Trove of early movies tantalizes film buffs

Mention film history and most people think of movies they grew up with - maybe "Gone With the Wind" or "Casablanca" for older folks, "Rocky" or "Jaws" for the next generation, "Jurassic Park" or "Toy Story" for young viewers. Whatever comes to mind, it will almost certainly be a feature film, meaning it has a story and lasts more than an hour.

But before there was David O. Selznick, Michael Curtiz, or Steven Spielberg, audiences thrilled to movies that lasted a minute at most and were made by the likes of ... Thomas Edison?

That's right, the inventor of phonographs and electric lights also helped devise the art of moving pictures in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not that he saw them as an art. They were strictly business for him, and instead of crafting larger-than-life images for a big screen, he first made and marketed his movies for peep-hole viewing by one person at a time.

Later he joined the rush to theatrical films, but after a failed attempt to control the field via patent law, he largely lost interest. He and his film-producing company made more than one comeback during 30 years of activity, but deep down Edison suspected movies had a limited future.

He was wildly wrong, of course, but that doesn't diminish the fascination of his movies - including the early ones, made in a modest New Jersey building with tar paper on the walls, a sunroof in the ceiling, and a revolving stage to catch sunbeams all day long.

Now you can see his works, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Library of Congress, and Kino Video, which have jointly released "Edison: The Invention of the Movies," a set of four DVDs with everything from Edison's early camera tests in 1889 to his last picture, "The Unbeliever," of 1918.

Between these you'll find (among other things) cinema's first western, "The Great Train Robbery," special-effects extravaganzas like "The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend," footage of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and "Rescued From an Eagle's Nest," starring future director D.W. Griffith, often called the founder of modern moviemaking.

Historically important films are making great strides in the DVD world, stretching home video way beyond a means of seeing movies you missed at the multiplex.

Cinema is the only art that admirers can trace to its very beginnings, since those beginnings were just an eye-blink ago compared with those of, say, music or painting. While many films have decayed through careless storage or have been discarded by heedless distributors, many others have been preserved and restored for posterity.

Kino is a leader in historical DVDs, but it is not alone. The Criterion Collection, known for its technical excellence, offers comedies by W.C. Fields and classics by Sergei Eisenstein, for example.

Another key company is Milestone Films, which won a special achievement award from the New York Film Critics Circle earlier this year.

Among its discoveries you'll find such conspicuously exotic fare as "Legong: Dance of the Virgins," a moony 1935 melodrama shot in Bali by Henry de la Falaise, who used early Technicolor to enhance his movie's documentary-like authenticity. You'll find similar hues in Milestone's release of "The Phantom of the Opera" in its original 1929 version with Lon Chaney, but you don't need color to enjoy the exuberant "Piccadilly," a black-and-white gem of 1929 starring Anna May Wong.

Special mention also goes to Milestone's recent offering "White Thunder," centering on filmmaker Varick Frissell, who sailed from Newfoundland in 1931 to shoot the last scenes of a movie about seal hunting - but died with 26 others when their ship was devastated by an explosion at sea. This release includes such '20s and '30s films by Frissell as "The Viking" and "The Lure of Labrador," plus a 2002 documentary by Victoria King about the ocean disaster.

Not all DVD distributors take consistent care in restoring historic movies, so it's best to shop alertly, dealing as much as possible with leaders in the field.

You'll find plenty to keep you busy.

Coming releases from Milestone include "Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell & Kenyon," taken from a trove of rediscovered movies documenting British life in the early 20th century.

Kino, meanwhile, is on a roll. Among its new releases are the first three movies starring singer-dancer-actress Josephine Baker, including "Princess Tam Tam," a Jazz Age musical comedy that's as entertaining as it is revealing about racial attitudes in 1935 (Ms. Baker was black). And an 11-disc set, "The Art of Buster Keaton," contains no fewer than 1,300 minutes of the most inventive of the silent-era clowns.

Also from Kino is an invaluable two-disc set called "Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s," containing films by everyone from Orson Welles and Man Ray to Fernand L├ęger and Marcel Duchamp.

Few of these movies tell stories, preferring a poetic approach meant to test the limits of what cinema can do. It's perfect viewing for adventurous DVD fans.

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