PC agenda, but a interesting collection nonetheless
Michael Gebert | 01/25/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"When I first saw this set I felt like the title "Origins of Film" was at odds with the p.c.-revisionist film choices-- it was more like little sidepaths in the history of film that left few traces by the sound era. (To take the best known name on the set, Oscar Micheaux is interesting sociologically, and you may be fascinated by the picture of black life he captures, but he's nobody's artistic ancestor, indeed, at best competent in the silent era and rather less than that in the sound era.)As I watched more and more of the set though-- and as enough other silent films have been released on DVD that this set doesn't have to carry the burden of living up to its title-- it's grown more pleasing. A Florida Enchantment is a jaw-dropper, a good example of how much more daring 1910s films were than 20s, 30s or 40s ones. Alias Jimmy Valentine is a terrific melodrama, with a surefire climax (that must have had them jumping in their seats) and a detached depiction of one crime that anticipates caper movies like Rififi and Heat. The animation/fantasy disc is fun (although the Oz film won't make anyone forget Judy Garland). And if the black-directed films are mainly of historical rather than artistic interest, Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blache well deserve the disc space devoted to women directors. Guy Blache was as good as anyone directing films in the 1905-1915 era, and Weber is a genuine rediscovery who achieved moments of Stroheimian intensity (never an entire movie's worth that I've ever seen, but moments) as well as dealing time and again with provocative, woman's-point-of-view material. (Too Wise Wives' comic tone makes a striking contrast to the utter seriousness of the Weber films you're most likely to have caught elsewhere, Hypocrites or The Blot.) Those three features certainly justify the price, compared to other silent DVDs, so everything else you discover and enjoy along the way is a bonus."
Devilish interface, divine content
E. A. Montgomery | Florida, USA | 07/21/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Unlike my equally beloved 'Treasures' box set, this isn't an overview of clips and interesting short moments. 'Origins' offers full length animation and silents. This isn't a slick package, and the interface is so cumbersome as to be annoying, but it's well worth the time."A Florida Enchantment" alone is worth the price of admission, (Although I dispute the claim that it was filmed in Lauderdale. There are several obvious signs that it was filmed in the northern secton of the state.) In this film, a young woman wishes she were a man after finding her fiance unworthy. There isn't space to discuss every film on this set - but with just this example you get a remarkable look at 'hidden' homosexual humour in early film. The actress playing the lead gives a startlingly modern performance in her male guise. The whites in blackface are mesmerizing when you realize they were probably very common roles. Moments after she makes her trusted maid a man, the blackface actress turns into a violent drunken criminal who attempts to sexually assault another maid. (If your jaw didn't drop before then, it will be hitting the floor now.)Will our heroine enjoy life as a man? Will she get the girl of her dreams? Will she long to return to her life as a woman? Controversial when it was made, controversial today. And it's just one of the remarkable works on this set. You will not regret this purchase."
Barbara (Burkowsky) Underwood | Manly, NSW Australia | 08/31/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This nice box set of 3 discs surpassed all my expectations and I was thoroughly engrossed for the entire 9 1/2 hours total playing time (though not in one sitting, of course!) The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute have chosen an excellent variety of early films to represent the first/best of each genre: Fantasy, Animation, Gangster Film, etc and they are all real gems, in my opinion. The first disc has two feature-length films by African Americans, and both deserve good attention to the story and the messages they get across. Although the first one, "Within Our Gates" is rather complex with a lot of story packed in, it tells a realistic story with a strong message for all people, regardless of race or country.
Then, for a complete change of pace, the Animation section has over 20 short and fun examples of early animation - from simple cartoon line drawings to puppets and a few other tricks. My personal favourites are the two feature-length Fantasy films: "The Patchwork Girl of Oz" is the typical Fantasy as we know it today, from "The Wizard of Oz" and beyond, with magicians, strange creatures and good fun overall, whereas "A Florida Enchantment" is totally different but every bit as fascinating and entertaining. This one appears down-to-earth except for a mysterious box containing magical seeds that can transform women to men and vice versa - a novelty idea and still very effective 90 years later.
The third disc features some good shorts and two feature-length films of the Gangster Film and Women Filmmakers categories with very good stories once again that are presented in different ways. "Two Wise Wives" by Lois Weber has quite a bit of psychology and sociology in it, for those who'd like to dig deeper, and the feature-length Gangster film is anything but bad guys shooting it out in the slums - in fact, it's an idealistic, moralistic story about an ex-con who is motivated to go straight, making the entire box set a wonderful variety of some unusual, surprising and special early films (many being from the years 1914-19) which I think should appeal to anyone interested in good quality films generally, and in what high standards filmmakers were attaining already some 80-90 years ago."
Early films with a socially relevant theme
calvinnme | 07/21/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The set showcases films, filmmakers, and genres that are often ignored, and many of the themes are socially relevant rather than pure entertainment. These are rather obscure works, many of which have been neglected for more than 80 years and are not lost altogether often by a whim of chance rather than by deliberate preservation. This set is currently out of print, so I am listing the detailed contents here in case you run across a used copy at a reasonable price somewhere and decide to purchase it. The total running time is about nine hours. The worst thing I can say about the set is that none of the films have running commentary. You have to look at the booklet that comes with the set if you want to know more about any of the films, so make sure if you get this used that the booklet is included, because it is the only context you have.
Disk I - African American Cinema
The Scar of Shame (1927) - 70 minute feature with an all black cast in which an educated young black musician marries a woman from a lower socioeconomic class to get her away from her abusive stepfather. Afterwards, he won't introduce his new wife to his mother since he knows mom will be disappointed with his choice.
Sissle and Blake (1923) - DeForest Phonofilm musical short featuring Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Yes, there were sound films prior to the Jazz Singer, but DeForest just couldn't interest any of the studios in his system.
Within Our Gates (1920) - The earliest surviving feature film (79 minutes) made by an African American and intended for an African American audience. The basic story is about a woman trying to raise money for a southern school for blacks to supplement the meager amount the state provides. However, the entire film is full of observations about racial issues and attitudes as they existed at the time in both the North and South.
Disk II - Part 1 - Origins of Animation
Includes 23 animations that range in year of production from 1900 to 1921. Included are a couple of Winsor McCay fragments, three Krazy Kat cartoons that also feature his mouse pal Ignatz, a Katzenjammer, and also a couple of animations that talk about World War I and its aftermath. There's a very novel stop-motion piece involving actual toys rather than clay figures. Also included is "The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy" (1917), which was created by Willis O'Brien for the Edison Company. You could see this as a prototype of what O'Brien does 15 years later in King Kong.
Disk II - Part 2 - Origins of the Fantasy Film
The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914) - An 81 minute feature that is a simplified version of the Oz novel, written and directed by Frank Baum himself.
A Florida Enchantment (1914) - A 63 minute film in which a woman takes some pills that attract her to other women. However, to "get the girl" she must dress in men's clothing. Quite daring for 1914.
Disk III - Part 1 - America's First Woman Film Makers
Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913) - From Alice Guy Blaché, considered to be the world's first female film director. A man loses his fortune on Wall Street. He then learns he has inherited a fortune but he must be married by a certain time. This one has an interesting twist at the end that is usually not part of the other films that follow a similar line.
A House Divided (1913) - Also by Alice Guy Blaché. A 13 minute-long short that could be one of the first screwball comedies. Rather than divorce, a couple has decided to live legally separate, but physically under the same roof. They try to stay angry at each other but find it difficult.
Too Wise Wives (1921) - Directed by Lois Weber, the first woman to direct feature length films starting with "The Merchant of Venice" in 1914. This 80 minute feature really seems to drag at points. It's the story of two marriages that in the end seems to have the moral that wives should be willing to look beyond themselves and their self-perceived shortcomings and that husbands should be attentive enough to realize their wives' needs. The film features some interesting looks at everyday middle-class life in the 1920's.
How Men Propose (1913) - Another film by Lois Weber. Short comedy in which three men propose to the same woman. She uses the experience to write a magazine article.
Disk III - Part 2 - Origins of the Gangster Film
The Narrow Road (1912) - A 17-minute D.W. Griffith short that is an early gangster film involving a gangster, recently released from prison, who wants to go straight, his wife (Mary Pickford), and his friend who is not ready to give up crime.
Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) - A 50 minute early gangster film in which the gangster is a complex character who is capable of reform and self-sacrifice. Unusual in the age of moustache-twirling villains.
This set was originally released in 2001. I don't know if any improvement is possible in the video quality, but 2001 is practically ancient history in terms of DVD technology. Therefore you might want to wait and see if Image Entertainment re-releases this set some time in the future."