'A Christmas Past' on DVD serves up yuletide treats

Charles Dickens inspired countless tale-tellers with his legendary "Christmas Carol" ghosts of yuletides past, present, and future. Friendly spirits of the cinematic variety are represented on a charming new DVD release called "A Christmas Past."

At a time when many viewers use the phrase "old movie" to mean any picture made before "Jaws," it's important to remember that the art of film has been with us for more than a century.

One of film's founding figures was inventor Thomas A. Edison, who produced movies in a New Jersey studio built with a hole in the ceiling so the sun could shine through. Short and simple when compared with later films, these pioneering efforts are at once works of art and relics of a bygone era.

Audiences loved Christmas as much then as they do now, and Edison's associates recognized the holiday's entertainment value. Among the results were early adaptations of The Night Before Christmas, made in 1905, and A Christmas Carol, made five years later. Both were directed by Edwin S. Porter, whose classics "The Great Train Robbery" and "The Life of an American Fireman" are still enthusiastically studied by film buffs. Both holiday gems are included in "A Christmas Past," as is A Winter Straw Ride, directed by Porter in 1906.

Edison liked comedy as well as sentiment, so it's not surprising to find a novelty film like The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus snuggled alongside the DVD's more recognizable offerings. A Christmas Accident also hails from the Edison studio, as does the tantalizingly titled Santa Claus vs. Cupid, directed by Alan Crosland in 1915.

That's the same year D.W. Griffith released his notorious "Birth of a Nation." Griffith, the most influential of all silent filmmakers, finds his way into "A Christmas Past" with the rambunctious comedy A Trap for Santa, photographed by the great G.W. Bitzer, his longtime collaborator.

Rounding out the collection are A Holiday Pageant at Home, made by an unknown studio in 1901, and the crisply named Santa Claus, produced in 1925, just as sound cinema was making its first tentative noises.

"A Christmas Past" was assembled by Kino, an exceptional company with a superb record of reissuing old movies (as well as contemporary independent and international films) that might otherwise go unseen and unsung by audiences today. In keeping with its meticulous approach, it has digitally mastered the movies from original 35-mm materials, and it has commissioned a musical score by composer Al Kryszak to accompany the show.

And you thought silent movies were only for students and specialists? Give this DVD a try (it's available on videocassette as well), and enjoy a new kind of old-fashioned holiday treat.

Kino's website is www.kino.com.

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