THE KINETOPHONE: A FACT! A REALITY! – A DVD Review by John Strange
I love silent films. Before you question that statement here, I have to say that these films, though they have sound, are from the mid-silent era. The inventor, Thomas A. Edison, was obsessed with improving his inventions and getting the most out of his patents. With other people building cameras to make the silent films, I have to imagine that the man decided to create the "Holy Grail" of filmmaking of that day, SOUND aligned with the image.
The how is perhaps the most interesting and at the same time, the methods downfall. Edison married two inventions together, the kinetoscope and the sound recording cylinder phonograph. The difficulties were legion. First, you must find a way to sync the two recording methods. The second difficulty is that the sound cylinders can only hold SIX MINUTES maximum. Retakes require a new cylinder. AND the cylinders are made of wax so heat is the filmmaker's enemy.
The films were a nightmare to show as well. Technical issues caused be the very complicated syncing method made for constant loss of the sound and image sync. It is not at all surprising that the product's use didn't last long.
The films that the team of restorers give us here have an interesting sound quality due to the use of horns (like those on early phonographs) that were suspended above the action in an attempt to capture the voices and other sounds. They are all six minutes in length which made for easy watching. As the camera and sound recorder cannot move, the scenes don't have any location changes though the actors can move about in the space.
I was totally blown away by the film The Deaf Mute. They were able to make this film outdoors! Interesting point, see if you see the line at the front of the group put there to make sure the people would be positioned properly!
Next on my favorites list is Musical Blacksmiths as the songs are well done and it is visually interesting. It is set in a barn and the singers are going through the motions of shoeing the horses in the shot. These men appear in several of the films. Their harmonizing is wonderful.
I need to note before you watch it that one of the films, The Edison Minstrels, contains the use of blackface on two of the singers. Taken from the title card placed before the film by the producers of the DVD: "The Edison Minstrels – like the other films on this DVD – is one of only eight surviving Kinetophones whose picture and sound elements survive, and is included here as a historical and cultural artifact of its time, the year 1913."
The first film on the DVD, is The Edison Kinetophone, one of the few films to survive from the New York premiere of February 17, 1913. That alone makes it worth watching but the info given is also interesting. It is only three minutes as that is all of the sound that they could come up with for it.
The two bonus pieces are good but the first one is a history of the Kinetophone and is listed under the DVD's Menu as "history". George Willeman is the Nitrate Film Vault Manager at the Library of Congress' Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia. His presentation is very well done. Make sure you spend the 25 minutes to watch it. It will give you more information on how the kinetophone was created, how it worked, and how hard it as to show the completed products!
The second bonus is actually presented as the last offering under the "select a film" menu. No sound was found for it so Ben Model did a musical arrangement much as he has done for many of the silent films they have brought to us.
This disk, like many produced by the Undercrank Productions team, was a team effort with the Library of Congress. The team also included the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia.
As with all of these preservation efforts, the filmmakers, librarians and preservationists have labored long and hard to restore the visuals and sound into something we can watch on our televisions and computers. I applaud their dedication to bringing these films back to the world.
THE EDISON KINETOPHONE (1913) – 3 mins
MUSICAL BLACKSMITHS (1913) – 6 mins
NURSERY FAVORITES (1913) – 6 mins
THE DEAF MUTE (1913) – 6 mins
THE EDISON MINSTRELS (1913) – 6 mins
THE FIVE BACHELORS (1913) – 6 mins
THE OLD GUARD (1913) – 6 mins
JACK’S JOKE (1913) – 6 mins
SO AMAZINGLY PERFECT THEY ARE REALLY WEIRD (2018) – 25 mins – mini-documentary on the Kinetophone films’ history, technology and their restoration
THE POLITICIAN (1913) – 6 mins – Kinetophone film whose sound cylinder is still lost and is presented here with a musical score by Ben Model
1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Selig Rating Scale:
BRAND NEW: Should add to your DVD collection at any cost
SALE ITEM: Worth owning, but try to catch it a sale
SECOND HAND: Plan to get it, but wait to buy it used
RENTAL: Worth taking a look at, but not owning
COASTER: Pick it up at a garage sale and use it for drinks
PULL!: Makes a great Trap Shooting target