Edison: The Invention Of The Movies

"Essential"

Edison: The Invention Of The Movies Review


Here's your chance to see how motion pictures crawled out of their primordial ooze and made their way to the silver screen. This eye-opening four-disc DVD box set, curated by the Museum of Modern Art and painstakingly produced by Kino, goes all the way back to the beginning to show you 140 films made by Thomas Edison and his talented crew of scientists, technicians, and directors from 1891 until 1918. It's quite a trip.

Although most of the included films are short, with some lasting only a few seconds, there are so many that you'll spend 15 hours if you watch all of them as well as the PBS-style talking-head interviews interspersed throughout. Luckily, the discs give you the time-saving option of watching just the films in chronological order. To get a bit of background, consider printing out the excellent film-by-film program notes that are available as PDFs at Kino's Web site, a very thoughtful addition. The DVDs also include 200 scans of various artifacts from MOMA's Edison Collection.

DVD 1 begins at the beginning, with snippets of Edison's earliest experiments, ghost-like images that do appear to be moving but are otherwise pretty much incomprehensible. A quick evolution takes us to some of the short films we've seen before such as The Sneeze and The Kiss. It's a short step from there to all sorts of slightly risqué dance numbers, amazing feats of acrobatics, and other activities that show off the benefits of a moving image. There are also plenty of historical oddities and groaners, such as a couple of watermelon-eating contests featuring a pair of very hungry African-American men, a man gorging himself on Welsh Rarebit, and a randy shoe salesman who likes to take peeks at his female customers' ankles. In one intriguingly named feature, What Happened on 23rd Street, it turns out that what happens on 23rd Street is a lady's long skirts are blown up above her knees when she walks over a subway grate. Hilarity and embarrassment ensue.

In these early years, the fragile camera almost never moves, but soon the movies start to get more complicated and to take on plots. The best example of an early "feature" is the legendary Great Train Robbery, which famously ends with a bad guy pointing his pistol directly at the audience and pulling the trigger. It's delightful to get the chance to see the unknown sequel to this film, The Little Train Robbery, filmed two years later in 1905. In this spoof, a gang of kids riding tiny ponies attack one of those toy-size trains that run through zoos. The kiddies on board hand over all their valuables, mainly lollipops.

As time passes, Edison's team churns out longer features of up to 18 minutes in length. Many are quick summaries of well-known stories such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Jack and the Beanstalk, with sets about as elaborate as you'd find in a typical junior high school play. Edison's team also has a fondness for chase scenes that rival anything Benny Hill did 75 years later. In one funny example, a French nobleman places a personal ad for a wife in a New York newspaper and is then chased over hill and dale by eight horny maidens who hang onto their hats as they leap over fences and streams in their long dresses. It's a challenging mental stretch for those of us who've been entertained in double Dolby Technicolor IMAX SurroundSound to imagine how exciting it must have been for our great grandparents to put a nickel in the nickelodeon or gather in a primitive movie theater to watch these humble entertainments.

In fact, what's most interesting and entertaining about this vast collection aren't the fictional films but rather the slices of real life that are viewed throughout, especially life as it looked on the wide and unpaved horse-and-buggy streets of New York City circa 1905. It's a thrill to watch scenes of the fire brigade racing down the avenue, teams of white horses pulling massive steaming boiler pumps as pedestrians jump to get out of the way. We also get glimpses of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a nighttime view of dazzling Coney Island, and stormy ocean crossings. And in one otherwise incidental 1898 short called Mess Call, young Army recruits step out of the chow line to mug for the camera, clearly enjoying the novelty of the new technology. It's hard not to feel an instant connection with these young men winking waving at us from the distant past.

If you love movies, you owe it to yourself to go back to the beginning and see where they come from. You'll walk away marveling at the genius of film's pioneers and also get a great appreciation for just how far film has come in the past 100 years.

Stick 'em up!



Edison: The Invention Of The Movies

Facts and Figures

Run time: 730 mins

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

IMDB: 7.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Steven Higgins, Charles Musser

Starring: Thomas A. Edison as Himself (archive footage), Charles Musser as Himself (film historian)

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