American Feature Films

The American Silent Feature era: 1912-1931.

This section provides comprehensive information on feature-length silent films (conventionally defined as having a minimum length of 4 reels, which corresponds roughly to a running time of 40 minutes). On each page, you will find tables of:

(1) every film released in a given year that is available to be watched on YouTube, and a link to the best uploaded version of each such film; and
(2) every film which is commercially available for purchase, but is not yet on YouTube.

All American films that were released in 1925 or earlier are in the public domain. Films released in 1926 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2022. Every January first after that, the next year’s films will enter the public domain. We encourage owners of copies of films from 1925 or earlier which cannot yet be found on YouTube to upload them onto YouTube. Please note, any music specifically scored for a given film is not necessarily in the public domain.

American studios, unsure about the audience’s ability to sit still for more than 20 or so minutes, had historically focused solely on producing short subjects. It was in 1912 that hesitant production of longer films began. Finding some success with these projects, studios gradually ramped up production of feature-length movies, but it wasn’t until 1914 that the tide began to turn strongly towards production of longer films. In 1915, at least 600 silent features were released, and annual production did not drop below that number through 1928.

The silent era’s approaching death-knell became apparent in the late 1920’s with the coming of sound, and by 1929, the number of sound features was greater than that of silents. Only a tiny handful of silent features were released in 1930, and 1931 witnessed the production of the era’s final two silent features: Chaplin’s City Lights, and the experimental film Portrait of a Young Man in Three Movements.