Originally released by Kino International in 1994 as a five-videocassette collection, The Movies Begin is a self-encapsulated history lesson for film buffs. The collection is an excellent overview of the first 20 years or so of motion picture production in the United States and Europe. Well represented in the set are the early experimental films of America, France and England, which date from 1894 through the turn of the century. Thus, many of the more than 130 films in the set then last from about 20 seconds to several minutes. The films of the latter part of the first decade of the 20th century generally last approximately 10 minutes. Longer films are generally contained in volume five. Much of the content of volumes one and five were condensed by video producer David Shepard onto one DVD entitled Landmarks of Early Film, which was published in 1998.
The Movies Begin as a whole covers a lot historical ground but, with more than 130 films represented here, the collection makes a satisfying retrospective of what are three distinct phases in the evolution of filmmaking. It is interesting to see a number of films in this collection by different filmmakers on the same subject or idea. Whether the remakes are straight copies of an earlier film or an elaboration of an earlier idea, the viewer will have a basic understanding of the mindset of filmmakers, audiences, and the development of film as an artform after having absorbed this collection. — Carl Bennett
Kino International, K236A-E, UPC 7-38329-02362-1.
Five single-sided, single-layered, Region 0NTSC DVD discs, 1.33:1 aspect ratio image in full-frame 4:3 (720 x 480 pixels) interlaced scan MPEG-2 format, 5.5 Mbps average video bit rate, 192 kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops; five standard DVD keepcases in cardboard box, $99.95.
Release date: 19 February 2002.
Country of origin: USA
Volume One: The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works covers the years beginning in the 1880s through 1907, with the films presented in roughly chronological order. Much of this first disc is comprised of early films by the Edison studio, the Société Lumière and Pathé Frères, with nods to Méliès, Lubin and Biograph. This program was produced by David Shepard.
Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) is well represented here in a high-quality version, with description and clarification of the action by a French-accented narrator.
Edwin S. Porter’s pivotal short film The Great Train Robbery (1903) has also been included. This was certainly not the first realistic narrative film but it was certainly the coalescence of a series of filmmaking techniques that helped propel the motion picture industry into its next major phase of development.
It needs to be noted that the film included in this collection as The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905) is not the Edison original, but rather the Lubin Manufacturing Company remake I.B. Dam and the Whole Dam Family (1905). This new DVD release could have presented the opportunity to correct this titling error, and we are surprised that Charles Musser did not clarify this faux pas in his notes or that Kino did not correct the mistake.
San Francisco: Aftermath of an Earthquake (1906) is a compilation of documentary shots of the devastation caused by the great earthquake of 1906. And a special attraction is Segundo de Chomon’s film Le Scarab’ee d’or [The Golden Beetle] (1907), with its hand-tinting done in the Pathé stencil color process.
Many of the films are transferred to video from 35mm original prints (with a few apparently taken from Library of Congress paper prints). The clarity of some of the films is striking. Only the film Pack Train on the Chilkoot Pass (1901) is of questionable quality (and historic value).
Volume Two: The European Pioneers stands as a European complement to volume one. This collection of early films held by the British Film Institute includes French and British actualities, comedies, dramas and novelties. The British films in this volume have largely been overlooked here in America, partly due to access and partly due to the (possible) overemphasis in film histories and film courses on the Edison, Biograph and Lumière companies. Viewers will have the opportunity to study several early British films (in addition to the twelve Lumière films also here) from a handful of producers. The roots of British film comedy, as bizarre as it sometimes is, can be traced to some of these films. This program was produced by Heather Stewart for the British Film Institute and has previously been available in the United Kingdom on VHS videotape, and was released on DVD by BFI in 2005.
It is worth noting that, while there are a few film content duplications, the Kino DVD The Lumière Brothers’ First Films makes an excellent adjunct to this collection. That volume contains 85 Lumière films dating from 1895 through 1897 and will serve to give additional insight into the work of the Lumière brothers and their worldwide network of cameramen.
The films have been transferred from 35mm prints from good to very good in quality. The films are all windowboxed to allow the maximum image to be seen on all televisions.
Under the ‘Select Film’ menu, from the second menu screen keep pushing the right selection button until the hidden button appears to take you to the ‘It Came from Beneath the Vault’ screen. Here you can access ten early Biograph, Edison and Lubin films: Girls Swinging (1897), Shooting Captured Insurgents (1898), Execution of a Spy (1901), Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901), Interrupted Bathers (1902), The Draped Model (1902), The Burlesque Suicide (1902) [first or second version], Discovery of Bodies (1903), the disturbing Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) perhaps the cinema’s earliest ‘snuff’ film, and The Bold Bank Robbery (1904). The films are all presented from 16mm prints copied from the Library of Congress paper prints in the 1950s by Kemp Niver. Bold Bank Robbery appears to be from a 35mm copy of a paper print. All of these films are transfered full-frame.
Volume Three: Experimentation and Discovery is comprised of British, French and American comedy, drama and documentary films held by the British Film Institute. Trick films with emphasis on special effects and new processes dominate this volume. The highlights of this volume are the droll Explosion of a Motor Car (1900), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1902) in Pathé color tinting, Rescued by Rover (1905) which has a faint reflection of something unidentified across the entire image throughout the film (perhaps a reflection on work glass during the film’s rephotographing from a Library of Congress paper print), Aladdin; or, The Marvelous Lamp (1906), Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and That Fatal Sneeze (1907). This program was produced by Heather Stewart for the British Film Institute and has previously been available in the United Kingdom on videotape.
The films are all windowboxed. Most of the films have been transferred from clear 35mm prints. The majority of the Hepworth films, one of the Edison films, and one of the Pathe films appear to be 35mm and 16mm prints copied from paper prints.
An error in the disc’s programming results in the DVD player being stopped at the end of the film when How It Feels to Be Run Over is individually selected from either the Hepworth Films menu or the Text menu. The disc continues to run if the viewer chooses to view all of the films.
Le Roi du maquillage [The Untamable Whiskers] (1904) utilizes a series of dissolves between shots of character makeup on Méliès. He draws the intended character on a blackboard then poses as the makeup appears on his face. Sorcellerie culinaire [The Cook in Trouble] (1904) is another example of a wizard and Méliès’ stop-action demons causing havoc in a cook’s kitchen. Le Thaumaturge Chinoise [Tchin-Chao, the Chinese Conjurer] (1904) features Méliès in Chinese garb and makeup performing stop-action magic. Le Merveilleux eventail vivant [The Wonderful Living Fan] (1904) is a costume piece with a man of royalty being entertained by a large fan that transforms into a fan of beautiful women. Le Sirène [The Mermaid] (1904) does more of Méliès’ trademark stop-action conjuring before the film turns to its real subject, a mermaid that turns into woman followed by Méliès transforming into Poseidon for the final tableaux.
In Les Cartes vivantes [The Living Playing Cards] (1905) Méliès turns a playing to a live queen and back again, before making a king come alive and a surprise ending. Le Diable noir [The Black Imp] (1905) appears to use the same set as another Méliès film . . . another demon causes trouble for a hotel patron. La Chaise à porteurs enchantée [The Enchanted Sedan Chair] (1905) features an unusual combination of dissolve and cutting to create a transformation effect and some very smooth cutting effects. Le Tripot clandestin [The Scheming Gamblers Paradise] (1905) features a gambling parlor that transforms in a matter of seconds when the police are around. The police appropriate the hall for their own use. Les Affiches en goguette [The Hilarious Posters] (1905) features a transformation of paper posters into a series of living characters, but is also the kind of nonsense that 1905 audiences were beginning to get bored with.
L’Alchimiste parafaragamus ou la cornie infernale [The Mysterious Retort] (1906) a wizard, a snake, an imp, a spider, an apparition and a beautiful woman. What more could you want from a Méliès film? L’Eclipse du soleil en pleine lune [The Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon] (1907) harkens back to Méliès’ earlier fantastical excursions, and may feature the earliest use of intertitles in a Méliès film. Great expressions on the sun’s face. In La Colle universelle [Good Glue Sticks] (1907) two policemen break up the activities of a street merchant selling glue. When the policemen fall asleep on a park bench, the merchant gets his revenge by gluing the two policemen together. In La Photographie électrique à distance [Long Distance Wireless Photography] (1908) Méliès is a scientist who demonstrates his new invention.
The closing documentary, Georges Méliès: Cinema Magician, serves as an introduction to the cinematic work of Méliès. Its French-accented narration is a drawback, as is the generally moderate quality of the motion picture materials and soundtrack. Inserted into the documentary is a new transfer of a hand-tinted print of Le Voyage à travers l’impossible [An Impossible Voyage] (1904), which is a companion to the hand-tinted version of A Trip to the Moon (1902) available on disc one of this box set.
A bonus film, Another Job for the Undertaker (1901) is accessed through the ‘Text’ menu, between The Black Imp and The Enchanted Sedan Chair. Why an Edison film is placed within an all-Méliès program is beyond explanation. The short film could have been included somewhere on disc one with no problem.
Ignoring the older prints used in the Méliès documentary, the materials utilized for the video transfers of the short films range from very good to excellent. The print of The Cook in Trouble suffers from occasional frame jitters. Tchin-Chao, the Chinese Conjurer looks as though it was restored from a Library of Congress paper print, which is not a shortcoming. Many of the paper prints held by the Library of Congress have been recopied to 35mm restoration negatives and look almost indistinguishable from original filmstock prints. The Black Imp appears here in a much-improved print from the one utilized for the documentary. Overall, the program’s appeal is brought down by the documentary, but the generous number of quality Méliès’ films include here makes the disc worthwhile volume in this collection.
Volume Five: Comedy, Spectacle and New Horizons focuses on French and American comedy, the beginnings of Italian epic films and the maturing American short drama. While the films in this program are fewer, they are longer in duration than many of the other films in the set. From Pathé Frères is La Course des sergents de ville [The Policemen’s Little Run] (1907). It is a chase comedy of the run-of-the-mill sort that audiences must have been getting tired of after the initiation of the genre with Edison’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1905). A group of comical policemen chase a dog that has stolen some meat. Audiences will sit up and take notice when the dog and police scale a building wall. The building exterior was painted onto the film studio floor and a camera mounted at the studio ceiling shooting downward tracks with the actors as they ‘climb’ the wall (on their hands and knees). The program was produced by David Shepard.
The most popular European comedian of his time, Frenchman Max Linder, is represented in his Pathé comedy Max reprend sa liberté [Troubles of a Grasswidower] (1912) misdated as 1908. It is easy to see why Linder was popular, as his charming performance here remains funny and inventive today.
Nerone [Nero; or, The Fall of Rome] (1909), produced by Ambrosia, represents Italian epic filmmaking in its advanced infancy. The story of Nero, Poppea and Octavia (with the burning of Rome happening offscreen) is told in one green and red tinted reel. Of note are the richly detailed sets and large number of extras. The film ends abruptly (probably due to film decomposition) with Nero’s decision to commit suicide.
Onésime horloger [Onésime, Clock-Maker] (1912) is a Gaumont production starring comedian Ernest Bourbon. Onésime inherits a fortune but cannot collect it for twenty years. To speed up the passage of time, he alters the pneumatic central clock to a time-speeding clock. The film contains a few fantastic Paris street views. The source print is a French original, with new English video intertitles made to resemble the Gaumont style.
In the Solax film The Making of an American Citizen (1912), a Russian immigrant learns he must change his ways to live happily in America. The film was directed by pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché. During disc mastering, at 8:44 into the film, the videotape master momentarily glitched causing a permanent video jiggle and audio warble that lasts a couple of seconds.
The disc is wrapped up by two representations of the next phase of film development, the maturation of storytelling technique. D.W. Griffith’sThe Girl and Her Trust (1912) and Mack Sennett’s comedy Bangville Police (1913) are representative examples of cross-cutting editing techniques used to elevate and extend dramatic tension.
All of the films are transferred from 35mm prints and of exceptional quality. However, we are unhappy with the release years, director’s names, etc., that are superimposed on the original main titles of some of these films. If it truly is necessary to impart that information, simply create an introductory card that appears before the film begins.
Altogether, there are supposed to be 13 unannounced bonus films spread among the discs’ content, but we were only able to locate 11 of them. Considering the bonus films are quite short and are 16mm restoration prints of the Library of Congress paper prints, access to them is a small value-added perc.
If you do not already own David Shepard’s two-volume Landmarks of Early Film laserdisc or DVD editions culled from this collection, then seriously consider purchasing the Movies Begin box set. All of the content of the Landmarks discs is available here, with the additional films of the other The Movies Begin programs and the bonus films of this new DVD edition.
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