Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: DVD Collections

The Essential Charlie Chaplin (1914-1917, 2004)

Charlie_Chaplin_-_May_1919_MPW

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/228466199

In the world of digital remastering, times change fast. Anyone who bought this collection of early Chaplin shorts in 2004 had to be satisfied with it as, most probably, the best available opportunity to see the first year of his career. Fortunately, in 2010, Flicker Alley came out with the superior “Chaplin at Keystone,” which I’ve reviewed before, and today many of the Century Films of Chaplin can be found in superior quality for free online. Even at the time of release, according to our friends at The Silent Era, there were better available copies of the later material. At least, judging by Worldcat, there aren’t many libraries still foisting this version off, but it’s the only way to get Keystone-era Chaplin on Netflix, and that’s distinctly a failure on their part. All of the prints are in bad shape, washed out so they appear over-exposed, and full of scratches and other damage. The music is apparently public domain jazz, which may be period-appropriate, but isn’t what you’d have been likely to hear in a Nickelodeon at the time, and no attempt has been made to sync it with the action on screen – someone just drops a needle and lets it run. In all, this is poor man’s Chaplin, and not worth the time.

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D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts (1908-1913, 2002)

DW Griffiths Biograph Shorts

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/51260287

At the beginning of this project, I reviewed two other Griffith collections without spending much time on the specific movies therein. Since this collection largely overlaps with those two, and I’ve given each of the films a review now, I’m fairly well caught up on Griffith and can move on to other things soon. But first, I thought I’d discuss this set as a collection. It’s put out by Kino, who generally hold a high standard for prints and audio, which this collection lives up to. Most of the films are in very good condition, with a few understandably less perfect, but in general the image is better than what you get by following my “free” links. The music has been specifically written and timed to the movies, and there’s quite a bit of variety among them, which I think makes it easier to watch a lengthy collection of silent movies, including solo piano scores, organ, and pieces for several instruments.

The collection was produced and edited by David Shepard, a film preservationist with a strong background in film history, who I know has done several other DVDs I’ve seen, though I can’t recall them offhand. I was a bit disappointed, however, at the lack of commentary and contextual materials. There’s a short essay on the back cover, which gives a tantalizing hint of Shepard’s erudition, but no booklet or other written materials. The formatting of the discs is odd, also. The movies are roughly in chronological order, up to a point, but each disc divides them between two sections, with “Bonus Shorts” tucked in a separate area from the main films, although there’s no apparent reason to divide them. There’s no menu to allow you to navigate all the movies, either, so you have to dial through one at a time if you’re looking for a particular one. Each movie does have a nice “splash page” with a dummied-up poster made to look contemporary and with thumbnail previews – this was nice, but it still would have been nicer to have easier navigation.

On the whole, I think I’d recommend “Years of Discovery” more strongly for someone looking to get a sample of early Griffith, but this collection is a good one for completists or scholars who need to find good quality prints of specific films.

Perils of the New Land: Films of the Immigrant Experience (1910-1915)

Perils of the New Land

This will be a somewhat “mixed” review, because there were things I liked about this collection, and others I really didn’t care for. First, the entry on Worldcat says there’s a booklet included, but the version I came with no textual information at all; that’s a failure on Multnomah County Library’s part. Second, I was disappointed that 3 out of the five films on here were actually 1915, so there really isn’t much to the “1910-“ part of the time range. Finally, only one of the movies (“The Italian”) really has anything to do with the “immigrant experience,” and even that was really more about middle America’s view of immigrants. The good news is that the prints of these movies are of high quality, and there’s good piano scores on every one of them – I particularly liked the score on “Traffic in Souls,” which captures the tension perfectly. Finally, both “The Italian” and “Traffic in Souls” have very good commentary tracks by appropriate historians: Giorgio Bertellini for the former, Shelley Stamp for the latter. These are thoughtful, informative, and well-structured. I’m often disappointed by commentaries, which seem to be often created off-the-cuff without preparation, but it’s clear in this case that the historians made a real effort to create good, relevant material for the bonus track.

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/234175776

Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1913-1921, 2005)

Arbuckle-Roscoe-01

This collection of Arbuckle films includes only five actual Century Films (all reviewed on this blog), but four discs worth of his later work are included. This is quite an achievement, because few of his films had been preserved or restored until the team that made this got to work on it in the early 2000’s. The liner notes include some harrowing tales of making digital transfers literally as filmed originals disintegrated. In that sense, this is a great collection, that lives up to its name in remembering forgotten work.

As is often the case with these collections, its real strength is in the films themselves, which will please any fan of early slapstick and most film historians. Arbuckle really is impressive for being able to take the kinds of falls and other athletic moves he made, given his size and weight. And he’s a surprisingly likable slapstick star; whereas Chaplin at this time was often cast as an aggressor or even a villain, Arbuckle’s characters are lovable innocents. At worst, he occasionally portrayed a loving husband whose wandering eye got him in trouble, but ultimately came home to his sweetie.

The special features here include an extensive (36 pages) set of liner notes with multiple essays by film historians that add a good deal to the viewer’s understanding (if they take the time to read them). The fourth disc includes several movies directed by Arbuckle under a pseudonym after he was banned from acting. There’s also a slide show of Arbuckle caricatures and a music video, both of which are fun. And then there are commentaries, by three film historians, which I think could have been handled better. These were obviously done with no rehearsal or preparation, just three men in a sound booth watching a film. In some cases, not all of them have seen the movie being commented on before (a cardinal sin in my book), they wind up talking over each other, missing things, and correcting each other on historical mistakes, which is annoying.

As a final note on Arbuckle, I think I have to comment on the tragedy that ended his career; the death of Virginia Rappé after a party in his hotel room in 1921. There seem to be two camps: one dead-sure that Arbuckle raped her and possibly performed some bizarre act which ruptured her bladder, and another one dead-sure that he was totally innocent and got railroaded by the press . I find the arguments of both sides self-serving and unconvincing, and I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Either way, although he was acquitted of any crime, the event hit the media like a bomb and ended his career, resulting in the fact that even fans of silent comedy rarely have a chance to see his movies now. But, I’d also suggest that, either way, it no longer matters. They’ve both been in their graves so long that it really doesn’t matter what happened in that hotel room anymore, and there’s certainly no reason to deny oneself the pleasure of good Century Films over something that happened off-screen and unconnected to the movies ninety three years ago.

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/61710295

Silent Shakespeare (1899-1911, 2000)

shakespeare

For the Bard’s birthday, I thought I’d review this collection, but it’s a little tricky because I already reviewed all of the movies it includes. Unfortunately, there are no special features or commentaries for me to discuss, so all I can say is that if you’d like to see a collection of very early film adaptations of Shakespeare all in one place: here it is. I can also mention the music, by Laura Rossi, which is subtle and appropriate to each film, although not what original audiences would have heard (it was composed for the DVD). I was a bit surprised, based on the title, that the most recent film on here was from 1911. That’s appropriate for this project, which only goes up to 1914 (for now), but I’d have thought that there were other, probably bigger, adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Classical Silent” period. Possibly they limited themselves for reasons of access and copyright, and perhaps a new collection with more recent movies will be forthcoming one of these years.

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44478627

Fantômas the Complete Saga

Fantomas_1916

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/670058288

This DVD release of the early French serial gives one the opportunity to “binge-view” the whole thing in a way that never would have happened a century ago, making more obvious some of the plot holes and redundancies, but is nevertheless an enjoyable presentation. The diabolical Fantômas (Rene Navarre, who apparently found it difficult not to be recognized after making the series) is a master criminal who disguises himself and plots gigantic schemes to make himself rich or, as often as not, simply to achieve crime for its own sake. He is pursued, and sometimes pursues the brilliant Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon, who went on to “Gaslight” and “The Woman in the Window”) and his journalistic sidekick, Fandor (Georges Melchior, later in “Rocambole,” another crime drama). This series came at the end of France’s dominance of world cinema, and in someway represents the high point of filmmaking in the pre-World War One period, in spite of its narrative ludicrousness. The DVD includes a bombastic soundtrack, sampled from music libraries, and a somewhat disjointed commentary by film historian David Kalat, who freely admits that he can’t pronounce French words. In spite of that, I found much of what he had to say informative and thought-provoking.

Chaplin at Keystone

Chaplin_Making_a_Living

Worldcat link:http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/671500970

This collection of Charlie Chaplin’s first year in Hollywood is surprisingly complete – and very interesting. You can see as he refines the persona of the “Little Tramp” and the nuances of his performance, but you can also watch several early experiments that maybe didn’t succeed as brilliantly. Chaplin once said that the three necessary elements of a Keystone comedy were “a girl, a park, and a policeman,” and you will see all three in abundance. Perhaps every movie has at least one of those elements, many have two, but really less than half have all three. In general, camera moves are rare, and intercutting is minimal, but there is an interesting ability of the different scenes to interact with one another, as Charlie throws a brick out of camera range in one shot, only to have his adversary duck it in the next shot, and finally in a third shot it collides with a hapless policeman or innocent bystander. Includes Chaplin’s first movie as “the Little Tramp:” “Kid Auto Races at Venice” as well as “Mabel at the Wheel” and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and many more. And, yes, for those who were curious, the policemen were frequently played by the famous “Keystone Kops,” who at various times were rivals with Chaplin as comic stars.

Georges Méliès First Wizard of Cinema

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/213810721

This collection gives a wonderful insight into the man who introduced the idea that film was not “moving pictures” in the sense of still images that happened to have motion added, it was a medium for telling stories, an extension of the theater. Méliès was a stage magician and a pantomime artist, and he brought the standards and sensibilities of that style of common mass entertainment with him in the movies he made. Today, this nineteenth-century aesthetic is best known to us from old carousels and funhouses. Of course, the iconic image of the Man in the Moon, with a spaceship stuck in his eye, from Méliès’s most popular film, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) is known to almost everyone, and films such as “The Impossible Voyage,” (1904) and “The Living Playing Cards” (1905) will seem familiar as well. But, I found some of the more obscure gems to be especially interesting. For example, in 1899 Méliès produced a series of 11 films (9 are here, perhaps all that survived), documenting the Dreyfus Affair as it happened. These were not newsreels, but dramatizations of what was going on in newspapers, and they were told from a decidedly liberal, pro-Dreyfus perspective. I was surprised that Méliès would take such a bold stand on a controversial issue, but he never did it again, so perhaps he learned from the result of this experiment.

 

 

Edison: The Invention of the Movies

Fred Ott

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/57182599

This is a collection of movies from the studio that “invented” them, the Thomas Edison Company. Although motion picture cameras were invented in several times and places (and the Lumiere brothers have a better claim on getting the first practical system into operation), this does include some of the earliest film footage that survives today. It’s fascinating to watch how the films evolved with audience expectations. At a certain point, Edison was no longer “cutting edge,” but for the first decade of film history, and particularly with the introduction of Edwin S. Porter as the chief director, Edison defined American filmmaking for the world. Some of his most memorable works include “The Great Train Robbery,” arguably the first “western” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which is reminiscent of Melies in its use of fantasy and effects. Also of interest is “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which starred future director D.W. Griffith. Since these movies were shot in and around New York City, there is a lot of interesting footage to show what my home town looked like a hundred years ago, and numerous other fascinating historical details. The whole set takes over fourteen hours to watch, but that’s less than many viewers today will “binge-watch” when doing a TV series.

The Lumiere Brothers’ First Films

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/41419014

This disc is a compilation of the very first “movies” made by the inventors of the first effective motion picture camera/projector system. Each is more or less precisely fifty seconds long and consists of a single subject. Some of them you’ve heard of – “A Train Coming into the Station,” for example, or “Workers Leaving the Factory.” Many of them are more obscure. A surprising number were taken in exotic locations around the world, including New York, Berlin, Jerusalem, Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Indochina (now Vietnam). Many of them are documentaries, in the sense of being totally unstaged, but many are at least partly arranged by the cameraman, and there are a number of comedic bits, including a famous one in which a man is sprayed by a hose after a boy stands on it for a few seconds. The DVD includes narration by Bertrand Tavernier, which sometimes adds to the movies, but just as often is distracting. Worth watching at least once with the piano score only.