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Kino on Video presents
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DVD ReviewHere we have an incredible accumulation of 133 complete films from the earliest days of cinema. The first 20 years of movies, as well as some antecedents, are covered, with copious examples from many of the pioneers of the cinema. As these are the oldest bits of footage in existence, their condition is often dodgy, but they are almost always fascinating as we see the development of the language of cinema as it happens before us. The five-disc set is roughly broken down by topic, with a certain unavoidable amount of overlap.All of the discs include a 'Play All' function, the ability to select particular films or play all of the films by a particular filmmaker, or read through a text that has links to the films in the appropriate spots.Disc One: The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works (01h:11m:47s)The motion picture had its very beginnings in the sequential photography of Eadweard Muybridge. In a short film, about ten of Muybridge's sequences are presented in real time, providing the illusion of movement. That led to the kinetoscope of Edison, and a number of his kinetoscopes from the late 1890s are included. Among these are The Kiss—the first censored film—depicting a moment from the play The Widow Jones, and Feeding the Doves. Since copyright was a dodgy thing for the motion picture, both of these films include, as part of the picture, periodic frames reciting Edisons copyrights and patents. With DVD, we're able to get a close-up look at the historic process of protection.The next important development came with the work of the Lumiére brothers in Paris. They first developed a way to project motion pictures, and a number of their 50-foot films of such items as a day at the zoo, the beach, babies fighting and other slices of life, such as workmen loading a boiler, make up their fifteen works presented on this disc. While the movies were a popular novelty, two works of 1902 and 1903, Georges Mèliés' A Trip to the Moon and Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, paved the way for the motion picture industry we know now. Each used a greater length to tell an extended story and, in Mèliés' film, we find the importance of special effects and lavish set design made clear. While a shade awkward and peculiar to modern eyes, it's clear to see how Trip to the Moon became the first blockbuster motion picture hit. On the downside, the narration provided by the director to be read live with the film is presented here by someone with an irritatingly thick French accent. I found him barely comprehensible much of the time. The Great Train Robbery still manages to generate plenty of excitement in its nonstop action and gunplay. The concluding shot of George Barnes firing his pistol directly into the audience surely must have startled more than one moviegoer. This print is the only surviving one that incorporates hand-colored tinting of various highlights, such as gunshots. A number of "actualities" make up the next segment, and these feature the skyscrapers of New York City (then a mere 15 or so stories high), the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, various train rides and the like. Those with a bent toward history will find these to be quite fascinating.Some of the early American Biograph blue films are presented here, though they are racier in title than in content. An extremely funny one involves an enormously obese woman attempting to put on a corset with the aid of her much smaller husband. No nudity beyond a glimpse of limb is presented here, but they were surely seen as naughty in their day.A set of shorts from the early 1900s wraps up this disc. The double entendres of The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog still bring a chuckle to juvenile minds like mine. The Golden Beetle has some attractive hand coloring and makes copious use of stopped-camera effects to cause visual transformations.Disc Two: The European Pioneers (00h:58m:32s)The second disc, compiled by the British Film Institute, features the European groundbreakers in motion pictures. Of course, we again run across the Lumiéres here, with 13 more of their 50-foot marvels. These include the famous shot of workers leaving their factory, arrival of a train and demolition of a wall, that was usually also run backwards (and is so here as well). The program then moves on to a series of British pioneers, Birt Acres, and his partner-for-a-while, R.W. Paul. In these segments the progress is clearly visible. Come Along, Do! (1898), gives us the first film carrying action from one shot to another. In Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901), the first film-within-a-film appears, and in A Chess Dispute (1903), the innovation of using the frame to suggest action rather than show it, by having a comic fight sequence seem all the more violent by only momentarily intruding into the picture. G.A. Smith is the next Brit examined; his The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) demonstrates an early use of editing to help tell the story, and Grandma's Reading Glass (1900) demonstrates both POV shots and masking. Sick Kitten (1903) intersperses closeups into the action.Up next are several smaller outfits, Sheffield Photo and Haggar & Sons. Their Daring Daylight Robbery and Desperate Poaching Affray (both 1903) not only helped influence and inspire The Great Train Robbery, but they set into motion the accepted vocabulary for chase sequences, with characters running toward and past the camera, then resuming in a shot as they run away from the camera. Piracy was always a problem in early motion pictures. As an example, four films of Bamforth & Co., takeoffs on other films here, are presented. Sometimes, but not always, they managed to improve upon the original.Perhaps the most intriguing of the British pioneers is James Williamson, who produced a series of imaginative shorts such as The Big Swallow (1901) and An Interesting Story (1905). The latter seems to be the first instance of a steamroller-running-over a person gag, and manages to be highly entertaining nearly a hundred years later. There is one short (a Lumiére piece on a boat leaving port) contained in the program but not listed on the insert. There are also eleven shorts that are provided as Easter Eggs and are discussed in Extras.Disc Three: Experimentation and Discovery (01h:34m:03s)This third volume takes us into somewhat more accomplished filmmaking. The pictures of Hepworth Manufacturing have a number of innovative features, including the earliest known use of intertitles in How it Feels to Be Run Over (1901). They also produced one of the seminal dog-rescue pictures, Rescued by Rover (1905), which plays upon the common fears at the time of theft of infants by gypsies. Their That Fatal Sneeze shows many of the conventions of slapstick film being established as a trick with sneezing powder backfires.Several documentaries that long precede Robert Flaherty are also included. The first is a lengthy Visit to Peek Frean & Co. Biscuit Works from 1907, which not only includes much footage of the cookie-making process, but manages to fit in a firefighting sequence as well. Such fire rescue films were hugely popular amongst early audiences and no doubt this was felt to be necessary to spice the picture up a bit. A second documentary is A Day in the Life of a Coalminer, which glosses over the hardships of the miner and rather focuses on the positive results of his labors. Not surprisingly, this picture was financed by a railroad company; some things haven't really changed at all.About half of the program is devoted to the Pathé brothers and their studio, which featured stencil-coloring prominently in its films. Among the eight shorts here are their notable fantasies, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1906) and Aladdin and the Marvelous Lamp (1907). Both feature bright and striking coloring that is highly effective, especially in light of the subject matter of the pictures themselves. Sadly, Ali Baba does not survive complete. Among the other intriguing material here is Revolution in Russia, a 1905 recounting of the Potemkin riots in Odessa that same year, later made into the classic feature Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein.Wrapping up disc three are several shorts from the Edison studios, including the oldest surviving advertising film, an 1898 bit for Dewar's Scotch. The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903), with its closeup of a lady's ankle, was considered risqué at the time. Note that 'gay' is most definitely not meant in the current sense of the word. The final short is Edwin S. Porter's adaptation of the Winsor McCay comic strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. This picture is thoughtfully windowboxed, since much of the action goes to the very edge of the frame. Plenty of special effects and a wild sense of abandon make this one highly enjoyable even today.Disc Four: The Magic of Méliès (01h:41m:08s)Georges Méliès is quite properly regarded as one of the major pioneers of the cinema, both in storytelling technique and in special effects. Trained in stage magic, Méliès quickly seized upon the motion picture camera and its capabilities for providing a magical experience not possible on any stage. This disc includes fifteen of Méliès' later works, after he had made a sensation with A Trip to the Moon. Many of these shorts are a shade on the repetitive side; there comes a point where one tires of seeing countless double exposures and dissolves. However, taken in small doses, the films of Méliès can still astonish and amuse. Many of these pictures take the form of a magic show, such as Tchin-Chao, the Chinese Conjurer, The Mermaid, The Living Playing Cards and The Enchanted Sedan Chair. Others involve pictures that come to life (as does The Living Playing Cards), such as The Hilarious Posters and Long Distance Wireless Photography, an incredibly early satire on television. Fantasy is still one of Méliès' strong points, noted in the lengthy (20m:36s) The Impossible Voyage (1904). Unfortunately, this short suffers from the same incomprehensible narrator as A Trip to the Moon. The Eclipse features a blatantly erotic encounter between the sun and the moon, before bogging down into an endless parade of girls enacting stars, planets and comets. The Black Imp features one of the many demonic impersonations that Méliès favored throughout his early films (no others shown here). Ever the good showman, however, Méliès was not above knockdown farce, anticipating endlessly reused Three Stooges schtick in Good Glue Sticks (1907). Alexander Rannie's score for these shorts is particularly noteworthy. Although purists might complain that it's not strictly in a period style, it wonderfully captures much of the anarchic spirit of the films. Good Glue Sticksunfortunately runs a bit too slowly; motion blur is visible in the frame and action is slightly halting. Disc Five: Comedy, Spectacle and New Horizons (01h:23m:36s)Wrapping up the package are eight fairly mature shorts from the very end of the nickelodeon era. Slapstick comedy gets a workout in The Policemen's Little Run (1907), Bangville Police (1913), Troubles of a Grass Widower (1908) and Onésime, Clock-Maker (1912). These feature a good deal of knockabout farce, though Onésime, Clock-Maker plays with time and film speed via a highly undercranked camera. Cartoonist Winsor McCay provides some animation of his Little Nemo characters, with the assistance of then-beloved and now-forgotten comic John Bunny. McCay takes the viewer right into his studio where he's making the animation, page by inked page. It's quite an incredible piece of work, particularly in light of McCay's detailed linework, and the animation can be stunning.With the Italian one-reel Nero and the Fall of Rome (1909), we see what will clearly become the epics of a few years later, such as Cabiria and The Last Days of Pompeii. Even though the sets here are clearly just painted scenery, the characters already are dwarfed by the scale and there is nonetheless an epic feel behind the proceedings. In an odd choice (which may be period), most of this picture is tinted emerald green; it switches to red as Nero goes mad. In a more modern tone is Alice Guyy-Blaché's The Making of an American Citizen (1912). Ivan Orloff (Lee Beggs), a Russian immigrant, treats his wife worse than he would cattle (he even has her pulling his cart while he whips her!). He is soon advised in none too pleasant terms that this is not acceptable in America, leading to a derisively optimistic transformation, but the heart was in the right place.One can hardly talk about early cinema without at least touching on D.W. Griffith, and this set provides an excellent example of his late work at Biograph. The Girl and Her Trust (1912) features Dorothy Bernard as one of a long line of plucky Griffith telegraph operators trying desperately to save the payroll. This is one of Griffith's wild 'race to the rescue' films, and it's quite breathtaking. The pursuit is via speeding locomotive, with the camera also speeding along. Griffith uses rapid cuts to build the suspense far beyond what the trivial melodrama really deserves. But not to close on too serious a note, the Keystone satire of such pictures, Bangville Police (1913) wraps things up. Young Grace (Mabel Normand, too few of whose films survive) thinks she's in danger, and the Keystone Kops, alas, come to her rescue. Unfortunately, the only source of danger is the Kops themselves. Where Griffith supplies tension by his editing, Keystone provides humor. Despite melodramatic touches, these pictures both hold up well even at the distance of 90 years. Robert Israel provides a suitable score for all of the pieces on this disc, although I question the use of the clichéd Hearts and Flowers in Max Linder's Troubles of a Grass Widower.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The films here are all presented full-frame, or slightly narrower (a few shorts run at about 1.17:1, since frame size had not quite yet been standardized). Overall, the transfers are excellent, with plenty of detail. One need only compare the clips contained in the Méliès documentary to the films here to see an enormous difference; there is much more clarity and shadow detail to be seen in these presentations. The films that have color tinting all look very nice indeed, with bright and sharp colors. Some deterioration of original source materials is to be expected in film of this age, but it's not really bad at all, beyond isolated scratches and speckles. The Big Swallow is in unfortunately poor condition, but it tends to stand out here because so many of the other films look so good. Film buffs will be very pleased with the video presentation of these pictures. The one exception is Buy Your Own Cherries on Disc 1, which suffers from misregistration; the bottom of the frame is cut off and appears at the top of the picture. Only this one short has this problem, so it may be a problem with the source material, but I would expect that in the digital realm this would be something easy enough to correct.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: While most of the discs are presented in 2.0 Dolby Surround, the third disc is partly in 2.0 mono for some reason. The first, fourth and fifth discs have only musical accompaniment, and overall these are quite good. Disc one features some vintage recordings, which are crackly and tinny, as one might expect, but there are also piano accompaniments that include plenty of odd and irritating banging and rattling about that makes them seem quite unprofessional. Disc two has a voiceover that comes from the left speaker, which is rather odd when one is used to such material coming from the center speaker. The voiceover tends to be a bit echo-filled as well. The piano accompaniment comes through quite nicely on all channels, however. The piano score on disc three has a great deal of hiss. Some unfortunate placement of chapter stops also means that if you don't use the 'play all' function, the music tends to get cut off prematurely.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 120 cues and remote access
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsOn this ultimate DVD set for the cinema historian, the ancient history of the movies is brought to light in sparkling transfers, along with informative accompanying text screens. Highly recommended.
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