When inventor Thomas Edison and photographer Eadwaerd Muybridge got together in 1889 to hold a summit about the possibility of inventing a device that would ultimately lead to motion pictures, the two aimed high; they wanted to create a filmed record with synchronized sound of actor Edwin Booth in the role of Hamlet. Unfortunately, this was not to be; Booth died just as Edison was beginning to hold the first demonstrations of the device his employees had developed to fulfill this mission. Around the world, others were working on similar inventions, and the Lumihre Brothers in France actually beat Edison to the first projection of motion pictures by four months. With so much competition and controversy about the origins of cinema, it is easy to forget the obvious -- that Thomas Edison and his laboratory really did invent motion pictures and were the first to exploit them in a commercial sense. The Kino four-DVD set Edison: The Invention of the Movies does far more than just jog the collective memory; it is the first single package of any kind to comprehensively collect and transmit an overview of the entire history of a major film studio, and it generously includes a jaw-dropping 148 titles.
There has never been a DVD so packed with individual elements than the first disc of this set; it includes 89 individual film titles, and patient searching through the "film notes" section will reveal five more. Most of these films are very short -- the two-minute mark isn't exceeded until "Another Job for the Undertaker," a 1901 title that is the seventieth film in the collection. They range from the blurry, barely recognizable gesticulations in W.K.L. Dickson's first camera test, "Monkeyshines No. 1" (1890; arguably the first movie ever made) to a nifty, hand-colored print of that old chestnut, "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), the one Edison production many living persons have heretofore seen. The successive discs in the package escort us through Edison's work of the Nickelodeon period all the way up to the 1918 feature The Unbeliever, a striking film that portrays the battlefields of World War I from a religious perspective.
Edison: The Invention of the Movies goes way beyond received wisdom about the Edison studio, revealing treasures drawn from the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, and the Henry Ford Museum collections that will strain the brains of even viewers who consider themselves experts in early film. Those who already have some prior exposure to the work of the Edison studio will be very happy to see films only previously seen in less than pristine visual quality, such as European Rest Cure (1904), The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903), or Rescued From an Eagle's Nest (1908). Beyond that, there are still mass quantities here of unknown films that have never seen the light of day. One may experience the rather uncomfortable sight of a man being tarred and feathered in The White Caps (1905), the bizarre Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901), or The Train Wreckers (1905), a film easily as influential as The Great Train Robbery but not nearly as well known. The print quality in all 148 cases is as good as it's ever likely to get, and the visual improvements made even in films that are in some way familiar are revelatory. Kino is equally generous with support materials and extra features as it is in the main program: Posters, news clippings, in-house Edison studio documents, and photographs are included alongside in-depth interviews with former MOMA curator Eileen Bowser, MOMA's present curator Steve Higgins, annotator and co-compiler Charles Musser, and several other knowledgeable contributors. The musical accompaniments are very good, with Phillip Carli and Jon Mirsalis' work being outstanding. In summary, no library that takes its film selection seriously should avoid acquiring Edison: The Invention of the Movies, and likewise students of film history will want to make this package a top priority. ~ David Lewis, All Movie Guide