raced an automobile and they used an airplane to sabotage factories by dropping bombs on them. Can you help me identify this film?
A: You might not believe how many questions of this sort we receive. The questions are unanswerable because they are too vague. You stand a better chance of receiving a valuable answer if you can provide as much detail as possible as to titles (even if it is vaguely remembered — we have answered a number of questions based on film titles that were incorrect but were close enough to the film in actuality), names (full, partial or character names), dates (range of years, if not the year of production), production companies, country of origin, or even more details about the film’s plot. We enjoy helping readers with their questions, but we also need more information than is provided in the vague questions above to be of help.
Q: I have a Charlie Chaplin cookie jar. Is it worth anything?
A: Probably. But, don’t ask us, we are not Antiques Roadshow.
If your question has not been answered by the above responses, feel free to e-mail your question to the Silent Era editor.
Please allow from one hour to several weeks for a response.