Take a Home-Video Tour of Cinema's Early Years
Among the many credits of film historian Charles Musser is the program booklet for ''The Movies Begin,'' an excellent British Film Institute series released by Kino Video. The package of five cassettes provides an entertaining and informative home-video tour of cinema's earliest years.
The first cassette, ''Landmarks of Early Film,'' delves into the prehistory of cinema, showing serial photographs by Eadweard Muybridge and some of Thomas Edison's peephole ''kinetoscope'' movies, including a ''Serpentine Dance'' shot in the inventor's famous Black Maria studio. These are followed by such landmark films as ''Swimming in the Sea'' by the Lumiere brothers, ''A Trip to the Moon'' by Georges Melies, and ''The Great Train Robbery'' by Edwin S. Porter, plus movies from Pathe Freres, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and others.
The second volume, ''The European Pioneers,'' begins with such Lumiere classics as ''The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat'' and ''The Sprinkler Sprinkled,'' among many others. Then come important works by such innovators as George Albert Smith, including the special-effects film ''Grandma's Looking Glass,'' and James Williamson's Kinematograph Company, including ''The Big Swallow,'' a 1901 comedy in which the star appears to swallow the camera.
''Primitives and Pioneers,'' the third cassette, features such titles as ''How It Feels to be Run Over,'' directed by Cecil Hepworth in 1900, and ''History of a Crime,'' directed by Ferdinand Zecca a year later. ''The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend'' brings a once-popular comic strip to the screen, while ''Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves'' is one of several films containing color effects.
Of particular interest is ''A Day in the Life of a Coalminer,'' made in 1910 by the Kineto Production Company, which shows the exhaustingly difficult routine of mine laborers - followed by a scene of a pampered middle-class family enjoying a toasty fire in their spacious living room, a far cry from anything the overworked miners are likely to have.
The fourth cassette, ''The Magic of Melies,'' focuses entirely on the French master whose camera tricks and scenic designs produced a huge number of fantasies ranging from ''The Untamable Whiskers'' and ''The Wonderful Living Fan'' to ''Good Glue Sticks'' and ''An Impossible Voyage.''
''Comedy, Spectacle and New Horizons,'' the final volume, introduces such key figures as comedian Max Linder, producer Leon Gaumont, animator Winsor McCay, and directors Alice Guy Blache - a woman prominent in cinema as early as 1910 - and D.W. Griffith, perhaps the most influential filmmaker of all time.
The series is flawed in some respects. Narrations added to some films are unnecessary and distracting; the Muybridge photos are presented with an inappropriately movie-like speed; and one wishes more hand-tinted prints were included. In all, however, this is a first-rate introduction to a fascinating area of cinema history.