Pratt Gives Visitors the Silent Treatment

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By Tom Warner

2012 has been a banner year for celebrating the early days of motion pictures: Michel Hazanavicius’s black-and-white silent film, The Artist, won five Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor). Martin Scorcese’s film Hugo, adapted from David Selznick’s award-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Chabret, also received Oscar nods. Both are great films that are now available on DVD.

But what of the films and filmmakers to whom they pay tribute? In today’s world of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, The Artist is the exception to the rule. Other than a small niche of cinema aficionados, the public has largely given silent films the silent treatment.

Not so at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where our Sights and Sounds Department boasts two outstanding documentary series examining silent films and the early days of cinema: Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood and When the Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinema 1894-1913.

Cinema Europe 130pxCinema Europe: The Other Hollywood
Cinema Europe is an extremely rare six-part series chronicling the birth and rise of European cinema during the silent era. The three-volume VHS edition of this exceptional series is available for checkout. Produced by British film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, each of its six parts highlight a theme and a country (France, Sweden, Britain, Germany, Denmark) to show the enormous contributions they made to cinema in the early days of the movie industry.

Viewers are treated to a smorgasbord of footage from early movies, including the work of Abel Gance, Afred Hitchcock, Max Linder, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, and G. W. Pabst, along with interviews with film pioneers and luminaries. As critic Sean Axmaker comments,

Cinema Europe "captures a vital period when films readily crossed borders and distinct national cinema styles flourished. It was a cinematic garden in full bloom and it cross-pollinated through ambitious and inspired filmmakers around the world. When the lure of Hollywood and the rise of fascism pulled much the talent from Europe and the coming of sound created new language barriers, the garden went into a frosty winter."

Magic of Melies 130pxThe Movies Begin
Pratt’s video collection also includes Kino Lorber’s The Movies Begin, a survey of cinema’s earliest landmarks and rarities from 1893-1913. Produced by Film Preservation Associates and the British Film Institute, the 133 complete motion pictures are spread over five videos, with one dedicated solely to Hugo inspiration George Melies. The series titles include: The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works (covering 1893-1907); Comedy,Spectacle, and New Horizons (1893-1913); The European Pioneers (1895-1906); Experimentation and Discovery; and The Magic of Melies (1904-1908), featuring 15 works by cinema's first special effects wizard plus the documentary George Melies: Cinema Magician.

What blows my mind is that an estimated 90% of silent films from the 1890s-1920s are presumed lost or destroyed. Films used to be made from nitrocellulose, a material very conducive to fire/explosion. Or it was made of silver nitrate. Both have a quick rate of degradation. So we do not even have access to the full extent of our filmic roots, which is really too bad. So much history lost. It makes you wonder how much of the media we produce now will be around in 100+ years. What about 1000? Especially with the increased access to and lower cost of the means to create media. Plus the immediacy. I highly recommend people check out silent films. My favorites are Chaplin movies like The Circus, The Kid, and City Lights. Additionally, I've always wanted to see Napoleon on the three simultaneous screens. Maybe one day. Here is a list of (presumed) lost films:
Posted by: Ryan at 6/15/2012 10:11 a.m.

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