Edison: the Invention of the Movies (1890-1918)

It’s a much-debated question, “who invented motion pictures?”, and let’s not go into it now. But it’s also a debated question just how far Thomas Edison was responsible at his end of the equation for the many things he took credit for (including the wholesale invention of the artform). Still, let’s be charitable and call him at least the first commercial exploiter of the new technology, that’s hard to deny him. Anyway, the great thing about DVD sets like this is the history-in-a-box convenience of them; here, over four discs, you get a pretty amazing insight into the earliest days of cinema and its evolution. Needless to say, it’s a one-sided view (I’m sure similar sets covering the Biograph studios and the Lumieres and other pioneers would balance things out) but as long as you remember that it’s all good.

Obviously with 3-4 hours of material on each of the four discs, there’s an awful lot to take in, hence why I’ve actually been watching this one disc every couple of weeks or so since January; I wanted to wait until I’d finished it all (which I finally did this evening) before covering it here. I found discs one and two probably the most interesting, covering the earliest experiments up to about 1906. From the first disc it becomes obvious that fires were a curiously popular subject, Life of an American Fireman being only one of a number of variations on the theme. On disc 2, I could feel myself gradually growing stunned by the number of comic chases on offer; by the time one broke out in the last film, I was fully expecting “Yakety Sax” to accompany it. The other two discs were, to be honest, a harder slog; Edison were settling into something of a routine with not as much experimentation going on, and by 1908 (around which time there’s a big gap in the collection, with not many films surviving from mid 08-late 09) they were already acquiring a reputation for being old-fashioned. The company were late in producing their first feature-length films, and by March 1918 it was all over. As one of the historians on the disc says near the end, Tommy Alva was more interested in selling the hardware than the software, and only seems to have cared about the films to the extent that they reflected glory or otherwise upon his brand.

The discs come with a wealth of interview material, which struck me as particularly useful on disc one to try and put some of these very short items into context; the on-screen text notes are handy as well. Though I did feel it didn’t always cover well some aspects of the history, such as why exactly W.K.L. Dickson (who was vital to the early days of filmmaking; apparently he decided upon the 35mm standard gauge) left the company, and Edison’s activities with the Motion Picture Patents Company and the way they arguably eventually triggered Edison’s own demise by driving rebel competitors out west to California, where sprang forth new companies that, by the end of the 10s, would pretty much wipe out all the older studios. And I found it odd that nothing was said about one particular film, the 1897 Fifth Avenue, New York. It has three shots in it. When you’ve just watched a few dozen single-shot films, an honest-to-god/dess cut like that is actually kind of stunning when you’re not expecting it.

Genre-wise, the set runs the gamut from those early actualities and Black Maria re-enactments through westerns, comedies, melodramas, documentaries, trick films, stage adaptations, and—just to remind you how long Edison lasted—WW1 propaganda. Quality-wise, the prints used run a similar gamut of fairly fresh to badly damaged (one film is nearly unwatchable and I’m damned if I understand why it was included), and I presume the film selection amounts to a fair sample… alas that the famous 1910 Frankenstein is absent (problems with the clown Al Detlaff?), but The Great Train Robbery is here, at the end of the first disc like a triumphant culmination of those early years. Years ago I did David Stratton’s film history course with the Centre For Continuing Education, and the biggest lesson I learned from that was the importance of being able to put films in their context; when you see The Birth of a Nation after four sessions of shorts, you suddenly understand its impact in 1915 a lot better. Similarly, seeing Great Train Robbery in this set makes you understand why it was such a hit in 1903, and why it’s still regarded (with good reason) as one of the best products of that first decade of a new art form.

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