EARLY CINEMA - PIONEERS AND PRIMITIVES
Region 2 (UK) Edition
Reviewed by Mark Aldridge
George Méliès, George Albert Smith, Cecil Hepworth, etc.
It is a shame, although perhaps not too
much of a surprise, that it has taken until now for there to be a release
of the important films of cinema’s earliest period in the UK. From the
one-shot actuality of 1895’s Sortie d’usine (commonly known in
English as the rather unsnappy Workers Leaving the Factory) to
George Méliès’ more ambitious efforts (albeit only in brief – more of
which later) and the ubiquitous narrative of Rescued by Rover this
collection comprises some of the most important shorts from cinema’s early
years, 1895 to 1910.
The back of the case notes that these discs
could be of interest to film students and teachers, and it is certainly
the case that this set is an excellent overview of a period which should
be essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of moving
pictures. The serious film scholar will already have the films on these
discs and more, but for those who want just a snapshot of cinema’s first
fifteen years or so the selection of films here is generally very good.
They include examples of early trick photography and editing, as well as
some early hand coloured footage. Not all the films are complete however
(although most are) and it is sometimes unclear which version of a
particular film is included. Many films, including Rescued by Rover,
were remade several times because the original negatives were damaged,
often as a result of the large number of prints made, and other compilations have
used later versions. It is not completely clear that all of these are
originals, but that is certainly the intimation.
Unfortunately, one of the people who best
demonstrated early cinema’s versatility is largely missing from this
collection. George Méliès is one of early cinema’s most famous pioneers,
with films such as Voyage dans la Lune and yet is only represented
here by a very short extract from Voyage à travers l’impossible. A
half-hearted acknowledgement of this omission is given in the booklet
(‘Unfortunately, we have been unable to include the Méliès titles that we
would have wished’) with no further explanation. This is disappointing and
it is difficult to understand why such an exemption would be forced on the
DVD, except for the possibility that such films are being saved for a
separate Méliès collection. The BFI are not renowned for packing their
discs with material, and their release of the BBC’s Ghost Story for
Christmas films demonstrates their willingness to sell titles
separately if at all possible.
BFI DVD have a rather mixed track record
when it comes to releasing films. While they often release worthy titles
they are rarely the definitive versions, with transfers often being
unimpressive (such as in the case of Rashomon, to use one example)
and extras ranging from the brief but useful and informative to the
non-existent while all the time keeping to an RRP of £19.99 – rather steep
in comparison to other releases of similar (or sometimes identical!)
archive material. I am pleased, then, that this two-disc set delivers good
value for money. This must be in part due to the fact that films of this
age are out of copyright (so no hefty fees to be paid). The case states
that the films have been restored, and I don’t know if this is actually
the case (I suspect that they are straight transfers of the VHS masters
which used the same commentary and films), but even if it is not there is
no cause for concern as the films are generally in remarkably good
condition. The bitrate is very high, justifying the use of one DVD5 and
one DVD9, with disc one at 8.77Mb/sec and disc two at 8.96Mb/sec. I could
detect no sign of compression artefacts. The layer change on the second
disc appears to take place between films.
I must confess to having seen most of the
films before in the Region 1 set The Movies Begin, and don’t recall
those prints being any better than those on these two discs. The films are
all windowboxed (black borders on all four sides), giving the maximum
possible frame exposure (indeed, film perforation holes are sometimes
visible, as in the case of The (?) Motorist (sic) and, thankfully,
all seem to run at the correct speed. The films are presented by studio,
and then in chronological order. Each disc has a Play All option, along
with the ability to choose the commentary, a PCM two-channel soundtrack or
a Dolby Digital 5.0 mix of the new scores.
Films of this vintage did not have an
‘original’ score, and so the music is necessarily new. The three pianists
are all well known amongst silent film aficionados, being Stephen Horne,
John Sweeney and the excellent Neil Brand. I have not yet had the chance
to listen to the music in 5.0 (which seems a rather odd inclusion for a
soundtrack that uses a single piano throughout), but the score is the same
whichever option is chosen, and I can testify that it is sympathetic to
the source material and is preferable to the films being presented
silently as they have been elsewhere.
The other soundtrack is a commentary, by
Barry Salt and delivered by Michael Garland. For some reason, this quite
considerable extra is not even mentioned on the packaging or the booklet,
and is buried within the Set-Up menu. Informative and interesting, Salt’s
comments are not on every film but provide a good background and idea of
historical importance for those in which they are present. I also applaud
the BFI’s inclusion of subtitles for the commentary – a very welcome move,
especially as the BBC have similarly just dropped this element on their
own releases. The other most noteworthy extra is the 20-page booklet
included with the release, which gives a short paragraph on each film’s
background in a similar way to the commentary but sometimes gives new
information and is a useful guide when trying to find a specific short.
I am not usually one to comment on menus,
but final word on content must go to these extremely basic screens which
look like they have been put together by someone who has five minutes
until the disc has to go to press. They are, at least, unfussy to say the
least and easy to use but it would have been nice to have had something
rather more stylish. This is a very minor quibble.
What we have here
is a set that is less comprehensive than North America’s five-disc The
Movies Begin release but which, my subjective memory informs me, does
offer easier navigation and better picture quality. Also, with online
retailers offering the set for as little as £12.99 (compared to a minimum
of £45 for The Movies Begin) there really is no reason not to buy.
I just hope that a Méliès set is forthcoming to try and redress the
balance, although with three hours spread over two discs there would have
been room for inclusion of at least one full film here.
uniformity, some of the screen grabs have been cropped slightly.