As you were compiling these 140 films into a single collection, what were the biggest surprises that you discovered about Edison’s films? ^ The greatest satisfaction in preparing the DVDs was knowing that this is the first time a great number of the Edison films have ever been assembled in chronological order. Even at archival screenings, the films are grouped on reels in different ways (depending on the source of the print), so no one has ever been able to view the films in their proper sequence. We are thus able to witness not just the evolution of the Edison Studio’s films, but the formation of screen language… from the most basic single-shot spectacles (depicting the illusion of movement) to a much more sophisticated method of storytelling (such as “The Great Train Robbery”).
The greatest surprise were some of the unconventional films of the 1910s, such as the grim docudrama “The Public and Private Care of Infants” (1912), films that have been virtually unseen for 90 years. I was also amazed to find some pretty sophisticated camerawork in the same period: a very subtle dolly shot in “The House of Cards” (1909) and a much more striking dolly shot (combined with a dissolve) in “The Passer-By” (1912). The most amazing was “Pan American Exposition by Night” (1901), which combines time lapse photography with a pan and a dissolve. The Edison films really pushed the limits of technology, even if they did not appear to be as artful as some of their competitors.
Edison was experimenting with sound films as far back as 1895, but he never successfully achieved the union of sound and visuals. Why did he stop his experiments in sound films Â was it the lack of demand by audiences for talking pictures or was it the technological complications of putting sound into movies? ^ In my opinion, Edison’s experiments with sound did not continue beyond the primitive stage because they did not have the technological sophistication to make it work on a mass scale. Yes, they could photograph a short film with synchronized sound, but the greater difficulty was showing it.
Edison’s staff of inventors in the 1890s couldn’t devise a reliable method by which the sound could be synchronized during exhibition… in dozens of screenings at hundreds of theatres, or being run hundreds of times in a Kinetoscope parlor.
Edison left the film industry in 1918, at a time when the Hollywood infrastructure was beginning to solidify. Between that time and his death in 1931, did he ever express regret for not continuing his involvement in film production? ^ The impression I get is that Edison was so frustrated by the film industry that he was glad to get out… and stay out. He had a mechanical mind, and thought of film as a commodity that is manufactured for sale and rental. He never seemed to be comfortable with the idea of cinema as an intuitive art form. And he was frustrated by the audience’s changing tastes. He knew how to defeat the competition in the lightbulb market, because it is determined by price and quantity of light… two very clearly defined values. But how do you quantify aesthetics? What makes a Biograph film better than an Edison film? That’s something Edison couldn’t wrap his mind around, and it is something that challenges producers just as much today.
At the risk of being callous, many of EdisonÂ¹s films from the 1900s seemed stodgy and unimaginative when compared to the work of French filmmaker Georges Melies. How did Edison view Melies’ films, and what did he think of the French filmmaker himself? ^ I think the best analogy for understanding Edison films is found in the automobile industry. Edison was friends with Henry Ford, and shared a lot of the car-maker’s philosophies and practices. Ford of course didn’t make his own cars, nor did Edison make his own films. He was just a figurehead… a brand name. The Ford Motor Company mass-produced solid, reliable cars. The cars were not glamorous but were instead utilitarian. They do not exhibit signs of individual craftsmanship, but they worked. Similarly, Edison’s films don’t show much evidence of the personality of the filmmakers. They look like they were manufactured on an assembly line, like Model T’s. Melies’ films, however, like a custom imported car, clearly exhibit the personality of the filmmaker. They are unique and charming in a way that the mass-produced American version is not.
It is interesting to compare a Melies film to a Melies-inspired film made at the Edison studio, such as “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” (1906). Director Edwin S. Porter captured some of the chaos of a Melies film and integrated lots of special effects, but it is never quite as graceful as the hyper-energetic Melies films.
One consistent problem with Edison’s films is that they are never very humorous or playful — even the comedies. And I think this may have to do with the kind of men Edison liked having on his staff. He seems to favor the man’s man… and this is clear in the male-oriented subject matter of his earliest works, which were more appropriate to a Bowery barroom than a European movie parlor. I can’t imagine an Ernst Lubitsch film coming from the Edison studios.
The most famous Edison film not in your collection is the 1910 version of “Frankenstein,” of which a single extant print resides with an elusive private collector. Did you make any attempt to get “Frankenstein” for the Kino collection? And what other existing Edison films were unavailable for inclusion? ^ We’ve pursued “Frankenstein” in the past but without success. During the preparation of this collection we actually located a second print in the hands of another collector but had no better luck in prying it out of his vault. So that film will have to stay buried. I would like to have included an early synchronized sound film, such as “Nursery Favorites” (1913), but we quickly realized if we started chasing down every significant Edison film that exists, the size of the boxed set would spiral out of control. So we decided to limit the collection to films from the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress… and not claim that we had every important Edison film.
On the flip side of the previous question, how many of Edison’s films are believed to be lost? And what are some of the most intriguing titles which are still missing? ^ I would be afraid to hazard a guess as to what percentage of Edison films survive today. As for intriguing lost films, I would love to have seen more of the lowbrow early films, such as “Rat Killing”(1894), “Opium Den” (1894), and “Dog Fight”(1894). We have a fair number of these films, but I am endlessly fascinated by them and can’t help wanting more. Like a film version of Luc Sante’s book “Low Life,” these kinetoscopes offer a fascinating glimpse into lowbrow urban pop culture at the turn of the century: sex, death, crime and bloodsports. This is the seed from which American cinema sprang, like it or not.
What is your next silent film project for Kino? ^ I’m currently completing a two-disc (seven hour) collection called “Avant Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s.” These are films from the archives of Raymond Rohauer, who was the nation’s foremost collector of early experimental film. It includes work by Man Ray, Watson and Weber, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein, Joris Ivens, Orson Welles, and many others.
Posted on March 30, 2005 in Interviews by Phil Hall
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- BRET WOOD: IN SEARCH OF CINEMATIC EDISON
- GEORGE MELIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA (1896-1913) (DVD)
- FILM ARCHIVIST, ALOIS F. DETTLAFF, PASSES AWAY AT 84
- IN SEARCH OF EDISON’S “FRANKENSTEIN”
- KEEPING EDISON’S “FRANKENSTEIN” ALIVE
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