Origins of Film
DVD | Box Set
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These remarkable silent films are among the first examples of the unique and enduring contribution that Americans have made in the genres of gangster films, fantasy films, and animation art, as well as highlighting the works of early African American and women filmmakers. These timeless classics have been meticulously restored, given new scores and are being offered to the public for the first time on DVD. "The African American Cinema I" - Oscar Micheaux's "Within Our Gates" is the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. However, the startling film, unseen for 75 years, is far more than a historic curiosity, it is a passionate social history that confronts racism head on. "The African American Cinema II" - "The Scar of Shame" is a rare surviving silent example of what the film industry once labeled "race movies": films with African American casts intended for African American audiences. Also included is an early experimental musical short documenting the team of Nobel Sissle (on vocals) and Eubie Blake (on piano). "Origins of American Animation" - This collection of twenty-one complete films showcases the best of the Library of Congress' animated cartoons from the first decades of the Twentieth century, an era full of surprises and experimentation. "Origins of the Fantasy Feature" - Two rare features from 1914 bring to the screen an imaginative freedom and comic verve rarely duplicated since. Novelist L. Frank Baum himself produced "The Patchwork Girl of Oz," and "A Florida Enchantment" is a wonderful gender-bending comedy of manners. "American's First Women Filmmakers" - Before the consolidation of Hollywood's studio system, women were among the most prominent film directors in America. This program collects four complete works from the silent era's two most accomplished and successful women directors, Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blache. "Origins of the Gangster" - Long before the James Cagney/ Edward G. Robinson era, American directors and audiences were finding suspense and thrills in the gangster film. Includes "Alias Jimmy Valentine" from 1915 and D.W. Griffith's "The Narrow Road" starring Mary Pickford.
The Origins of Film doesn't encompass as much as the title might suggest. The 10-hour program showcases some of the first works by African American and women directors as well as early ventures into the genres of animation, fantasy, and gangster cinema from the silent era. It's not so much a definitive look at the origins of film as it is a survey of pioneering works by often overlooked artists and genres, and on those terms it's an invaluable, astounding set.
Divided into six programs on three discs, the set features a handful of landmark features along with collections of shorts. Oscar Michaux's groundbreaking 1919 mixed-race drama Within Our Walls is a powerful portrait of the racism and injustice faced by disenfranchised African America citizens of the time, at times a tangled story but never less than startling and sobering. Maurice Tourneur's assured Alias Jimmy Valentine is a striking 1915 gangster feature with a melodramatic plot (reused in the Disney comedy No Deposit, No Return!), handsome sets, and a graceful, gripping style. Alice Guy-Blache's hilarious and energetic 1913 shorts Matrimony's Speed Limits and A House Divided and Lois Weber's droll 1921 social satire Too Wise Wives are accomplished, sophisticated satires that wryly comment on the relations between men and women. Frank L. Baum himself wrote and produced the whimsical 1914 feature The Patchwork Girl of Oz, an inventive, deftly directed fantasy with delightful costumes and storybook images. Among the other highlights: a brief survey of American animation from primitive proto-cartoons of 1900, some unusually graceful examples of Windsor McCay's work from 1921, D.W. Griffith's 1912 gangster drama The Narrow Road with Mary Pickford, and a 1923 sound short featuring singer Noble Sissle and jazz legend Eubie Blake.
The boxed set comes with a modest but informative 12-page booklet with historical background and preservation notes. All films are accompanied by simple but appropriate piano scores. A welcome complement to the ambitious Treasures from American Film Archives, this more modest set sheds light on cinematic invention and silent film creativity often ignored in the official record. --Sean Axmaker
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Disk I - African American Cinema
The Scar of Shame (1927) - 70 minute feature with an all black cast in which an educated young black musician marries a woman from a lower socioeconomic class to get her away from her abusive stepfather. Afterwards, he won't introduce his new wife to his mother since he knows mom will be disappointed with his choice.
Sissle and Blake (1923) - DeForest Phonofilm musical short featuring Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Yes, there were sound films prior to the Jazz Singer, but DeForest just couldn't interest any of the studios in his system.
Within Our Gates (1920) - The earliest surviving feature film (79 minutes) made by an African American and intended for an African American audience. The basic story is about a woman trying to raise money for a southern school for blacks to supplement the meager amount the state provides. However, the entire film is full of observations about racial issues and attitudes as they existed at the time in both the North and South.
Disk II - Part 1 - Origins of Animation
Includes 23 animations that range in year of production from 1900 to 1921. Included are a couple of Winsor McCay fragments, three Krazy Kat cartoons that also feature his mouse pal Ignatz, a Katzenjammer, and also a couple of animations that talk about World War I and its aftermath. There's a very novel stop-motion piece involving actual toys rather than clay figures. Also included is "The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy" (1917), which was created by Willis O'Brien for the Edison Company. You could see this as a prototype of what O'Brien does 15 years later in King Kong.
Disk II - Part 2 - Origins of the Fantasy Film
The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914) - An 81 minute feature that is a simplified version of the Oz novel, written and directed by Frank Baum himself.
A Florida Enchantment (1914) - A 63 minute film in which a woman takes some pills that attract her to other women. However, to "get the girl" she must dress in men's clothing. Quite daring for 1914.
Disk III - Part 1 - America's First Woman Film Makers
Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913) - From Alice Guy Blaché, considered to be the world's first female film director. A man loses his fortune on Wall Street. He then learns he has inherited a fortune but he must be married by a certain time. This one has an interesting twist at the end that is usually not part of the other films that follow a similar line.
A House Divided (1913) - Also by Alice Guy Blaché. A 13 minute-long short that could be one of the first screwball comedies. Rather than divorce, a couple has decided to live legally separate, but physically under the same roof. They try to stay angry at each other but find it difficult.
Too Wise Wives (1921) - Directed by Lois Weber, the first woman to direct feature length films starting with "The Merchant of Venice" in 1914. This 80 minute feature really seems to drag at points. It's the story of two marriages that in the end seems to have the moral that wives should be willing to look beyond themselves and their self-perceived shortcomings and that husbands should be attentive enough to realize their wives' needs. The film features some interesting looks at everyday middle-class life in the 1920's.
How Men Propose (1913) - Another film by Lois Weber. Short comedy in which three men propose to the same woman. She uses the experience to write a magazine article.
Disk III - Part 2 - Origins of the Gangster Film
The Narrow Road (1912) - A 17-minute D.W. Griffith short that is an early gangster film involving a gangster, recently released from prison, who wants to go straight, his wife (Mary Pickford), and his friend who is not ready to give up crime.
Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) - A 50 minute early gangster film in which the gangster is a complex character who is capable of reform and self-sacrifice. Unusual in the age of moustache-twirling villains.
This set was originally released in 2001. I don't know if any improvement is possible in the video quality, but 2001 is practically ancient history in terms of DVD technology. Therefore you might want to wait and see if Image Entertainment re-releases this set some time in the future.
Then, for a complete change of pace, the Animation section has over 20 short and fun examples of early animation - from simple cartoon line drawings to puppets and a few other tricks. My personal favourites are the two feature-length Fantasy films: "The Patchwork Girl of Oz" is the typical Fantasy as we know it today, from "The Wizard of Oz" and beyond, with magicians, strange creatures and good fun overall, whereas "A Florida Enchantment" is totally different but every bit as fascinating and entertaining. This one appears down-to-earth except for a mysterious box containing magical seeds that can transform women to men and vice versa - a novelty idea and still very effective 90 years later.
The third disc features some good shorts and two feature-length films of the Gangster Film and Women Filmmakers categories with very good stories once again that are presented in different ways. "Two Wise Wives" by Lois Weber has quite a bit of psychology and sociology in it, for those who'd like to dig deeper, and the feature-length Gangster film is anything but bad guys shooting it out in the slums - in fact, it's an idealistic, moralistic story about an ex-con who is motivated to go straight, making the entire box set a wonderful variety of some unusual, surprising and special early films (many being from the years 1914-19) which I think should appeal to anyone interested in good quality films generally, and in what high standards filmmakers were attaining already some 80-90 years ago.
"A Florida Enchantment" alone is worth the price of admission, (Although I dispute the claim that it was filmed in Lauderdale. There are several obvious signs that it was filmed in the northern secton of the state.) In this film, a young woman wishes she were a man after finding her fiance unworthy. There isn't space to discuss every film on this set - but with just this example you get a remarkable look at 'hidden' homosexual humour in early film. The actress playing the lead gives a startlingly modern performance in her male guise. The whites in blackface are mesmerizing when you realize they were probably very common roles.
Moments after she makes her trusted maid a man, the blackface actress turns into a violent drunken criminal who attempts to sexually assault another maid. (If your jaw didn't drop before then, it will be hitting the floor now.)Will our heroine enjoy life as a man? Will she get the girl of her dreams? Will she long to return to her life as a woman? Controversial when it was made, controversial today. And it's just one of the remarkable works on this set.
You will not regret this purchase.
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