Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: DVD Collections

Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913)

gaumont-treasuresLink to Worldcat for Interlibrary Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/429915190

It’s been quite a while since I’ve reviewed a DVD collection of Century Films, although for quite some time I’ve been reviewing the individual movies in this one. It consists of three discs, each with a different filmmaker from the pioneering days of the French film industry. The discs feature the work of Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, respectively. The vast majority of these movies are shorts, and all of them are rare outside of this collection. Each has been cleaned up and presented in the highest available quality, given new English-language intertitles, and is accompanied by appropriate non-distracting music.

Cabbage FairyThe movies give a great perspective on the development of cinema. Anyone only familiar with the “usual suspects” of early film (Méliès, Porter, Griffith) will receive a wonderful education as to what was going on at the same time as the more well-known pioneers. The Guy disc includes some commentary that helps contextualize her work, while the Perret and Feuillade discs both have short documentaries about their work. For Guy, we get over 60 of her short movies, including a good number of sound experiments and “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” a 33-minute featurette. For Feuillade, there are 13 films, representing a great range of his work, far beyond the crime serials he is mostly remembered for now, with dramas, film-poems, light comedies, and historical reenactments. Perret is represented with two longer pieces, “The Child of Paris” and “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.”

Bout_de_Zan ElephantIt’s a little disappointing, after having so many movies from Feuillade and especially Guy, to wrap up with only two samples of Perret, especially since the documentary shows clips from at least a half a dozen others, but it does make sense in terms of run time. Because the other filmmakers worked in short and very-short formats, the length of each disc is about the same. It does leave you wanting to see more of Perret, though, and hopefully someday I will. The other criticism I have is that the index for the Guy disc is hard to navigate, so that if you want to examine each film independently (as I did), you spend a lot of time wading through pages of movies you’ve already seen.

mystere-des-roches-kadorThese are really minor criticisms, however, of a really lovely collection. Vital viewing for any Century Film fan.

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Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films (1895-1985, 2000)

Worldcat Link for Inter-Library Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/45184522

Released by: Image Entertainment

Treasures from American Film ArchivesAlthough it’s out of print, a number of libraries (738, according to Worldcat) have at least one or two volumes on their shelves, and used copies turn up on the internet as well. This is a really wonderful collection of rare American movies that are held in a variety of archives and film collections across the country. I’ve used them for a few recent reviews (“Hell’s Hinges,” “The Dog Factory,” and “Snow White”) and there will be others in coming months and years. The movies are truly diverse, and only a few are readily available elsewhere. The quality is very good, with restored Intertitles and tinting on a number of the longer movies. Not all of the films are silent, but many are, and these are accompanied by piano scores from Martin Marks, who does quite well and occasionally sneaks another instrument in where needed. The whole thing comes with a really excellent informational booklet that discusses each film’s historical context, the music, and the preservation, as well as further sources of information. There’s also an index by archive and contact information for the archives. Indeed, this is one of the most “archives-friendly” collections you’ll ever find, because it includes a brief description of each collection as a bonus feature with every movie! I got a kick out of the fact that it described both of the libraries my parents worked at as well as the Anthology Film Archives in New York, where I have attended a few screenings.

I mentioned the diversity of the films. In addition to the usual narrative dramas and comedies, whose titles you may know, there are also more obscure/ephemeral types of film represented. These include newsreels, army education/propaganda films, amateur and home movies, and art films. One that stands out is John Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro,” a propaganda film that was never shown because army brass felt it was anti-war (Huston reputedly replied that if he ever made a movie that was for war, he should be taken out and shot). Also exciting is the government-produced movie about the Berlin Wall, made to be shown to audiences in the Soviet Bloc but actually illegal to screen for Americans during the Cold War, lest the government propagandize their own citizens. A poignant moment comes with home movie footage of Japanese American communities in the late 1920s, and similarly touching is footage of some of the stars of the “Negro Leagues” warming up for a ball game. But, really, each of these movies is a gem, and the collection as whole lives up to its claim to be a treasure trove.

The Actors: Rare Films of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Vol 1 (1915-1916, 20??)

Rare Films FairbanksThis is a quickie low-to-mid quality DVD of public domain films. If you take a look at the screen captures of the reviews I’ve posted, you’ll get an idea of the image quality. It seemed worth it to me to be able to see some of Fairbanks’s earliest work, but now Flicker Alley is making one of those films – the Matrimaniac – available for streaming. I’ll be looking at the other 1916 Fairbanks movies streamed in coming weeks. In the meanwhile, though, this is about all there is for “The Lamb” and “Reggie Mixes in,” so if you’re a completist, this is better than nothing.

Worldcat link for Inter-library Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/673205125

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (1915-1918, 2015)

Worldcat link for Inter-library loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/50062265

ChaplinEssanay-212x300Most of the DVD reviews on this blog have been about collections that have been available for years, that I got through a library. This set from Flicker Alley is a rare exception – a still quite new release that I purchased with my own money. It seemed necessary in order to assess Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 work before the Century Awards were over for that year. As I’ve indicated above, there are libraries carrying it now, but I don’t know what the wait list would have been like in November.

Burlesque on carmenSo, what did I get for my hard-earned librarian’s pay? This is a three disc set of Chaplin’s critical “second year” in movies (it also comes with a Blu-ray version, which I won’t review since I own neither a Blu-Ray player nor a digital television). The movies are absolutely beautifully restored and digitized. There are other releases of the movies from this period, but I don’t think you will find any of comparable picture quality. In cases like “Burlesque on Carmen” and “Police,” where the studio released butchered versions, the movies have been re-edited and restored as closely as possible to Charlie’s original vision. No doubt there will be disputes about some of the those decisions from people more knowledgeable than I, but it seemed to me that every movie I saw here was an original Chaplin, and having them restored made it much easier to track his progress as a filmmaker. In addition to the fifteen titles Charlie legitimately produced in his year at Essanay Studios, there are also two later releases which the studio patched together from unused footage: “Triple Trouble” (which draws from “Police”) and “Charlie Butts In” (which is a sort of re-edit of “A Night Out”). These are less interesting movies, and lower-quality prints, but they give an idea of the kinds of “inauthentic” Chaplin movies audiences were subjected to at the time.

Night OutThe other “feature” is a nice glossy booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance (author of Chaplin: Genius of Cinema) on the work of Chaplin at this point in his career, and with brief discussions of each movie and information about the restorations (some of which is repeated in the credits for the movies). It is attractive and very nicely done, although it doesn’t take the place of commentaries, which I was surprised not to find. Considering the range of talent brought in to work on this release, it would have been nice to get Vance into a sound stage with David Shepard and a couple of the restorationists to talk about at least one of the movies (“Police” would have been my choice). But, really, that’s picking nits. There’s plenty here without it, and they probably would have needed more time and money to make that happen. Lest you think that there is no audio on these “silent” films, I should also mention the marvelous original scores by Robert Israel, Timothy Brock, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Israel’s work, in particular, captures the range of Chaplin’s emotional development in these films.

Jitney Elopement1In all, this is definitely the collection for serious Chaplin fans to get, and for those who are just meeting Chaplin for the first time to see. The movies are there in better shape than anyone’s seen them for 100 years, possibly better than what you’d have seen in most theaters at the time, and Chaplin’s genius shines through in its fullest glory.

A Christmas Past (1901-1925, 2001)

Christmas PastWorldcat link for Inter-Library Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/48798726

This DVD release from Kino has been the source of all of the “seasonal” movies I’ve reviewed in the past month, and now I want to take a moment to review the DVD itself. It is a surprisingly good quality disc, although with few features or bonuses. It includes the eight movies I reviewed, and also the 1925 two-reeler “Santa Claus,” which was shot in Alaska and is also well worth seeing. The chapter menu includes thumbnail video to show you what you’ll see, and each one includes music by Al Kryszak that seems well chosen for the mood, if somewhat simplistic and at times redundant.

Night_Before_Christmas_1905What I found especially interesting about the collection is what it says about the relationship between the media and Christmas. When I recently heard Lou Lumenick speak at a screening of “Miracle on 34th Street,” he said that it was the first instance of a “secular Christmas” movie being made, but this disc proves that thesis wrong. None of these movies has an overtly religious theme, and the closest we come to actual moralizing or overt spirituality is the adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 19th Century “A Christmas Carol.” In general, it seems to me that filmmakers, including such luminaries as D.W. Griffith and Edwin S. Porter, realized from an early time that Christmas movies needed to appeal to a broad audience and to emphasize childhood innocence and family rather than divisive religious questions. Santa Claus is a common theme in these movies, and whether he is portrayed as “real” or not, he represents an inclusive concept of love and generosity, not a specifically Christian Saint Nicholas, much as seen in “Miracle” thirty years later.

Trap_for_Santa_ClausAlthough the movies themselves varied for me in terms of enjoyment and interest, the whole package is a good historical examination of a theme that often goes overlooked in standard film histories. I suspect that this disc will remain a holiday tradition at my house for some time to come.

Richard III (Kino Video DVD, 1912, 2001)

richardIII-kinoDVDWorldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/49274041

I recently reviewed the feature-length film, but I wanted to also post a few words about the DVD. I bought my copy direct from Kino Video, but it appears that quite a few libraries still carry it, for those interested in pursuing Interlibrary Loan.

Unlike many of the DVDs I’ve reviewed, this is not a collection, but simply a single film released as a DVD with some features. I wish they had managed to include a few other short samples of silent Shakespeare movies, but there are some compensating features. The case is attractive and includes all the basic information you need, and there is a one-page insert with the chapter list on one side, and a brief essay by Douglas Brode explaining the significance of the film on the other. The disc includes a seventeen-minute documentary discussing the preservation and discovery of “Richard III,” a bit of history of Shakespeare on the silent and talkie screen, and some of the available production information about this film. There is also a reproduction of a short (written) interview with Frederick Warde on the disc, which, for once, I was able to read on my screen. I still wish they had reproduced this text in a booklet instead of digitally, but it works.

The movie itself is nicely preserved and restored, with tinting clear and visible, and many good sharp images. Perhaps the biggest feature is the new score, by Ennio Morricone, the fellow who gave us the unforgettable music from “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” and many other great films. Morricone took the movie very seriously, and adds a decidedly dark tone, even to scenes where the ominous situation might not be clear to the audience. Often, he anticipates events, as when Richard visits the aging king in his cell. The actors give no sign of the danger this brings, but the score clearly highlights it from the moment Richard enters the Tower. Some may find this heavy-handed, but I thought that Morricone’s score added greatly to the experience. Richard III is a dark play, after all, and his score keeps that as a focus, where many silent film scores will lapse into jaunty rhythms unexpectedly, disturbing the mood of a movie.

Civil War Films of the Silent Era (1913, 1915, 2000)

Civil War FilmsWorldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/45711746

This collection of Thomas H. Ince films, sorted by a common theme, may be out of print today from Image Entertainment, but was easy enough for me to procure through Interlibrary Loan. It contains three of the movies I’ve reviewed recently: “The Coward,” “The Drummer of the 8th,” and “Granddad,” and pretty much nothing else. No special features, no commentary, not even a booklet with an essay about Ince and his work, at least none in the edition I got. Just the movies, plain and simple. The menu pages have electronic music turned up way too high (much higher in volume than on the movies themselves), and there are chapter menus, at least. The music is created by Eric Beheim and “his electronic Cotton Creek Orchestra,” and it has most of the themes you’d expect for Civil War movies. It’s not outstanding, like a score by Jon Mirsalis, but it is intentional and fits the action, unlike some silent scores where someone just drops a needle and goes for a coffee break. Overall, I recommend this collection as of historical interest, especially for those who think Griffith was the be-all and end-all of silent Civil War drama.

D.W Griffith: Years of Discovery, Flicker Alley/Createspace version (1909-1913)

Years of DiscoveryShortly after this blog began, I reviewed a DVD collection of D.W. Griffith movies that was (and is) readily available through Interlibrary Loan, originally released through Image Entertainment. However, it is out of print, and thus unavailable to many of you who lack access to a well-funded library system (or who, for reasons I cannot fathom, eschew libraries), unless you want to comb the internet for a used copy. Thus, you may have to settle for this version offered through Flicker Alley’s “MOD” (Manufactured on Demand) service, produced through Createspace, the makers of fine books which are completely plagiarized from Wikipedia articles. These DVDs are by no means as good as the original release. They lack the informative commentary track of the original release, as well as any other special features. Indeed, they lack certain features some of us have come to expect on DVDs, like, oh, a menu for instance. These are simply “plug-and-play” DVDs which autoplay the entire set of movies from the beginning every time you put them in. At least each movie is its own chapter, so it isn’t too hard to navigate to a particular one. The image clarity is very good, although for some reason on my set the image insisted on creating a black box around the whole thing that shrank it down without actually changing the aspect ratio.

In short, this collection in its present form is adequate, but hardly great. Hopefully one day the full functionality of the original will again be available for purchase, through one medium or another.

Find it, and other Flicker Alley MOD offerings: here.

Treasures 5: The West (1898-1938, 2010)

Treasures5

worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/747276859

I’m going to have a hard time finding enough adjectives to express just how impressed I am by this collection. The films are fascinating, the visual quality is excellent, the music is delightful, the commentaries and historical notes are informative, and the overall package is charming and attractive. I have a few mild criticisms, but these should be ignored by anyone with an interest in the material offered: it’s entirely worth viewing.

The set comes with three CDs and a 110-ten page booklet (or book) of program notes. To begin with these, they consist of a brief introductory essay, followed by a rather longer essay on the music, then individual notes for each of the forty-or-so movies and film clips. There is an index (!) and some information about the institutions and individuals that made this set possible at the end. My only real complaint about this is that overlong essay about the music at the beginning: this would have been more useful had it been chopped up and put into the notes for each film – finding the part about the movie you are watching now is difficult. I’d also have liked to see brief bios for each of the commenters.

The movies themselves are a great mix of material about the West, many of which give us new perspectives on old tropes. The major find for me was the feature film “Salomy Jane,” which was the reason I ordered it in the first place, but as my reviews of Westerns in recent weeks should show, I discovered a lot of things I hadn’t known about here. There are also a great array of movies too new to be included in this blog at this time, perhaps most notably “Mantrap” from 1926 and a 55-minute excerpt from “Womanhandled” (1925). The other minor point of criticism I had was of the commenters, some of whom don’t add a lot of context to the films, more or less just adding a running narration of events on the screen that are clearly visible without them. These are exceptions, however, and I would recommend checking out what each has to say, especially about the shorter movies. In all, I think this is one of the best collections of Century Films and related materials I’ve seen so far.

Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J. (1912-1917, 1964, 2003)

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/53157428

This DVD collection is named for the 1964 documentary that heads it off, a nice early attempt at displaying the legacy of East Coast silent film production for a previous generation. The documentary is very American-centric, and gets several facts wrong, including calling “The Great Train Robbery” the “first narrative film” (!!!!). It also presents a few early movies with voice-over narration to explain the action, mostly as clips, but I believe the entirety of “The Lonely Villa” is embedded in the documentary. I wouldn’t choose to see it with the narrator, but it may work for some, and it’s reminiscent of the Japanese tradition of using a benshi to explain the movie to an audience. The narrator is eager to point out the proximity of shots and studios to the current location of the George Washington Bridge. In 1964, of course, the 19-teens were still living memory for some, and some stars they featured, like Gloria Swanson, were still living and acting. An essay included with the DVD covers much of the same ground, without the errors.

Apart from this, there are three films presented as features in the DVD. They are “The New York Hat” and “The Wishing Ring,” which I’ve reviewed separately, and “A Girl’s Folly,” which is from 1917 so hasn’t become a Century Film Yet. Evidently, it and the documentary are “abridged,” and incomplete, so they shouldn’t be the main reason for getting this. The two movies I have reviewed are presented in very high-quality remastered prints with good music scores added that clearly are timed to the movies. The main reason for this collection, as far as I’m concerned is “The Wishing Ring,” which should have been played up more by the distributors, but the other materials on here are of some interest as well.