THE ORIGINS OF FILM
Review by Michael Jacobson
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Image Entertainment
Length: 564 Minutes
Release Date: March 13, 2001
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 1919…the 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.