Early Cinema - Primitives And Pioneers (DVD)

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Early Cinema - Primitives And Pioneers (DVD)

Features a collection of fifty-nine films originating from the pre-1910 era of cinema. Includes: 'Ali Bava Et Les Quarante Voleurs', 'Magic Bricks' an...

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Review of "Early Cinema - Primitives And Pioneers (DVD)"

published 24/03/2012 | hogsflesh
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"When cinema was young"

The Sun, according to Melies

The Sun, according to Melies

This two-DVD set from the BFI costs about £15.

Cinema was ‘officially’ invented in 1895 by the French Lumiere brothers (Edison in the USA had invented a kind of a moving picture as early as 1892, but it wasn’t ‘cinema’ – i.e. something that was projected from a lamp onto a screen, and I don’t think any examples have survived anyway).

Having grown up with modern films and being used to their little ways it can come as quite a shock to watch the earliest examples of the ‘seventh art’. There are many fundamental elements of films today that we hardly notice because we’re so used to them - cameras that move, for instance, and editing.

Such bold innovations didn’t exist back in the old days. Cinema as we know it really only started to crystallise from 1907 onwards, driven by the innovations of DW Griffith in Hollywood. At about the same time, the film industry was also taking the form that we know now with the Americans beginning to dominate commercial film-making. Before that film was very much a blank slate.

It can be absolutely fascinating to watch early films. You really get a feel for the way that the earliest ‘directors’ were gradually coming to realise the full potential of what they could do. The realisation that, by putting two separate pieces of film together, you could create the illusion of a story taking place in more than one scene, and use that to manipulate viewers’ perceptions of time and place (editing, basically), must have been revolutionary.

This collection from the British Film Institute collects several of these early efforts together. There’s a narrator who explains the importance of each film (often while the film itself is playing), and there’s piano accompaniment throughout, but obviously apart from that the films are all silent. There are a few other things to bear in mind about films this early. They're mostly extremely short, generally being no more than two or three minutes long, sometimes even shorter than that. And the picture quality on some of them is fairly bad.

What’s on this DVD, in fact what exists full stop, is only a tiny fraction of all the films that were made. The vast majority of all silent films are lost, either because they were junked by people not realising their future worth, or because the chemicals in the film stock have deteriorated. Obviously the further back in time you go the worse the problem gets. There were hundreds and hundreds of other films just like the ones available here, and we'll never ever get to see them.

The films are divided up into sections - one for each film-maker or studio. On disk 1 they are are French and British, on disk 2 they’re French, British and American. I’m not going to go into lengthy reviews of everything, as that would be long-winded and tedious.


Disc 1

The first films are those of the Lumiere brothers, the earliest existing motion pictures. These are all only about a minute long - they would just use one short reel of film, and when the reel ran out, the film ended. They're really just photographs that move. So we get the Lumiere Brothers as tourists, filming Niagara Falls or a Spanish bullfight, or taking a family portrait of parents feeding a baby. There's very little acknowledgement that film could be used for anything other than simple observance of life, and the film titles reflect this. Repas de Bebe, Demolition d’un mur, Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Coitat, that kind of thing. The train one famously caused panic when first shown as the credulous Nineteenth Century Frenchmen apparently believed an actual train was bearing down upon them.

The most famous Lumiere material is here - the train, the workers leaving the Lumiere factory, the photographic club disembarking from its boat. These short films are absolutely fascinating - seeing tiny fragments of life in 1890s France, and the way people react to the camera (the photographers cheerily doffing their hats as they leave the boat is a favourite moment). There are also a few indications of the potential of cinema - a film about the demolition of a wall was often run backwards by the Lumieres, thus delighting their audiences. And there's what is regarded as the first ever fictional film - a gardener is watering the flowerbeds, a mischievous young scamp treads on his hose pipe, cutting off the water. The gardener, puzzled, stares into the nozzle of his hose pipe, just as the boy removes his foot. With hilarious consequences. But for the most part the Lumieres were content just to film things happen - the novelty of pictures actually moving was more than enough for them.

Next, though, we move on to George Melies, and Voyage a travers l'impossible. Melies was the first person to make a film of more than five minutes length. He was a stage magician who was inspired by the potential film had for illusion. His films are full of people vanishing in clouds of smoke, heads being grotesquely enlarged, and all sorts of similar tricks. His most famous film is Le Voyage dans la Lune, but for some reason that’s not included – we have to make do with its sequel. Obviously inspired by Verne or Wells, scientists travel by train to the Sun, where they explore exotic landscapes, get too hot, and finally return to Earth by parachute before briefly visiting the bottom of the ocean.

The film takes place over a number of scenes, which is clearly a huge leap forward from what the Lumieres were doing. Melies himself died poor and forgotten, but he was eventually hugely influential - the Surrealists loved him. Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python owe a lot to Melies, as does his Baron Munchausen, and Scorsese recently built a whole film around his myth. Melies’ films, or at least the ones I've seen, are great fun. Using his magician's imagination to do more and more outlandish things onscreen, Melies is certainly the most enjoyable of the early directors. It’s a pity there isn’t more of his stuff on this collection. The colours on the print are staggeringly vivid, too. (You thought that all silent films were black and white? Not at all. Hand tinting and painting of prints was a frequent practice. Much of the tinting has faded on prints over the decades, but where it exists, the colouring adds to the otherworldliness of the films.)

After Melies we get to the British film-makers. Britain was genuinely a world-leader in cinema until about 1903. A lot of innovations were introduced by enthusiastic gentleman amateurs of the kind that populated late Victorian England.

RW Paul is first up. His best films are A Chess Dispute (in which two young men playing to chess come to blows) and The (?) Motorist (I'm not sure if that's the actual title or if they genuinely don't know what word was supposed to go in the middle of the title). The former is great - most of the action takes place off the bottom of the frame - we see the fighters occasionally leaping up and throwing a punch and so on, but for the most part we have to imagine what's going on. The director was making use of the limitations of the medium for comic effect in a surprisingly self-aware way. The (?) Motorist features an automobile driver who manages to travel into space, riding round on Saturn's rings before crashing back to earth. Obviously influenced by Melies, the film is one of many from the era which presents a rather alarmist view of other new technologies (in the case cars), but in a funny way. Paul also filmed Buy Your Own Cherries, a morality tale about the evils of drink, which is probably the most complex narrative on offer here.

Then we get GA Smith, and my personal favourite of all the films: The Miller and the Sweep. In this film a miller, covered in flour, and with a sack of flour, encounters a sweep, covered in soot, carrying a sack of soot. For unexplained reasons they fight - white flour, black soot - great comic potential. (Spoiler: the sweep seems to comes off slightly worse.) In the background is a windmill, its blades constantly turning (presumably to get as much movement in the film as possible). The miller and sweep stray out of shot a few times, and because the camera can't move, we're left staring at the windmill. Then a large crowd of people runs on and chases the miller and sweep away. The film ends. It only lasts about a minute. Cinematic perfection. Apparently millers and sweeps fighting was a popular genre of entertainment in Victorian times, but to me this just seems alien and hilarious.

There are lots of other Smith films, including The Kiss In The Tunnel, which may be the first ever film to use editing. Let Me Dream Again is another cracker. A little old man is sitting next to a (moderately) attractive woman dressed in a Pierrot costume. They are both laughing heartily, and continue to do so for a good 30 seconds. Then - alas! - the man wakes up, to find that he is actually in bed with his battleaxe of a wife rather than cavorting with the weird sexy clown woman. We’ve all been there.

There are plenty of other films on this disk. From energetic chase films like A Desperate Poaching Affray to the slapstick humour of An Interesting Story. For the most part, the titles give you a pretty good idea what to expect, from Ladies’ Skirts Nailed To A Fence to Stop Thief! None of the other directors are quite as noteworthy as the four already mentioned, but all of the films are interesting, and since none of them are longer than ten minutes at most, there’s no real scope to get bored by any of them.


Disc 2

Disc 2 tends to feature slightly longer films with a bit more narrative ambition. Cecil Hepworth was another British pioneer. He did his fair share of short trick films (The Fatal Sneeze is quite good), but his main offering is Rescued by Rover, an elaborate narrative in which a posh family’s baby is stolen by an old woman, only to be – as the title might imply – rescued by the heroic family dog. This was a popular genre in early British film – heroic dogs saving children from gypsies, eagles and other threats must have struck a chord with the Edwardians. It’s notable for using a lot of different locations in stringing together its narrative, but there are still no close-ups or reaction shots.

There are some rather dull bots of footage of factories, although they do at least feature cameras that can pan from left to right. Then we’re back to France, with the Pathé Brothers. Highlights include some garishly coloured versions of Ali Baba and Aladdin. They’re still very basic – single shot scenes that are more tableaux than the kinds of films we have now, and emphasise spectacle like exotic ladies having a little dance. They also do a version of the Russian Revolution (which at the time meant the 1905 naval mutiny), which is effectively Battleship Potemkin told in about five minutes, without all the montage.

Finally the American Edwin S Porter has a few films. He’s one of the major early filmmakers, and the BFI have a separate DVD devoted entirely to him. There’s some slow motion footage of Scotsmen dancing, which is quite sweet, but the main attraction here is The Great Train Robbery, arguably the most famous early film of all. It’s an obvious story of bad cowboys robbing a train, and has the usual one-shot scenes and immobile camera. But there are innovations – a use of back projection, coloured puffs of gunsmoke, and the famous end shot, which gives us a close-up of one of the bad guys firing his gun right at the audience! (Scorsese referenced it at the end of Goodfellas). Apart from that, it has a chase and a little dance, so obviously gave the audience what it wanted.

The final film, Porter's Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, is also well known, as the title character takes flight on his bed above the city and gets stuck on a weathercock. It’s rather a shame to finally make it to the end of the DVD, as if you’ve watched them in one sitting you’ll have become quite used to the ways of silent cinema and it almost feels a bit disappointing to watch something modern after this.

The picture quality on the films is obviously variable given their age, but they’ve mostly picked films that aren’t too badly damaged. There’s a good leaflet included which gives information about each film, which I found preferable to the spoken introductions.


For anyone curious about the earliest days of an artform that we all think we know, this tape is essential viewing. Silent films are sadly marginalised these days, only the comedies and certain German horror films having any real popularity, which is why it's refreshing to see such obscure material being made available.

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Comments on this review

  • RICHADA published 13/06/2012
    A highly enlightening review on your specialised subject. R.
  • Dentolux published 31/03/2012
    What's better? Flour or soot? Only one way to find out... fight!!!
  • MarcoG published 26/03/2012
    Fab review, sir :)
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Features a collection of fifty-nine films originating from the pre-1910 era of cinema. Includes: 'Ali Bava Et Les Quarante Voleurs', 'Magic Bricks' and 'The Great Train Robbery'.

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