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Kino on Video presents
"You're here to fight--not fiddle!"
DVD ReviewWhen one studies very early film, the name of Thomas A. Edison is quite prominent right at the very beginning. Simultaneously with several European inventors, Edison came up with a practical method of producing motion pictures on film. Since Edison was even better at capitalizing on his inventions than he was at coming up with them, it is little surprise that the Thomas A. Edison Studios were a very influential producer of such movies early on. What is surprising is that in such studies Edison usually drops out of sight after The Great Train Robbery (1903), or if a particularly thorough examination is under way, The Life of an American Fireman (1904). But Edison continued to make films until nearly the end of World War I, in 1918. This monumental package from Kino traces the development of the Edison studios, with background information as well as an astonishing 140 films over four discs.
The first disc covers the familiar beginnings of the motion picture, from primitive experiments on cylinders in the 1880s through The Great Train Robbery. During this inception period, Edison tried a number of formats, including the 50-foot loops of film played in the peep-show kinetoscopes. A wide variety of these subjects are included. As the novelty began to wear off, audiences began to demand stories and Edison was happy to provide such materials. In an indication as to how little has changed over the intervening century-plus, his themes usually include sex and violence, with demure stripping (though no actual nudity is on display, they were certainly racy for Victorian times) and often violent gunplay (but without blood). Once we move beyond actualities and fires, there is plenty of interesting fare, including a very early presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many of the films on this first disc have appeared on other packages, such as The Movies Begin and More Treasures from American Film Archives.
Social comment is the order of the day on the second disc, covering the critical (but seldom-seen) films from the period 1904 through early 1907. Director Edwin S. Porter really took on the spirit of the muckrakers who were active at this time and produced quite a few films with a progressive bent, such as The Kleptomaniac, contrasting the easy treatment a wealthy kleptomaniac gets with a starving woman who steals bread. The Ex-Convict makes a plea for compassion for prisoners once they have served their sentences. But it's not all dreary social drama either; Porter has some fun with his magnum opus by presenting a child's version, The Little Train Robbery. He also experiments wildly with special effects including double exposure and stop-motion animation in Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and The "Teddy" Bears (1907). Racial issues could cut both ways on these films. In The White Caps, lynching and vigilante justice are soundly condemned, but the studio also was more than happy to include stereotypes of black children stealing and eating watermelons. On the whole, however, the racist content is outweighed by the more sensitive material.
Things began to change in the period of the third disc. Up until about 1908, Edison had enjoyed a virtual monopoly by means of his patents, which were controlled by the Motion Pictures Patent Trust. In the antitrust climate of those days, however, his patents were voided and things began to open up for other companies to compete. At this critical moment, Edison did not recognize the need for further stylistic innovation as well as more sophisticated content, and Porter and others continued making their short films in the same style. Even though they were rapidly becoming antiquated, these films are often interesting in a variety of ways. The progressive themes are still in evidence, such as in the short film on the care of infants. Some items, such as The Passer-By are highly touching. Others, like How Bumptious Papered His Parlor, are vibrant slapstick anticipating the Three Stooges. However, a lack of development similar to what was being seen over at Biograph under the helm of D.W. Griffith meant that Edison was falling far behind the ever-growing pack. For some reason, almost nothing of Edison's output from 1909 and 1910 survives, but the rest of this period is well-documented here.
The fourth disc covers the final years of the studio. Over the first years of the 1910s, Edison began to catch up with Biograph's content to some extent, only to be surprised by the development of the feature film. As is clear from this set, Edison paid little attention to that format until it was far too late. Most of the films on this disc are still one and two-reelers. Sex and violence are no longer visible; domestic comedies of manners and morality plays instead are the order of the day. Some creativity is nonetheless on display, such as in A Serenade by Proxy (1913), with its parallel romances between the gentry and the servants. All On Account of a Transfer provides a humorous look at a German tourist's mishaps in New York City. Educational films get a representation with The Wonders of Magnetism (1915). Social dramas are also still present, such as the tuberculosis episode, The Lone Game. There are elements of the situation comedy in Black Eyes (1915), a particularly goofy picture that's nonetheless enjoyable.
The set is wrapped up with Edison discovering, far too late, that the public really wanted feature films. One of the last releases of the studio, The Unbeliever (1918) is included as the grand finale. This is an interesting if overly pious war film, with "The Man You Love to Hate," Erich von Stroheim, in a particularly reprehensible villainous role. This picture, directed by Alan Crosland (who would go on to direct The Jazz Singer nine years later), is reasonably fast-paced and certainly has good production values since it was one of the first films to get the cooperation of the U.S. military, here specifically the Marine Corps. But the handwriting was on the wall, and Thomas Edison sold the company, lock, stock and barrel. The unique history of the Edison studios make it unusually suited for such an in-depth study, and Kino has done a fabulous job in telling the tale of the Edison studio's rise, decline and fall. The only significant film missing from this package is the 1910 Frankenstein, presumably indicating Alois Detlaff hasn't lowered his million-dollar asking price significantly. Nonetheless, highly recommended.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Most of the films here were derived either from safety transfers held by the Museum of Modern Art, or from the paper prints deposited with the Library of Congress when the copyright status of motion picture film was up in the air. Both versions are very nicely transferred, with the expected damage and wear that afflicts film over a century old. A few pictures suffer from significant nitrate decomposition, but they're still watchable. Others are very striking in their sharpness and clarity. The Great Train Robbery is derived from a rare hand-tinted print; most other films are presented without tinting or toning.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Musical scores are provided by such modern-day notables as Jon Mirsalis, Donald Sosin, Philip Carli, Clark Wilson and Ben Model. The accompaniments are generally very appropriate, with piano, organ alternating for the sake of variety. There's nothing to complain about the quality; the organ has plenty of low bass and the piano sounds fine, without clipping, noise or hiss.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 162 cues and remote access
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsAn amazing overview of a studio's history, with a significant chunk of its output presented in fine transfers and with tons of extra material that will provide plenty to occupy the viewer.
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