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THE ORIGINS OF FILM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  564 Minutes
Release Date:  March 13, 2001

Film ****

Owning The Origins of Film three disc box set from Image is like having your own private museum of film history.  Boasting hours of quality programming from the silent era as compiled and preserved by the Library of Congress Video Collection, this set celebrates some of the art form’s earliest and most significant movies, from the earliest films by both African American and female directors to a treasure trove of animation’s earliest days.

Author Kevin Brownlow has called the silent era the richest period of cinema history, and one need look no further than The Origins of Film to confirm the validity of that statement.  Before there was Spike Lee, there was Oscar Micheaux.  Before there were Jane Campion or even Ida Lupino, there were Alice Guy-Blache and Lois Weber.  And before there were Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, there were Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids.

There are so many offerings on this incredible set that the only way to discuss them is one disc at a time, so that is the format I have chosen for this review:

DISC ONE:  THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA I & II

The disc opens with Oscar Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates from 1919the oldest known surviving film made by an African American.  It’s a story about a remarkable woman, Sylvia (Evelyn Preer) and her life’s journey from daughter of sharecroppers to the savior of a school for black children in the south.  It’s a picture with a very sophisticated sense of style and narration, with little surprises along the way.  For example, it starts off with the appearance of a simple romantic melodrama before we realize we’re watching a potent statement about the power of education.  Sylvia goes from a broken relationship to a position in which she serves and eventually saves a school buckling under the weight of financial hardships and a prejudiced south.  As a conclusion, we see a flashback to her past, when her entire family was lynched by an angry mob (in scenes that are powerful and horrifying). 

The second part of the program starts with a short sound film, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.  This little program features a pianist and singer performing “All God’s Children” and an original composition.  What makes it interesting?  The year it was released:  1923.  That’s a full four years before Warner Bros. proclaimed The Jazz Singer as “the first talking picture”. 

The first disc ends with another full length feature, 1923’s The Scar of Shame, presented by the Colored Players Film Corporation and directed by Frank Perugini.  Unlike Within Our Gates, which had token roles for white actors, Scar is 100% African American in cast and crew, and was a film made by black people for black people.  This complex story about a young woman with an abusive father who finds solace with a wealthy young composer is both engrossing and stirring…and one of the best silent era films I’ve seen.  Perugini shows a command of lighting and visual style akin to Joseph von Sternberg.  Note, for example, how he illuminates his heroine with an ethereal light that leaves her without shadows on her face and her countenance glowing from a sea of blackness, or how figures move in and out of carefully controlled lights.  Note also how he uses shadow for symbolic effect, as when the hero is unjustly jailed and the shadow of the cop engulfs his figure.  This picture even offers an unpredicted conclusion as a statement about the importance of treating women and children with respect.

Watching both of these feature films is enough to give one a sense of the pride of African American artists during the early part of the century—something not often conveyed in other mainstream films of the time.  These are filmmakers who saw their race as noble and dignified, and their characters carried themselves with a sense of honor and purpose (even, to a certain extent, the villains of the pieces).  One could even say that Within Our Gates served as a strong rebuttal to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, with its infamous Klan ride finale.  The flip side to that notion is watching Sylvia’s innocent family hanged by white southerners who were more interested in revenge than justice.

DISC TWO:  ORIGINS OF AMERICAN ANIMATION & ORIGINS OF THE FANTASY FEATURE

The second disc opens with a remarkable collection of animated shorts, some of which date back to 1900.  These shorts show early experimentation with the art form by combining stop motion animation with live action, as well as early pen and pencil sketches being brought to life.  “Fun in a Bakery Shop”, from the Edison studios, has all the imagination of a Georges Melies film.  Other shorts, like “Bobby Bumps Starts a Lodge”, are equally delightful, with charming senses of humor and an amazing sense of discovery as these pioneering artists explored their medium.  This feature also includes one of the earliest pieces from Willis O’Brien, who would later gain immortality with King Kong and Mighty Joe Young:  “The Dinosaur and the Missing Link” brought prehistoric men and beasts to life, all with stop motion animation, and some rather tongue-in-cheek humor (“I’d invite you for tea, but it hasn’t been discovered yet…”).  Also included are excerpts from legendary animator Winsor McCay, whose body of work has been all but lost to film deterioration.  One of the clips is from his famed Gertie the Dinosaur cartoons, while another is from “The Centaurs”, a remarkably imaginative piece.  All that’s really left unrepresented by this collection are the early Max Fleischer silent cartoons featuring Koko the Clown and the Inkwell.

Part II of this disc starts with The Patchwork Girl of Oz, one of the earliest film adaptations of the Oz books and produced by author Frank L. Baum himself!  Though it’s far removed from Judy Garland and the land Over the Rainbow, this 1914 feature still boasts some clever effects and costumes, as well as a sense of the power of film to convey magic and fantasy.  Fred Woodward deserves special mention for playing just about every animal character in the piece, except for the Cowardly Lion…look for a young Hal Roach in that role.

The second disc wraps with A Florida Enchantment, a 1914 Vitagraph production that caused quite a stir with its bold gender-bending tale.  Edith Storey delivers a remarkable performance as a young woman who discovers magical seeds that turn men into women and women into men while maintaining the same outward appearance.  Her sudden transition from delicate lady into haughty gentlemen wreaks humorous havoc on her fiancé, who later tries one of the seeds himself with comic results.  (As an added note, consider how this film used white actors in blackface to portray African Americans as goofy servants, in stark contrast to the pride and nobility of the films on the first disc).

DISC THREE:  AMERICA’S FIRST WOMEN FILMMAKERS & ORIGINS OF THE GANGSTER FILM

The women had their say in the silent era, too, and disc three collects works from two lady directors and producers.  Alice Guy-Blache’s films Matrimony’s Speed Limit and A House Divided are crude two-reel comedies that make up for lack of sophistication by their outrageous spirit.  She toyed with her actors like puppets and made them behave in ridiculous ways for her camera to tell her tales of suspicions, greed, ill communications and other finer aspects of romance.  Lois Weber, whose movies bore her name innumerable times, checks in with a splendid feature Too Wise Wives, a film that dares to begin “Most stories end ‘happily ever after’, but…” and then proceeds to tell an emotional tale about a loving wife whose honesty and integrity helps prevent an impending disaster not only for herself and her husband, but for another married couple as well.  Ms. Weber also starts off the program on this set with her short film, How Men Propose…a zinger of a comedy that was bound to have women in the audience cheering while men sunk silently in their seats!

The second part of disc three, and the finale to the set, contains two of the earliest ‘gangster’ films, starting with D. W. Griffith’s Biograph short, The Narrow Road.  Though his Musketeers of Pig Alley might have been a more suitable selection, this little film is a decently constructed morality tale about a man fresh out of prison who vows to make good, only to face the temptations of his old lifestyle. 

The final program, Alias Jimmy Valentine from director Maurice Tourneur, is perhaps a better link to the later gangster films like Angels With Dirty Faces or White Heat.  It’s a tale of action, drama and suspense that features a central character who lives a dual life:  respected society man by day, and safecracker by night.  One extraordinary sequence makes use of a set with no roof photographed from a high angle which lets us observe a carefully planned bank heist from an omniscient point of view.  Jimmy is later convicted and sent to prison (with scenes actually filmed on location at Sing Sing), but is pardoned by a governor who doesn’t believe that the prominent man of society and the notorious Jimmy Valentine are the same person.  He is free to start life anew, but when a small child gets locked in a new bank vault with no combination set, he is forced to risk everything by using his skills to open the safe.

Watching this set of movies gave me no less than a feeling of pure euphoria.  Altogether, The Origins of Film represents an inscrutable collection of important films that are not only significant for their historical value, but a joy and treat to watch for anybody who’s even remotely interested in the evolution of cinema.  This is a body of works made before there were big studios who made decisions based solely on financial results rather than artistic integrity.  Films like The Scar of Shame hearken back to a time when a film didn’t need to be seen by millions to be worthwhile…the right audiences in the right numbers were always good enough. 

These films also represent a freedom of expression and ideas not really seen since the silent era:  to watch them is to see young artists excited about their fledgling art form and completely uninhibited by established rules and regulations.  It’s a terrible shame that an estimated 80% of silent films no longer exist owing to lack of proper preservation and the early nitrate stocks that deteriorated or burned easily.  A great debt is owed to the Library of Congress for their film preservation efforts, and to Image Entertainment, who remain the most prolific studio for saving silent films onto DVD for all movie fans to enjoy.  Watch The Origins of Film and rejoice.

Video **1/2

I’m always uncertain about how to rate the video quality of silent films, and this set is no exception.  Some of these films are over 100 years old…naturally, I don’t expect them to look great.  Considering the mortality rate of films from this era, I’m usually pleased that these films exist at all, no matter what their condition.  That being said, I really have no complaints about The Origins of Film, which suffer from some aging artifacts, but little else.  For the most part, images maintain a remarkable sense of sharpness and detail given the age of the movies.  There are some expected inconsistencies to be sure, but for the silent film buff, this is still a quality presentation:  inter-titles are easily legible, and there are no effects from compression noticeable on any of these dual-layered discs.

Audio **1/2

The audio is a simple, clean, stereo recording of new piano music by Philip Carli:  simple and tasteful, they enhance the viewing experiences perfectly. 

Features (zero stars)

Nothing…although the set does come packaged with a useful little booklet of liner notes.

Summary:

The Origins of Film is the best DVD box set I’ve had the pleasure to review.  It’s an absolute treasure chest of important cinematic landmarks preserved by the Library of Congress and made available on disc by Image Entertainment.  This is the history of an art form come to life, and no student of cinema can afford to pass it up.  Highly, highly recommended.

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