A savvy look at when movies were young

'The Movies Begin," a handsome new DVD set from Kino International, has a tantalizing title. When did movies begin, anyway?

Many experts say the magic year was 1895. That's when Louis and Auguste Lumière rented a Paris cafe just after Christmas and projected a batch of minute-long documentaries - called "actualities" at the time - for a roomful of eager viewers.

But was this really the first picture show? Surely the Lumières had tested their projector in advance with private screenings for family and friends. Scientists and inventors had been toying with motion-picture gizmos for at least a couple of years. And the American technology wizard Thomas Alva Edison had set up single-viewer peephole machines in penny arcades and amusement palaces.

So what the Lumière brothers really accomplished in 1895 wasn't the birth of moving pictures. More accurately, it was the advent of audiences willing to pay good money for flickering images on a screen - and the francs collected in that Paris cafe added up to the first box-office bonanza in film history.

The momentum of movies hasn't let up since. Yet unlike the admirers of other art forms, cinema fans often neglect the history and heritage of theirs. Think how often the phrase "old movie" refers to something made before 1950 or thereabouts - which I'd recognize as middle-aged, maybe, but hardly crumbling with age. Silent films seem even more irrelevant to most viewers, as if some of today's cutting-edge music videos weren't eerily similar, right down to their offbeat images and nonstop music tracks.

All this is well known to David Shepard and Heather Stewart, who assembled the "Movies Begin" collection. Savvy lovers of early film, they go back to 1877 in their hunt for cinema's elusive start. That's when Eadweard Muybridge was developing his "serial photography" system, setting up multiple still cameras to capture moving objects in a succession of side-by-side photos.

Also included are movies from Edison's famous "Black Maria" studio in New Jersey, a tarpaper-covered building set on a revolving foundation so sunlight could flood in all day.

Cinema? Not exactly, since Muybridge made glorified snapshots and Edison expected his snippets to be viewed by one person at a time. The movies picked up steam when the Lumières started shooting in the middle 1890s, first in Paris, then farther afield in Europe, and later in diverse locations around the globe.

Some historians report spectators running for the exit when the brothers' unprecedented "Arrival of a Train in the Station at La Ciotat" flashed onto the screen, with its crisply shot image of a locomotive heading straight toward the audience. Others say this story is apocryphal, but its persistence as a cinematic legend illustrates the spellbinding sway moving pictures held over early viewers.

Film made another leap when French entertainer Georges Méliès added motion pictures to his magic act, and discovered one of cinema's first special effects: By stopping and restarting his camera in the middle of a shot, he created the illusion of instant transformations - from an actor to a puff of smoke, for instance, as in "A Trip to the Moon," the 1902 classic that introduced science fiction to the screen. "The Movies Begin" includes a lively documentary about this audience-pleasing fantasist, along with many of his films, among which is "An Impossible Voyage," painstakingly hand-colored in Méliès's studio.

The names I've mentioned are recognized giants of early film, but one of the most valuable contributions of "The Movies Begin" is its inclusion of less-famous figures like R.W. Paul and Cecil Hepworth, whose 1900 comedy "How It Feels To Be Run Over" shows how filmmakers exploited the camera's ability to generate high-impact thrills.

If you thought provocative subjects were a recent development on the screen, check out the Pathé Frères' 1901 "Peeping Tom" or Edwin S. Porter's 1906 "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend."

Eventually, the movies learned to tell full-fledged stories, and Kino's collection winds up with impressive early steps in that direction, such as "The Making of an American Citizen," by French director Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneering female filmmaker.

And, of course, the explosively gifted D.W. Griffith makes an appearance. His action-filled adventure "The Girl and Her Trust" was produced in 1912, just three years before his racially muddled epic "The Birth of a Nation" raised cinematic brilliance - and scandal - to the highest levels they had ever reached.

Don't think watching "The Movies Begin" means squinting at scratchy, faded pictures. Many of the films suffer from decay because of improper preservation. But the producers have tracked down high-quality prints wherever possible.

More than 130 titles are on view, including 13 not found on an earlier videocassette edition of the series. Each disc also includes commentary by Charles Musser, a leading authority on early cinema. It's hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to put film history at your fingertips.

• 'The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinema 1894-1913' is available as five DVDs or five videocassettes from Kino International, www.kino.com.

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