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With: Thomas Edison, D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, John J. Corbett, Annie Oakley
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Edwin S. Porter, Alan Crosland, etc.
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 730
Date: 21/02/2005

Edison: The Invention of the Movies (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Beginner's Luck

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Edison: The Invention of the Movies on DVD.

Thomas Edison is something of a folk hero today, an inventor who came up with gizmos that continue to enrich our daily lives. We know that he invented motion pictures, but Kino's glorious new box set sheds a little light on that story and makes it more human. Indeed, Edison ran the first motion picture studio, tinkering with the formats of the film to try and appeal to the widest audience; he was really no different than the later-era David O. Selznicks or Jerry Bruckheimers.

Along the way, we get something like 140 films to enjoy. Viewers can play the films three ways: with introductions from historians, playing the films only, or selected from the production notes. I recommend going through the notes, as it can often help give a little necessary perspective on the films. Each film has an introductory title card and a new score.

The first disc begins with two ghostly little films, made with an early cylinder process. We quickly move onto film projection as we know it today, and in context, the amazing Blacksmith Scene (1893) comes into sharp focus as the groundbreaker it truly was.

Disc One also contains the controversial The Kiss (1896), also Edison's biggest hit that year; the first attempt at sound film, Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895), which was untitled and unreleased but recently restored by Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin; the first blockbuster, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), and two other early narrative films by Porter, Jack and the Beanstalk and Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The box does not shy away from highly disturbing films like the racially stereotypical Watermelon Contest (1896) or the truly repellent Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). Kino is to be commended for showing all sides of the Edison company, and not just whitewashing it to protect viewers.

Over the course of the first 90 or so films, the viewer can see the evolution of storytelling and editing techniques, moving the camera from side to side in Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901), and the introduction of comedies like A Wringing Good Joke (1899) or Old Maid Having Her Picture Taken (1901). Porter also turned in the ambitious Life of an American Fireman (1903), which featured changing perspectives, both interior and exterior views of the same rescue sequence.

We also get footage of real people like boxer John J. Corbett and Annie Oakley.

It's interesting to note that among these first films the Edison crew were already focusing mostly on dance and violence, two things that provide interesting motion for the camera. They also made an attempt to include mixed cultural influences, ranging from Native American and Japanese to Spanish.

Disc Two finds Porter taking hold of most of the directing chores and graduating to more ambitious stories, using several different shots edited together for continuity purposes. The problem here is that, without close-ups or subtitles, it's difficult to follow some of the plots. In The Kleptomaniac (1905), Porter attempts to tell a story about how a rich woman can get away with stealing a piece of jewelry she doesn't need, but a poor woman is punished for stealing food. The film features a scene set in a busy department store with at least half a dozen characters milling about the frame. There's no establishing shot or close up or title card to let us know which person we should be watching; I saw the film twice and was unable to detect the moment at which the woman steals the jewelry because I didn't know where to look. The rest of the film is just as confusing.

Another short, Kathleen Mavourneen (1906) was based on a play popular at the time. Porter (and co-director Wallace McCutcheon) simply filmed the play with the actors mouthing the dialogue. Viewers were expected to already know the play before they saw the film, otherwise there's no way to properly follow the story.

Disc Two also shows Porter experimenting with chase scenes taking place across multiple shots. But while early audiences probably found these exciting, watching the same batch of characters run one at a time through several different settings can get tedious.

The high points on Disc Two are the comedies, such as: European Rest Cure (1904), Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride (1904), Scarecrow Pump (1904) and The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905). The physical nature of these films makes them translate across the ages quite a bit better.

Also notable are Robert K. Bonine's films of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Porter's adaptation of Winsor McKay's comic strip The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and Porter's beautiful Coney Island at Night (1906) with its groundbreaking moving camera.

Disc Three shows an interesting duality. Porter began to express a more singular artistic vision, apart from the company line. The company squashed these ideas while beginning to establish its streamlined, factory-like manner of storytelling. The strange thing is that these films have a clarity and pace that some of the earlier films lack. The disc's notes weigh the Edison Company against the Disney company, and it's an interesting comparison.

The disc contains quite a few more comedies, as well as the first appearance of D.W. Griffith, as an actor in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908) and a Christmas film, The Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907).

Disc Four chronicles the downfall of the Edison Company, as they desperately tried to widen their market with industrials like The Wonders of Magnetism (1915). This disc also contains the feature film The Unbeliever (1918), starring Erich von Stroheim as a nasty German villain, and directed by Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer). This is believed to be the last Edison film released. A message movie if there ever was one, this quasi-propaganda film tells the story of an American soldier who finds God while on the battlefield.

I definitely enjoyed Disc One more than Disc Four, but each disc boasts as least something amazing. This is an essential item for anyone who wishes to truly understand the movies.

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