Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers Review
Ignore the Early Cinema title, for this compilation should simply be considered as cinema itself. It may only contain films made during the first 15 years of its development, but in encompassing documentaries, comedies, a Western, crime dramas and melodramas it also demonstrates a magnificent range. Indeed, whilst this may result in a less focussed look at film’s formative years than the likes of the BFI’s Silent Shakespeare compilation, their recent Electric Edwardians release (which offered a sample of Mitchell & Kenyon’s efforts) or The Good Old Naughty Days, it also affords the viewer less distractions. Rather than being forced to look at these pieces within a specific context, we can simply enjoy cinema for cinema’s sake. Indeed, some may even have to retrain their eyes as here we have moving pictures conceived simply as moving pictures (though there may be an intermittent nod to theatrics and the written word) or, in a word, purity.
And purity is the key term here. What makes these films so fascinating to modern eyes is the fact that they do exactly what they say. Rough Sea at Dover is exactly that; Demolition d’un mur is exactly that; The Great Train Robbery is exactly that; and the list goes on. There are no ulterior motives, just filmmakers fulfilling their basic duties: to inform, to educate and to explore the medium.
It’s this latter element which raises Early Cinema above the level of being a simple grab bag. For with the purity also comes a certain lack of sophistication, one which, more to the point, is difficult to ignore. Of course, this produces a certain charm and quaintness, but it remains that much of melodrama is on the hoary side and the comedy decidedly crude. Yet whilst me may groan at La Jardinier et le petit espiègle (aka L’Arroseur arrosé) or the basic satire of The Countryman and the Cinematograph each of these films earns their place courtesy of their innovations. Thus Le Jardinier… was not only the first comedy, but also the first work of cinematic fiction, whilst the likes of Come Along, Do!, Histoire d’un crime and Sick Kitten though almost anti-narrative in their conception demonstrate an increasing progression in editing techniques and the general syntax of the film form.
In this respect, the disc could therefore be placed into two separate sections: fiction and documentary. Whilst there’s an honesty to both (the comedies, after all, are simply trying to make us laugh), it is likely that the non-fiction works will translate far better towards a modern audience. Indeed, A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works or A Day in the Life of a Coalminer - save for their lack of a soundtrack – could have been made today such is their handling of the material. Likewise, the early Lumière efforts have a simplicity and naturalism that cannot be avoided; particularly interesting is Spanish Bullfight owing to the manner in which it strips its action of all its virtuosity and reveals it as a piece of simple animal cruelty.
That said, each piece is remarkable in its own way and there’s nothing here that isn’t worthy of inclusion. Of course, you could argue over omissions or the fact that some filmmakers are better represented than others (though note that the accompanying booklet does contain a disclaimer with regards to their only being one Méliès title), but then we still get a remarkable 59 titles spread over these two discs. Certainly, they may demonstrate some rough edges, but when we’re offered the likes of The Great Train Robbery or an extract from Voyage à travers l’impossible can you really complain. After all, you’re witnessing some truly wonderful cinema irrespective of its age.
Though each short understandably varies in its overall condition, it must be stated that we are getting them in the best possible condition. Ratios appear to have been adhered to whilst each short also appears in as complete a form as was available (when extracts or outtakes are used we are informed of the fact). Certainly, there don’t appear to be any technical flaws to speak of and as such the BFI should be congratulated for offering these films in as good a condition as could be expected.
As for the soundtracks, both discs come with a choice of three. Whereas the previous VHS volumes (which were identical in content) provided only a commentary by Barry Salt as accompaniment, here we are also afforded the opportunity of isolated piano scores in either DD5.0 or PCM stereo form. In both cases, the sound is utterly flawless allowing us to enjoy each short without distraction.
Indeed, some may feel that the choice of commentary makes this set far preferable to the previous video incarnations. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with the Salt track – it proves to be an educational listen after all and would no doubt be well suited to a school environment – the ability to look where we want to look and make our own judgements is much appreciated. Moreover, the discs also come with a fine 20-page booklet which offers ample background to each short and their makers.
As a final note, it should also be mentioned that Salt’s commentary also comes with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Sortie d’usine (1895)
Repas de bébé (1895)
Démolition d’un mur (1895)
Le Jardinier et le petit espiègle (1895)
Arrivée des Congressistes à Neuville-sue-Sâlone (1895)
Arrivée d’un train en gare à La Ciotat (1895)
Partie d’écarté (1895)
Barque sortant du port (1895)
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896)
Bataille de boules de neige (1896)
Pompiers à Lyon (c.1896)
Spanish Bullfight (1900)
Voyage à travers l’impossible (extract) (1904)
Rough Sea at Dover (1895)
Come Along, Do! (1898)
The Derby (1896)
The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901)
A Chess Dispute (1903)
Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903)
Buy Your Own Cherries (1904)
The (?) Motorist (1906)
The Miller and the Sweep (1898)
The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899)
Let Me Dream Again (1900)
Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900)
As Seen Through a Telescope (1900)
Sick Kitten (1903)
Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903)
Daring Daylight Burglary (1903)
Desperate Poaching Affray (1903)
The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899)
Ladies’ Skirts Nailed to a Fence (c.1900)
The Biter Bit (1900)
Rough Sea (c.1900)
Attack on a China Mission (1900)
The Big Swallow (c.1901)
Stop Thief! (1901)
An Interesting Story (1905)
How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900)
Explosions of a Motor Car (1900)
Rescued by Rover (1905)
The Other Side of the Hedge (1905)
That Fatal Sneeze (1907)
A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works (1906)
A Day in the Life of a Coalminer (1910)
Par le trou de la serrure (1901)
Histoire d’un crime (1901)
Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (1905)
Rêve et réalité (1901)
La Révolution en Russie (1905)
Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse (1906)
Le Cheval emballé (1907)
The Physician of the Castle (1908)
Magic Bricks (1908)
Dewar’s – It’s Scotch (1898)
The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)