How to build and compile a list of silents seen

I am thrilled to have finally reached my long-awaited milestone of 1,000 silents seen. If I hadn’t fallen into an embarrassing rut and enabled my own lapsed habit, I would’ve been there probably around three years ago, but there’s no use mourning past mistakes so long as we learn from them, we don’t repeat the mistakes, and it gets us to where we are now. My list is once more robustly collecting entries instead of just barely crawling along.

Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen) (1921) was the lucky film that finally threw my list into the quadruple digits. Very fittingly, given when much of the film takes place (except for the long flashbacks), I watched it on New Year’s Eve. I just couldn’t get so close to my milestone goal and wait till the new year to achieve it! The film wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but in a very good way. I was particularly moved by the phantom driver’s prayer for all humanity, that no souls should be reaped until they’ve reached maturity.

I was starting to break down those 1,000 films by century, decade, year, country, director, actor, type (feature, short, home movie, etc.), and genre, but I quickly realized that would be way too much work, even with that nice even number to figure percentages from. I just couldn’t have exact figures for certain years and decades, given how certain films have their years of origin listed as unknown. Baruch Hashem, I was finally able to find a list of the names and years (or close enough approximations) of all the films in The Lumière Brothers’ First Films, and when I have more time, I’ll replace my descriptions with the actual titles. (Kino really dropped the ball when they put out that disc without providing dates and titles for everything!) However, some of the films’ dates are still unknown.

Tips on cataloguing your own list:

Start writing down the films as early as you can! I actively began cultivating my longtime love in late 2004, and began my list not that long afterwards. It might’ve been started by early spring 2005 at the latest. If you don’t start keeping track early enough, when you can still remember everything well, you’ll never be able to catch up or create an accurate list later on.

I recognize the earliest portion of my list as not being in order, since I was recording the films I knew I’d seen up till then, including listing the films on several collections of comedy shorts. Since I keep journals, I was also able to use that for reference if need be. I began with my first known silent, Metropolis, listed the few I remembered seeing prior to November 2004, and then just began listing everything from memory.

After a certain point, probably around 125 (The Wind, also directed by Victor Sjöström), all the films began to be listed in proper order. Before, it was more important to just list all the films I knew I’d seen instead of trying to piece them together in their exact order.

If you don’t know a date, just write the approximate date with a question mark, or the probable decade with a question mark in place of the final digit.

Make sure you don’t repeat anything! Once you’ve gotten pretty high up in your list, you may want to search the document to make sure you didn’t see a film a few years ago and just forgot. Some very early films also have alternate titles, so you may want to check both titles just to make sure. There are also a number of early film collections with some overlap.

Double-check your numbering! I was so embarrassed to realize I’d jumped from 364 to 367 and not even caught that error for years. I had to go back and renumber my list, and also checked it again recently just to make absolutely sure my 1,000th silent would be the film I chose, and not really my 998th or something.

I was kind of upset to discover this error meant my milestone number films weren’t what I’d always thought after all. I was really proud and happy to claim, e.g., The Kid Brother as #400 and The Man Who Laughs as #800. However, that doesn’t take away my emotional bond to them or my first-time experience. It’s the same way suddenly discovering the man who raised you isn’t your blood father shouldn’t Magickally erase years of seeing him as your real father.

What to Count:

I count features, short subjects, movie trailers, advertisements, newsreels, home movies, and the short actualities from the dawn of film (very short snippets showing normal people doing normal things). Some purists may feel differently, but I always count hybrids if the majority of the film is silent. Many films from the late silent era have synchronized soundtracks, sound effects, and sometimes even a bit of dialogue. That doesn’t change its integral silent nature.

I always make a note about what kind of synchronized sound a film has, just as I mention if a film were made in one year but released a significant amount of time later. For example, the dreadfully boring Leaves from Satan’s Book was filmed in 1919, but not released till 1921.

If something doesn’t have a title and it’s not something you can easily Google (like a newsreel or short documentary in a museum exhibit), just give a brief description and approximate year.

How to bulk up quickly:

Collections! You can watch a lot of very early films very quickly, since they’re all of a minute long (if that). Even the films from about 1900 to 1910 are still only about 3–13 minutes. There are also a lot of DVDs featuring famous comedians’ shorts. The collections I’ve watched and recommend are:

Edison:  The Invention of the Movies (a four-disc set)
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies
Chaplin Mutuals
The Essential Charlie Chaplin
Electric Edwardians
Landmarks of Early Film (two volumes)
Winsor McCay: The Master Edition
Silent Shakespeare
The Lumière Brothers’ First Films
The Harold Lloyd Slapstick Symposium (two volumes)
The Oliver Hardy Slapstick Symposium
The Charley Chase Slapstick Symposium (two volumes)
Taboo: The Beginning of Erotic Cinema
Biograph Shorts (two volumes)
D.W. Griffith: Years of Discovery: 1909–1913
The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (a four-disc set)
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894–1941 (seven volumes, of which I’m finally going through now)
Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s (two volumes, also going through now)
The Stan Laurel Slapstick Symposium (two volumes)
The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy (nine volumes, with only a handful of talkies)
The Best Arbuckle-Keaton Collection
Laugh with Max Linder!

I’ve also added a lot of 1890s films (and the few 1880s films) to my list by searching their titles on YouTube and Google. Wikipedia can help with its [Year] in film entries, since it lists all the films made in these early years. The ones that aren’t available on the abovementioned collections are often available online for free.

Where to find them:

Netflix, both on Apple TV and the old-fashioned DVD rental service, has lots of silents. Most decent libraries also carry at least a few important silents. You can also stay appraised of when your local libraries, museums, and indie movie theatres are showing silents.

In a pinch, if you can’t find a film at your library and can’t get the DVD from Netflix or interlibrary loan fast enough, you can often find it on YouTube or a site like Open Culture. However, it’s really important to support companies like Kino, Milestone, Flicker Alley, Criterion, and Lobster. When they see people buying these films (some of them quite rare or niche), they’ll see there’s a market to release more. Many of the pirated versions floating around on YouTube don’t even have the best prints or soundtracks, sometimes no soundtracks at all.

Buying official DVDs means more silents will become commercially available instead of locked away in archives or only shown on TCM every five years. It also means these DVDs stay in print, instead of being discontinued after several years and suddenly jumping in price to $70 or more.

Keep in mind reaching 1,000 and beyond is a marathon, not a race. Binge-watching films all day long, every single day, even if you have a lot of free time, is about as unhealthy and unrealistic as the folks who claim they write several million words during NaNoWriMo. Take time to savor the journey instead of rushing to do it all at once. I’d only seen about five silents till I began watching in earnest in November 2004, and it’s taken a bit over 11 years to get up to 1,000.

I hope I still have some important silents to look forward to choosing from when I get to 2,000!

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