For those taking up my Century+ Challenge, or who just want to explore the first decade of cinema history, I thought it might be helpful to talk about resources you might turn to in your quest to view early silent films.
The essential films for the period from 1895 to 1909 are generally quite short, ranging from 1 minute to 15 minutes. While I imagine most could be found on YouTube, personally, I hate to watch videos on YouTube. For starters, I try to avoid using Google products whenever possible. Also, it can be a pain to look for dozens of very short films there and the quality of these free versions sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.
Luckily, a number of these films have been collected into various boxed sets for purchase, but also may be available to borrow at your local library or streaming on Kanopy. Note: Kanopy also has a number of standalone silents from the 1910s and 1920s that I haven’t be able to find elsewhere so it will likely come in handy for February and March viewing as well. If you can access Kanopy through your local library or a university account, I highly recommend it. And it’s free! [For more on streaming services, see I Wake Up Streaming.]
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)
For an overview of film history it is hard to beat The Story of Film, a 15-hour documentary by Mark Cousins, which covers a century of cinema in fifteen episodes. The narration style will not be to everyone’s taste, but I appreciate his effort to look at cinema in a broad, inclusive way while also covering key industry developments and major figures. The first episode is the one that most immediately concerns us; it covers the years 1895–1918. The entire DVD set may be available at your local library, but episodes are also available streaming on Hulu and on Kanopy.
The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinema, 1894–1914 (Kino International)
This anthology is perhaps the best set to get if you want a general overview of the various types of films made in the early silent period. It is organized vaguely thematically in five volumes on 5 DVDs of varying lengths from about 60 minutes to 100 minutes.
Volume 1 (Disc 1): The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works includes films by Edwin S. Porter, Thomas A. Edison, Auguste and Louis Lumière, Georges Méliès, and Ferdinand Zecca. Two films on this disc are absolutely essential viewing, namely A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès and The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter. However, these films pop up in a number of collections and are generally easy to find; so, if you watch only one DVD in this set, I’d opt for Volume 2. Beyond the two essentials, other interesting films in this volume are The Kiss (Edison), Transformation by Hats, Comic View (Lumière), The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (Porter), and The Golden Beetle (Pathé). For those interested in glimpses of U.S. cities, there is footage of trains going over the Brooklyn Bridge as well as images of the fires and destruction in the aftermath of San Francisco earthquake. There are also some “blue” movies from American Mutoscope & Biograph, which were essentially mechanized burlesque peep shows.
Volume 2 (Disc 2): The European Pioneers features formative works by the Lumière brothers and key British pioneers, among others. As I note above, if you watch only one DVD in this set, make it this one. This volume has a better selection of Lumière films—including the classics L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), L’Arroseur arrosé (Tables Turned on the Gardener), Repas de bébé (Feeding the Baby), and Sortie d’usine (Workers Leaving the Factory)—as well as the work of R.W. Paul (A Chess Dispute, Extraordinary Cab Accident), G.A. Smith (Mary Jane’s Mishap; or, Don’t Fool with the Paraffin, Sick Kitten) and James Williamson (The Big Swallow, Fire!, Stop Thief!). A word of warning: the brief audio commentary is somewhat frustrating since it is not a separate track and is very hard to hear once the music of the film starts.
Volume 3 (Disc 3): Experimentation and Discovery includes a number of important Pathé Frères films including Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse (Aladin, or the Wonderful Lamp), Ali Baba et les quarantes voleurs (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), Le Cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse), (L’Histoire d’un crime) (History of a Crime), Le Médecin du château (A Narrow Escape), and Par le trou de la serrure (Peeping Tom). These Pathé films represent important benchmarks in the development of film as a narrative form.
Volume 4 (Disc 4): The Magic of Méliès has fifteen fantastic works including La Sirène (The Mermaid), L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune (The Eclipse), Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage), and the documentary Georges Méliès: Cinema Magician. Personally I’m not a huge fan of Méliès overall, but these aren’t even my favorite films of his, so I wouldn’t recommend this volume. Rather, if you like his stuff, get your hands on the Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema or Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color collections listed below.
Volume 5 (Disc 5): Comedy, Spectacle, and New Horizons presents cinematic milestones by Winsor McCay, Max Linder, and Alice Guy-Blaché. However, most of these films are from the 1910s and not of particular interest. One exception is Max Linder’s Vive la vie de garçon (Troubles of a Grass Widower), which I added to my list of essential films once I saw it because it serves as a great example of Linder’s comic style and a perfect companion piece to Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Consequences of Feminism, an essential film in the Gaumont collection below.
Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (Kino Lorber)
A six-disc set that mostly covers the 1910s, including Alice Guy-Blaché’s work in the United States. Key films include Alice Guy-Blaché’s Falling Leaves (1912) and The Ocean Waif (1916), Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913) and Where Are My Children? (1916), and Mabel Normand’s Caught in a Cabaret (1914). Some of the films in this collection can be found on Netflix.
Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology (Flicker Alley)
Another six-disc set, but one that covers a larger time frame than the set above, with twenty-five films spanning the years 1902–1943. Key films include Alice Guy-Blaché’s Falling Leaves (1912) and Making an American Citizen (1912), Lois Weber’s Suspense (1913) and The Blot (1921), Mabel Normand’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Germaine Dulac’s La Cigarette (1919) and La Souriante Mme. Beudet (The Similing Madame Beudet) (1922), three of Lotte Reiniger’s animated films, and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).
French Early Silents
The Lumière Brothers’ First Films (Kino Video)
This is a collection of films that I bought back in my grad school days. I believe it is out of print now and rather expensive, but you may be able to find it at the library. Although you can see the most well-known films in the Movies Begin collection above, or in the collection of twenty Lumière films (Lumière’s First Picture Shows) on Kanopy, this contains eighty-five Lumière films from the years 1895–1897. If you have any interest in photography, I highly recommend seeking this collection out. Coming from a photography background, the Lumière films are all about composition within the frame and some of their most stunning films in this regard are little known, films like Lancement d’un navire (1896), Quai de l’Archevêché (1896), and Laveuses sur la rivière (1897).
Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema 1896–1913 (Flicker Alley)
There are a number of sets that feature the work of Georges Méliès. The most complete is Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema 1896–1913, a five disc set with over 150 films. I borrowed this from my local library. Personally, I find his work very repetitive so I don’t necessarily recommend completism with this set. Focus on the essential films, or stop and check something out when a title takes your fancy. [Side note: I’ve heard many mispronunciations of this name in the past year. The best way to approximate it in English is MELL-YES.]
Disc 1 = 60 films (1896–1901)
My favorite films on this disc are Un homme de tête (The four troublesome heads) (1898), L’Affaire Dreyfus (The Dreyfus Affair) (9 parts) (1899), Cendrillon (Cinderella) (1899), Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) (1900), and Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard) (1901).
Disc 2 = 48 films (1902–1904)
Favorite films on this disc are Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (Gulliver’s Travels among the Lilliputians and the Giants) (1902), Le Mélomane (The Melomaniac) (1903), and Le Bourreau turc (The terrible Turkish Executioner) (1904).
Disc 3 = 25 films (1904–1906)
Key films on this disc are Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage) (1904), Les Cartes vivantes (The Living Playing Cards) (1905), and Le Diable noir (The Black Imp) (1905).
Disc 4 = 30 films (1907–1908)
Key films on this disc are Le Tunnel sous la manche ou Le Cauchemar franco-anglais (Tunneling the English Channel) (1907) and L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune (The Eclipse) (1907).
Disc 5 = 10 films (1908–1913)
Key films on this disc are Le locataire diabolique (The Diabolic Tenant) (1909), Les hallucinations du Baron de Münchausen (Baron Munchausen’s Dream) (1911), À la conquête du pôle (The Conquest of the Pole) (1912), and Cendrillon, ou, La pantoufle merveilleuse (Cinderella) (1912).
Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color (1899–1909) (Blackhawk Films/Flicker Alley)
If you want to get a taste of Méliès at his most glorious, get your hands on this set of newly restored Méliès works in color, including A Trip to the Moon, which was originally released in both black & white and hand-tinted color versions. This set also includes Joan of Arc, Robinson Crusoe, The Impossible Voyage, The Diabolic Tenant, and The Witch. These films have been newly scored and feature English narration based on Méliès’s original narration scripts.
Gaumont Treasures, 1897–1913 (Kino International)
For the work of early pioneer Alice Guy, the first head of production at Gaumont, turn to this three-disc collection, which features her work on the first disc. (Disc 2 covers the work of Louis Feuillade and Disc 3 that of Léonce Perret.) Favorite early Guy films included here are Mrs. Bob Walter, Danse serpentine (Serpentine Dance by Mme. Bob Walter) (1897), Chapellerie et charcuterie automatiques (Automated Hat-Maker and Sausage-Grinder) (1900), Les Fredaines de Pierette (Pierrette’s Escapades) (1900), La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage-Patch Fairy) (1900) (a remake of an earlier lost film), Saharet, Boléro (Saharet Performs the Bolero) (1905), the 35-minute La Naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ) (1906), Une femme collante (A Sticky Woman) (1906), Une histoire roulante (A Story Well Spun) (1906), Le Matelas épeliptique (The Drunken Mattress) (1906), Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906), and Sur la barricade (On the Barricade) (1907). For Guy’s later work, after she moved to the United States with her husband Herbert Blaché, see the Pioneers set above.
American Early Silents
Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films (NFPF)
This set is an anthology of films from American film archives. There are fifty films on 4 discs including silent features, avant-garde works, documentaries and newsreels, cartoons and experimental animation, home movies and travel films, training films from the 1920s and political ads from the 1930s. The most important disc for our purposes is the first one, which includes selected early films from the Edison Company, the western feature Hell’s Hinges (1916), and the horror short The Fall of the House of Usher (1928).
More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894–1931: 50 Films (NFPF)
This set is a second anthology of films from American film archives. There are fifty films on 3 discs including rare silent features, avant-garde shorts, documentaries and newsreels, cartoons and animation, and ethnographic footage. There are also six previews for lost features and serials. Personally, I thought this collection was far more interesting than the previous one. Highlights include the Dickson experimental sound film, The Country Doctor, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Thomas Ince’s The Invaders, Gretchen the Greenhorn, From Leadville to Aspen, The “Teddy” Bears, Gus Visser and his singing duck, Rip Van Winkle, The Life of an American Fireman, Falling Leaves, and Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Lost & Found: American treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (NFPF)
This collection is presented on 1 disc and includes lost works not seen in decades and a variety of industrial films, news stories, cartoons, travelogues, serial episodes, previews, and comedies. Highlights include the short films Lyman H. Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921) and Mabel Normand’s Won in a Cupboard (1914), a 60-minute feature by John Ford entitled Upstream (1927), and The White Shadow (1923), an uncredited Alfred Hitchcock film.
Edison: The Invention of the Movies (Kino Video)
For more Edison films than you may know what to do with, this collection, put out by Kino International, contains all 140 complete films produced by the Edison Company between 1889 and 1918 on 4 discs. All films have been restored and re-mastered with new musical scores. Highlights include the Edison kinetoscopic record of a sneeze, the Dickson experimental sound film, the John C. Rice-May Irwin kiss, and Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery.
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941 (Image)
A mammoth seven-disc collection that contains 155 avant-garde films of American filmmakers working in the United States and abroad. A scattershot collection that includes a lot of documentary and experimental footage. Each disc is broken up into multiple playlists for viewing on Kanopy.
Disc 1. The mechanized eye: experiments in technique and form
Disc 2. The devil’s plaything: American surrealism
Disc 3. Light rhythms: music and abstraction
Disc 4. Inverted narratives: new directions in storytelling
Disc 5. Picturing a metropolis: New York City unveiled
Disc 6. The amateur as auteur: discovering paradise in pictures
Disc 7. Viva la dance: the beginnings of cine-dance
Griffith Masterworks (Kino Video)
A seven DVD set that includes four feature films (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm) as well as twenty-three of Griffith’s Biograph shorts, made from 1909 to 1913. The shorts can also be found on Kanopy in two volumes under the heading D.W. Griffith: Years of Discovery 1909–1913 from Flicker Alley.
Finally, if you want to see some comic shorts, I recommend Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies (1916–1917) from Blackhawk Films/Flicker Alley, which includes The Immigrant, The Rink, and One A.M., among others, and Kino Lorber’s Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917–1923 or The Art of Buster Keaton, which includes eleven features and twenty-one shorts.
[ETA: I have since found and watched a number of works in the Chaplin at Keystone collection, which includes films directed by both Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett. I highly recommend that collection if you want to see Chaplin’s earliest film work and first appearance of The Tramp on screen.]
Well, that should tide you over for some time, or at least until a week from today, when I summarize the years 1895–1909 and see who managed to complete my Century+ January challenge.