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The Origins of Film: 1900-1926
The Library of Congress Video Collection

Image Entertainment

Series produced by Scott Simmon

Video and booklet annotations by Scott Simmon

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Great stuff, those old silent movies. From the primordial screen magic of George Meliés — a stage performer who innovated cinematic special effects and the art of story-telling in films that still charm 100 years later — to Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin and Nosferatu and The Lost World, these are the things our modern cinematic dreams are made on.

I've known for years that Willis O'Brien — the animation genius behind The Lost World and the one true King Kong — had made a little clay animation ditty about cavemen and dinos and a giant ape 15 years before Fay Wray got caught in a hairy paw. But I never expected to see it — until now. A generation before Judy Garland flew over the rainbow, the man who created the Oz stories, L. Frank Baum, wrote and produced his own Oz movies, but I never experienced the off-kilter fun of actually seeing one of them — until now. Then there's Alias Jimmy Valentine, long heralded as a little masterpiece and a forefather of the gangster genre that remains popular today. But it was frustratingly out of view for the better part of the 20th century. Again, what a surprise to discover that it's preserved within Image Entertainment's three-disc box set, the Library of Congress Video Collection's The Origins of Film.

The sad truth is that the vast majority of American silent films remain lost. As the program booklet accompanying this set points out, about 90 percent of the U.S. feature films from the 1910s and about 80 percent of those from the 1920s no longer exist. Of those that do, a great many have survived at all only through the efforts of foreign film archives, which held on to aging prints long abandoned or forgotten by the U.S. producers. Many of this set's films were, until recently, considered lost forever. Some survive only through extreme good luck. For example, Disc Three's Origins of the Gangster Film contains D.W. Griffith's The Narrow Road — a little-known one-reeler that features an uncredited 19-year-old Mary Pickford — copied from a "paper print," a thousand-foot roll of unperforated photographic paper deposited at the Library of Congress in 1912 for copyright protection and never intended for viewing. All other copies of the film appear to have deteriorated or been lost.

So, yeah, although its title is more than a tad disingenuous, The Origins of Film holds amazing stuff. More than nine hours of it. And not your standard film-school canon either. The set showcases films, filmmakers, and genres that are often ignored. We're talking obscure but benchmark works, most of which have been neglected for longer than perhaps your grandparents have been alive. They deserve better than neglect and decay, than to disintegrate so far that no audience will ever see them again. So the Library of Congress Video Collection is not just an entertaining digital repository — it provides a valuable public service. Besides, where else other than San Francisco's Lesbian and Gay film festival (really!) will you see the 1914 gender-switch comedy A Florida Enchantment?

What's here?

These three discs bundle together six separate volumes:

Disc 1: The African American Cinema I and The African American Cinema II

The series opens with Within Our Gates (1919), the earliest known surviving feature film by an African American, in this case pioneer director Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951). Details of Micheaux's life and career are murky, partly due to his tendency to mythologize his personal history in autobiographical novels and films. What's certain is that of his 27 or so silent features, only three are known to survive. Any film from this era serves as a window looking into a world very different from our own. Here that fact hits home through, among other things, intertitle cards such as the one introducing the lead character: "Sylvia Landry — a schoolteacher from the south visiting her northern cousin — is typical of the intelligent Negro of our times." By no means innovative in style or technique, what's remarkable about Within Our Gates is that this film, with its mixed-race cast, confronts racism and racists head-on. There's a lynching, after which the bodies are incinerated in a bonfire, and that segment is impossible to watch dispassionately — the static camera and lack of modern gloss give it all the realism of a home movie. Although Within Our Gates is melodramatic and resolves through a stack of now-clichéd plot points, it serves as a reminder that motion pictures have combined entertainment with social observation since the beginning.

Scar of Shame (1926) is an example of a "race movie," one of hundreds made by African Americans solely for African American audiences through a separate "underground" film industry outside of Hollywood. Produced by "The Colored Players Film Corporation," Scar of Shame is a low-budget good-guy/bad-guy melodrama that puts forth the progressive notion that environment plays as much of a role in an individual's development as racial genetics.

In between these two features is a four-minute musical piece featuring singer/hoofer Noble Sissle and a young, young, young Eubie "Stardust" Blake on piano. What's keen here is not only the lively jazz performance preserved but the fact that it was recorded using a sound-on-film process in 1923, four years before The Jazz Singer became "the first" talking picture.

Disc 2, part 1: Origins of American Animation: 1900-1921

Here are twenty-one short films and two fragments representing animation from the era Anno B.M. (Before Mickey). Techniques on hand include clay, puppet, cut-out, and shadow animation, as well as chalk and pen drawings. Of course, it's primitive stuff compared to anything created since the advent of cinema sound, but this is where modern animation techniques and innovation began. To animation buffs (like me) this is a view back in time to the dawn of civilization.

Whether they were made for kids or adults or as proof-of-concept, many are all the more engaging because of our awareness of when and how they were made. The earliest are from 1900 and 1906 and were shot in Thomas Edison's New Jersey "Black Maria" studio. Some bring to life cartoon images most of us know, if at all, as seminal newspaper strips (Krazy Kat, The Katzenjammer Kids). Like live-action films from the era, a number of the toons here display social attitudes of the time, including racial characterizations that would be abhorrent now but were standard conventions then. A few are downright bizarre and surreal (stoners take note). Some of the stand-outs are...

Disc 2, part 2: Origins of the Fantasy Feature

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914) is a freakish trip through the head of L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books and writer/producer of four features under the aegis of the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. Three of those were Oz films, including Patchwork Girl. It's a static, stagey 67-minute work that's memorable for its early glimpses of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion (played here by future famous comedy film producer Hal Roach), and less familiar creatures such as the Woozy (a beast seemingly created from cardboard blocks), a mule named Mewel, the Lonesome Zoop, and the nightmare-inducing Patchwork Girl herself. Not for impressionable children or those given to acid flashbacks.

A Florida Enchantment (1914) is one of the treasures of this set. Now seen on the big screen almost solely at Gay and Lesbian film festivals, this comedy is still funny today and astounds us that it's a film from 1914 having fun with concepts of gender, cross-dressing, confusion, and same-sex desire. Based on an 1896 Broadway stage play and filmed on locations around Fort Lauderdale, A Florida Enchantment tells the story of a strong-willed young New York heiress (Edith Story) who is frustrated with her fiancé's affairs with hotel maids. She finds some magic seeds that cause the person who eats them to switch sex. Of course she eats one. After dealing with the irritation of shaving her morning mustache, she exchanges ideas of revenge for the new-found pleasures of embracing other women. By the time her now-ex-fiancé eats one and becomes a woman in a man's body, we've begun a drama of bewildered sexual identity that presages much later greats such as Some Like It Hot or All of Me.

According to Vito Russo's book The Celluloid Closet, "A Florida Enchantment was the first and one of the very few films to deal with the sexual characteristics of men and women entirely through the use of farcical impersonation.... The male impersonation by Vitagraph star Edith Storey is impeccable and visually uncanny." Again, typical for the period, camera style and technique were crude by today's standards, but this film's way of toying with gender-specific body gestures remains witty almost 90 years later. Note, though, that what's also typical of the period is the often disturbing racist slant personified by white performers portraying African American roles in blackface and resorting to slapstick comedy among the blackface characters.

Disc 3, part 1: America's First Women Filmmakers

It's no hyperbole to say that before the Hollywood studio system segregated women to marginal positions within the film industry, women had more power as filmmakers than they've ever had, including right now. Women were among our most prominent film directors, and two who owned their own studios or production companies are featured here. Alice Guy-Blancé is represented by two short films from 1913, Matrimony's Speed Limit and A House Divided, a comic tale of divorce. Lois Weber was a director at Universal before striking out on her own in independent production. She's here with the feature-length satire on society and women's place in it, Too Wise Wives (1921), and the short comedy on reversed gender expectations, 1916's How Men Propose. (Trivia note: Too Wise Wives stars Louis Calhern, who later gained immortality as stuffed-shirt Ambassador Trentino in the Marx Brothers' 1933 classic, Duck Soup.)

While not two of cinema's innovative stylists, Guy-Blancé and Weber were prodigious filmmakers whose feminist examinations of social issues still sing today. According to the enclosed booklet's annotations for Alice Guy-Blancé, among the most intriguing of her still-lost works was In the Year 2000, produced in 1912 and depicting a world ruled by women.

Disc 3, part 2: Origins of the Gangster Film

Although associated more strongly with the Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney days two decades later, the gangster film genre got its start with D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1912. Three months before that one hit the theaters, though, Griffith debuted The Narrow Road, a one-reeler that served as a warm-up act for the heavier-hitting Pig Alley. The Narrow Road is presented here and shows signs of Griffith's later style and technique. And it really does give us 19-year-old Mary Pickford, unbilled, four years before she was the highest-paid and most recognized person on the planet.

Artistically the most important film in the series, Maurice Tourneur's 1915 Alias Jimmy Valentine is to the gangster genre what Chaplin's The Gold Rush and Keaton's The General are to film comedy. Beautifully designed and visually stylized, Alias Jimmy Valentine is a taut drama of bank robbery, safecracking, gang solidarity, prison (Sing Sing, no less), hidden identity, and moral reformation.

Director Tourneur had been a book illustrator, a sculptor's assistant in Rodin's studio, and a film director in France before his emigration to the U.S. in 1914. As this set's annotations put it, "His mastery of space, unrivaled in early film, is on full display in Alias Jimmy Valentine, with its deep staging of the action and unexpected angles (especially the extraordinary overhead shots of the bank robbery)." The notes conclude with, "As entertaining and visually sophisticated as any film of its era, Alias Jimmy Valentine is a major rediscovery, distributed here for the first time in three-quarters of a century, with its color tints reproduced from the original print."

A few words about the restoration and DVD quality

This DVD set is a reformatting of Image Entertainment's five-disc/ten-side Laserdisc version from 1998, and before that the films originated in 1994 as a series of six videocassettes, the Library of Congress Video Collection, released by Smithsonian Video. The series was produced by Scott Simmon, curator of The Mary Pickford Theater in the Library of Congress from 1983 to 1988. The Origins of Film (1900-1926) presents many films rescued during the early years of the American Film Institute and some important recent Library of Congress restorations.

These are old films. Some are transferred from masters that were the best available yet were still on the brink of decaying beyond the point of restoration. The restoration work was painstaking and meticulous, but no extensive digital retouching was involved. So expect to see signs off damage, dirt, and deterioration. Throughout the set the quality is at least "good enough" and better than we could have hoped for just a decade ago. The Origins of Film (1900-1926) is a satisfying visual experience for appreciators of this kind of material.

A special nod goes to Philip Carli, who composed and performed the piano score soundtrack accompanying the films. What's noteworthy about Carli's work is that it was clearly created with care for the visuals. Unlike many silent film scores prepared for video over the decades, Carli's work is neither random "old timey" doodling nor pre-existing public domain music effortlessly slapped onto the visuals. His piano accompaniment fits each film as if the two pieces were created to be together, and at the same time manages to be unobtrusive. It's one of the few occasions I've experienced where a new score for films of this vintage actually complements the material. This release also sports a new stereo mix, which is splendid.

—Mark Bourne

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