Besides the films themselves, this set has a very well done booklet containing detailed information on each film as well as information on the preservation involved. Just about all of the silent films include at least some notes in the form of text that appear on the DVD that are selectable by the user, and most include user-selectable commentary tracks by film historians as well. The first entry on disc one is possibly the first film that ever included sound. In this 1894 entry, frequent director of Edison Company films William Dickson is seen playing the violin into a megaphone while two men dance to the music. It is only 15 seconds long, so the film is repeated several times while the extensive commentary plays. Many early Edison films were experiments such as these. Also included is a D.W. Griffith early short, the melodramatic "The Country Doctor" (1909). The title character must choose between tending his own sick daughter and a neighbor. Thus the doctor must choose between his duty as a physician and his loyalty to his own family. Mary Pickford has a small role.
Running only 13 minutes, Otis Turner's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) is the first attempt to bring the Frank Baum novel to the screen. There's no commentary on this one, though it would be helpful, because I know I was confused. In this version, two strange unnamed animal creatures plus the scarecrow are blown by the cyclone, along with Dorothy, to Oz. "The Invaders" is a remarkable 1912 film about Native Americans using force to avenge a broken treaty when surveyors unlawfully enter their territory, leaving open the question of who really are the invaders. It has a surprisingly sophisticated depiction of the Native American characters considering when it was made, and deals honestly both with the offenses committed against them and with their own weaknesses. Chester and Sidney Franklin's "Gretchen the Greenhorn" (1916), stars Dorothy Gish in an early gangster film. This film is also "feature-length" and runs 55 minutes. Notice a remarkably slender Eugene Pallette as the bad guy. In the talkies he comes to be known for his portly figure and trademark frog voice. "The Breath of a Nation" is a 1919 cartoon that is making fun of then newly implemented prohibition and whose title is a spoof on D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking film from four years earlier. Next there is the Ford Motor Company's "De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb" (1920) which shows each step of assemblage of a bulb at the factory. It's unsubtle message is the praise of progress via mass production, and, of course Ford Motor Company's part in all of this. Disc one ends with a five-minute talkie "greeting" by playwright George Bernard Shaw, shot in 1928, which comes across more as a test run of sound technology than anything.
Disc two starts with five minutes of film shot by Edwin S. Porter of the Edison Company that consists of scenes of ordinary people going about their daily lives in New York City in 1901 and 1903, and is typical of the early "actualities" of which early motion pictures consisted. In a similar, but much later film, "A Bronx Morning" (1931), people are shown going about their daily business one morning in the Bronx. Eleven minutes long, people are shown jumping rope, rocking a baby carriage, entering and exiting the subway, etc. There are also some good shots of some 1930's Bronx neighborhoods themselves. "From Leadville to Aspen: A Hold-Up in the Rockies" (1906) is an eight minute short that documents a train robbery. The hold-up itself is shot from the point of view of a passenger seat, and the thieves' attempted get-away is shot from the vantage point of the very front of the train. The notes for this film say that this short was intended to be shown to passengers onboard a train, one of the earliest examples of films being used to entertain travelers. A contrasting view of big business from that shown in the Ford Motor Company's assembly line film on disc one is seen in "Passaic Textile Strike" and also in 1912's "Children Who Labor". These films show the value of trade unions and the tragedy of child labor via docu-dramas focusing on the hardships of specific families. Another early talkie in this set has "Gus Visser and His Singing Duck" (1925), in which Gus Visser sings the song, "Ma (He's Making Eyes At Me)", and soon the duck begins to accompany him by quacking. Its actual purpose was as an experiment in efforts to create a workable way to add sound to movies. Mr. Visser is not famous for anything else other than this one experiment in sound on film.
My personal favorite in the whole set is the 74-minute "Clash of the Wolves" (1925), starring Rin Tin Tin, that great German Shepherd star of the 20's. Rin is the wolf hybrid everyone wants to shoot, until one day prospector Dave Weston finds him incapacitated by a cactus thorn and dying slowly of thirst in the desert. Dave's compassion overcomes his desire to kill the wolf for the bounty on his head, and he takes him to his cabin and treats his wound. "Lobo" becomes Dave's constant companion, and eventually saves him from the film's villain. Since Rin Tin Tin was so popular in the 1920's and remains so, it is a wonder more of his silent features haven't been preserved and restored for us to enjoy.
Next there is a silent newsreel from 1926 that includes a segment on a strange sport that involves men on horseback and a giant rubber ball, and a short piece on Mussolini. Animators Max and Dave Fleischer are creators of "Now You're Talking" (1927), in which an abused phone goes to the hospital and, as a "phone doctor" takes notes, the phone talks about how he has been mistreated by various users. The film is an attempt to show early phone customers that banging on the phone will do no good at establishing a connection, and also has something to say about proper and safe storage of the device. The message - "treat your phone kindly". "There It Is" (1928) is a silent feature starring writer/director/star Charley Bowers as a detective from "Scotland Yard" sent to investigate the case of the "Fuzz-Faced Phantom". Scotland Yard is spoofed as an actual yard full of Scottish detectives all wearing kilts and sporting bagpipes. Aside from Bowers and the Phantom, the other characters have to play it straight and endure a series of indignities in order to solve the case. Charley's assistant in all of this is MacGregor, a stop-motion animated insect who lives in a matchbox and also wears kilts. Truly an odd choice for a sidekick.
Disc three begins with the short, and somewhat confusing, "Rip Van Winkle" (1896) starring the earliest-born actor to ever appear in a film, Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), in the title role. This is followed by a film under a minute in length showing the obviously rehearsed actions of Thomas Edison working in his chemical laboratory. There's also a 12-minute film by one of the earliest female filmmakers, Alice Guy Blache, who actually owned her own studio from 1910-1914. Her film "Falling Leaves" (1912) is a melodrama about a young girl who is saved from the consumption by a new miracle cure. The title comes from the initial pronouncement from a doctor that she will live only "until the last leaf falls". Dave Fleischer was author of the "Inklings" series of cartoons, and this set contains "Inklings #12". Here Fleischer draws a picture of Rin Tin Tin, but at an odd angle, asks the audience to guess who it is, then properly orients the drawing so you can recognize the famous canine. Next he performs another puzzle-like animation in which he takes apart a drawing and then reassembles it to produce "The House that Jack Built".
"Lady Windermere's Fan" (1925), is one of Ernst Lubitsch's earliest American films, adapted from Oscar Wilde's play, and is the feature film included on disc three. Lubitsch manages to get his famous "touch" across on this film, even without the benefit of spoken dialogue. He is just wonderful at conveying emotion with gestures, glances, and in this movie, with the way a doorbell is pushed. I found the overall story rather uncompelling, but it was still interesting to see such a master director at work.
Disc 3 also contains some real film oddities including two talking shorts via DeForest Phonofilms, one featuring Eddie Cantor and the other Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Phonofilm talkies, which were made between 1923-1926, never caught on with the public. This was partly due to the static nature of the camera, and partly due to the fact that DeForest was not a particularly good salesman. "The Memory of a Nutty Cameraman" (1925) shows some odd visual effects involving New York City landscapes that is similar to the work of Georges Melies, who had been making such films for over twenty years when this short was made.
This set is certainly a must-have for any serious student of early cinema, including all kinds of early films, plus it's very entertaining to boot.