Combustible Celluloid
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With: Buster Keaton, Jules Raucourt, George Voya, Mack Sennett, Jack Brawn, Ernest Servaès
Written by: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich, D.W. Griffith, etc.
Directed by: Robert Florey, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Winsor McKay, Georges M�li�s, Edwin S. Porter, Ladislas Starewicz, etc.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 140
Date: 19/03/2013

Wild and Weird: 14 Fascinating and Innovative Films 1902-1965 (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Short Stuff

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Short films never get much love, at least compared to features, and so it's great to see this truly "wild" collection of fourteen essential, mostly silent-era films from all over the map. Better still, the collection comes from Flicker Alley, a company that has established itself as a leader in the restoration and redistribution of films from that period, and so the quality is superb. And for the icing on the cake, the Alloy Orchestra has provided new musical scores for each film. Many viewers may have been lucky enough to see the Alloy perform live music for silent-era films, but if not, you can hear their music on several DVDs: Kino's recent, restored Metropolis, certain releases of Man with the Movie Camera (1928), and Image's double-feature DVD of Keaton's The General (1927) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).

Now, onto Wild and Weird: it begins with the king of them all, D.W. Griffith, but not one of his typical two-reelers. This one is Those Awful Hats (1909), an atypical comedy, and the shortest film Griffith ever made. It was made as a kind of public service announcement to get ladies to remove their headgear during movie showings. Then we have Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (1902); the shot of the rocketship crashing into the moon's eye is surely one of cinema's greatest indelible images. (Most people will recognize the picture, even if they don't know the film.) The disc provides a new vocal narration.

Working at Thomas Edison's studio, filmmaker Edwin S. Porter made a live-action adaptation of Winsor McKay's comic strip The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), with some strange effects. Then comes the impressive Méliès-like "trick" film Red Spectre (1907, Segundo de Chomón), including some gorgeous hand-tinting. Perhaps the most bizarre movie in the set is The Acrobatic Fly (1908), wherein director F. Percy Smith captured real flies, glued their wings down, and animated their legs to do various tricks. (Good thing PETA wasn't around back then.)

The set includes a pair of films, presumably by J. Stuart Blackton. The comedy The Thieving Hand (1908) tells the story of a one-armed man who receives a replacement limb, only to discover that the hand has some unwanted attributes. (This same theme would be used for serious horror films decades later.) We also get Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy (1909), which has grown rather more amazing with each passing generation. The Orchestra really seemed to enjoy the comedy Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912), playing with the musical theme to hilarious advantage.

Next up, three of my favorites. Ladislas Starewicz's The Cameraman's Revenge (1912) is an amazingly detailed early example of stop-motion animation (using real bugs). Winsor McKay's Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (1921) is a positively creepy, but also an amazing example of early hand-drawn animation from a true master. McKay created the popular comic strip that illustrated the surreal experiences of people who ate too much rarebit (Welsh rabbit) for dinner. Buster Keaton's The Playhouse (1921) is one of the great filmmaker's most technical achievements. It features an entire theatrical production with Buster playing every part.

Hans Richter's Filmstudie (1926) is an experimental film, and so is Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich's The Life and Death of 9413 -- a Hollywood Extra (1927), though the latter has something of a story and an emotional pull; it's a true treasure in the history of short films. Finally, we get the most recent film in the set, from director Eliot Noyes Jr., Clay, or The Origin of Species (1965); like the title says, it's a claymation presentation of the origin of the species.

Extras on Flicker Alley's DVD include a featurette about the Alloy Orchestra. See also their Saved from the Flames collection.

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