What an astonishing and entertaining box set! This three-disk set with the unwieldy name and robust price tag is one of the best collections I've watched in a long time. These `films' - some are only thirty seconds long - range in date from 1894 to 1931. Almost all are silent, save for a couple of experimental sound films. A comprehensive review is out of the question, so I'll limit myself to short observations on some of my favorites from each disk.
Disk One - Things are kicked off with `Dickson Experimental Sound Film' (ca. 1894), a 15-second film that features two-men dancing and a man playing a violin in front of a huge metal cone, the microphone for the wax cylinder the sound was recorded on. This set is dotted with experimental movies like this one. Out of context they're a little mystifying, but this one comes with a short commentary track. The commentary track lasts a few minutes, and the movie is looped behind it. All films come with program notes which are found both on-screen (handy) and in a two-hundred page book. I think a lot of people will get a kick out of the 13-minute `The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' (1910). It's certainly inventive enough, but the Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion look different, the Wizard looks creepy, and I was never that much of an Oz fan to begin with. My favorites from the first disk are the two feature films, at least feature length for their time: `The Invaders' (1912- 41 mins) and `Gretchen the Greenhorn' (1916- 58 mins.) `The Invaders' is an early western that features real Lakota Sioux playing the indians. It's a smart film that feels authentic. `Gretchen the Greenhorn' is a charming story starring the 18-year-old Dorothy Gish (Lillian's little sister) as a young Dutch girl joining her father in America. There's an innocence and a sincerity to it that I found completely winning.
Disk Two - This is the second set I've acquired recently that contains `Gus Visser and His Singing Duck' (ca. 1925 - 90 sec.) It's another synchronized sound experiment, and remains a hoot. Also of interest was the 12-minute `Early Color Films,' a trio of films from 1916, 1929 and 1926 that used different experimental color processes. This one really benefits from the commentary track. The 1926 entry is `The Flute of Krishna,' choreographed by Martha Graham. My favorite film on this disk has to be `Clash of the Wolves' (1925 - 74 mins), a Rin Tin Tin silent. Rin Tin Tin plays Lobo, a wild dog who gets a thorn in his paw and is rescued by a borax miner. There's a pretty girl, a staid father, an unscrupulous claim-jumper, and stunts galore. Also included on this disk is a Charley Bowers two-reeler (19 mins) from 1928, a silent, titled `There It Is.' Bowers is the great unknown silent movie comedian, a stop-action animation innovator and one of the more surreal moviemakers to come out of Hollywood's early years.
Disk Three - Kicks off with `Rip Van Winkle' (1896- 4 mins.) Rip is a series of very short scenes from the enormously popular stage play starring Joseph Jefferson, who was an established stage actor before the Civil War. The film was produced and shown on mutoscope machines, a flip-card, peep viewer affair that lost out to projector presentation of films. Like many of the films on this set, this isn't inherently interesting, but if you're interested in film history it's fascinating. The big one on this disk in Ernst Lubitsch's `Lady Windermere's Fan,' (1925 - 89 mins) starring Ronald Colman, a witty and sophisticated movie from Oscar Wilde. Perversely, perhaps, I like the rougher, less polished films in this set. `Life of an American Fireman' (1903- 6 mins) and `Falling Leaves' (1912 - 12 mins) are two earlier films that may not be in the same league as Lubitsch's film, but they have an appealing simplicity. What I liked best about `Life of an American Fireman' was its demonstration that movies had to find a narrative strategy. Here's what I mean - there's a scene (hope I'm not blowing the plot), set inside a tenement room, smoke billows and mother and child are trapped in a burning building. Mother opens window and shouts for help. Fireman enters, ladder appears outside window, fireman hauls mother and child out of burning building. This is all done in one continuous shot. Next we're outside the building with the fireman. We see a woman open a window, shout for help. Fireman appears in the window, ladder is emplaced, mother and child are rescued. This just isn't the way scenes are cut. When the film takes us outside, it also goes back in time to the woman in the window calling for help. It seems an intuitive thing - we don't go back in time when we change point of view, but `Life of an American Fireman' proves that, along with close ups and such, continuity had to be figured out as well.
This is a great set, especially for those interested in film history. Heck, it's a lot cheaper than a college course. A couple other highlights - Martin Marks provides the music for all the silent films, and he provides notes for every movie he scores. I think his contribution can't be overstated. Great musical accompaniment. Also on each disk is a silent Fleischer brother animation.