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Saved From the Flames

Three discs; Flicker Alley; $49.99

By Michael S. Gant

This seven-hour collection begins with the sad fact that for about half of its history, cinema was recorded on volatile nitrate stock. As many as eight out of 10 early films are lost, irretrievable. Luckily, thanks to obsessive collectors and outfits like Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films, something of our recorded past has been salvaged, and even restored, thanks to advances in digital technology. This Flicker Alley set presents 54 short films made from 1896–1944, and they only whet one's appetite for whatever other treasures remain to be rescued. Many early clips are valuable simply because they open a window onto mundane life a century ago: workers mill around a factory, casting curious glances at Lumière's candid camera in 1896; intrepid motorists drive and drag their cars from San Francisco to Reno in 1915. Early filmmakers delighted in the sleight-of-hand effects of their new art: Georges Méliès enhances his own magic act with editing tricks; the astonishing 1911 Automatic Moving Company presents furniture scuttling out of a moving van and into a new house all by itself in stop-motion animation—done, according to the accompanying booklet, with doll-house furniture, although the illusion is nearly perfect. Also included are experiments with synchronized sound (a scene from Cyrano de Bergerac) and wonderful, labor-intensive hand-coloring—the best example is The Talion Punishment, a fantasy about human/butterfly hybrids who taunt a lepidopterist. Some familiar faces show up: Charlie Chaplin, donning his tramp suit for the first time, wanders into the path of speeding cars in 1914's Kid's Auto Race; Stan Laurel mugs in The Pest, a 1922 short about a door-to-door salesman. The sound entries range from French theater ads for Week-End cigarettes with Fernandel and Tati to an amazing industrial documentary about a Chevrolet factory in which unsung cinematography great George Avil creates a symphony of images from spinning gears and stamping machines. My favorite, however, is Play Safe, a Fleischer Studios cartoon from 1936 using gorgeous early three-color Technicolor and mixing 2-D characters with 3-D sets. In seven minutes, a plucky kid moves from playing with toy trains to racing along with anthropomorphized streamliners. It beats Polar Express hands down.

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