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Flicker Alley presents
Saved from the Flames (1896-1944)

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Mr. Armstrong. And we're going to play one of the good old good ones for you—I Cover the Waterfront."
- Louis Armstrong, in Copenhagen, 1934

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 10, 2008

Stars: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charles Chaplin, William Frawley, Josephine Baker
Director: Mack Sennett, D. W. Griffith, Chuck Jones, Ub Iwerks, Thomas Ince

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 07h:10m:11s
Release Date: January 22, 2008
UPC: 617311673498
Genre: compilation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The notion of film as an art form is one that we pretty much take for granted, but that wasn't the case especially in the early days of the medium, when it was a novelty or a disreputable enterprise rather too closely associated with lowbrow entertainment like the music hall or burlesque. And given that no one expected it to last, it's no great surprise that the rapid decay and the combustibility of early nitrate prints wouldn't have been seen as a problem—but it's created a curatorial nightmare in our time, and with it the loss of a huge percentage of the historical legacy of the earliest movies. In many respects, then, the true stars of this fascinating three-disc compilation are the historians and archivists who have tracked down and taken care of this material, allowing us to have more than just a few fleeting glimpses of the first moving pictures.

The set assembles 54 short films, the first of which are made in the late nineteenth century, and the last of which were produced during World War II, and over that half century, you can see in this set so many of the possibilities of the medium getting explored. The set begins with a couple of shorts from the Lumière Brothers, who didn't quite know what to do with their invention—we see hordes of workers exiting a factory and staring into the odd contraption, and then move from the proletariat to the bourgeois, as gentlemen descend from a train that has pulled into the station and don't know what to make of the camera, either. (Their handlebar moustaches and bowler hats make for fantastically evocative uniforms.) The first disc includes a couple of early efforts at sync sound, including a three-minute Cyrano de Bergerac, for which a sound cylinder needed to be played at exactly the right moment to mesh with the actors' mouths—the print has also been tinted with blotches of paint, making this an extraordinary first all-color, all-talking movie.

Many of these are at least as fascinating for their sociological import as for their aesthetic invention—a 1907 rendition of La Marseillaise is wonderfully full-throated, and a 1916 visit to Los Angeles features many shots of the long-departed and much-lamented streetcars downtown. Disc Two brings us some more familiar faces, including Charles Chaplin's, in one of his very first efforts for Mack Sennett; and Stan Laurel, not yet twinned with Oliver Hardy. Full sync sound arrives in a big musical way, too, and we're treated to early performances from Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (his Dinah is especially spirited), Django Reinhardt, and "the Inimitable Lillian Roth," who rips into Ain't She Sweet?. The camerawork isn't much on these, but enough to give us a sense of the event; and there are some stellar bits of animation as well, most notably on this disc Balloonland, Ub Iwerks' weirdly Daliesque short in which dozens of inflatable folk are terrorized by Pin Cushion Man.

Disc Three opens with one of the great dark pieces of agitprop ever produced by Hollywood: it's an installment from 1934 of California Election News, ostensibly a newsreel but really a carefully scripted mockumentary designed to torpedo that year's gubernatorial bid by author Upton Sinclair, an avowed socialist. (Sinclair has some new currency these days with There Will Be Blood, and to the entrenched interests of the Golden State between the wars, he was a truly dangerous character.) The political aspect of things continues as a pre-Fred Mertz William Frawley appears as the Yankee Doodler, designed to liven spirits during the first days of World War II, and with Hell Bent for Election, an animated 1944 short directed by Chuck Jones, taking a respite from Bugs and friends to rally support for FDR's fourth term. Happily Laurel and Hardy are united, but here they're dubbed into French, which makes for very odd viewing—they're our hosts for an MGM promo reel, shilling for such upcoming releases as Mutiny on the Bounty and The Great Ziegfeld. It's not the sort of set that you'll want to watch straight through, but any film fan is certain to find a handful of things here that are indispensable and fascinating, and the cherry on the sundae is a Cinema Paradiso-inspired montage of kisses excised from theatrical prints, an assemblage of the secret moments that were safely cut lest we lose our souls at the picture show.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As you might anticipate, the various films arrived in different stages of disrepair—some were obviously well cared for over the decades, while others seem to have been crammed into the backs of closets or dank basements, so image quality is a challenge. There's lots of bacterial decay and acid burn; but it's a blessing to have these, and no doubt the restorers have done yeomen's work with particularly difficult material.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: Lots of hiss and crackle, but without them, we wouldn't really feel like we were watching old movies. Many of them have been set to new musical accompaniment, which vary from the appropriate to the unnecessarily intrusive.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 54 cues and remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
Extras Review: Each of the 54 shorts is preceded by brief, informative curatorial notes, which are also reproduced in an accompanying booklet.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A cornucopia of wonders, full of technological innovations, animation, musicals, documentaries and every imaginable kind of storytelling from the first half century of moving pictures.


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