Unboxing the Silents: The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality!

This is a collection of talkies from 1913. What’s that? Everyone says The Jazz Singer was the first talkie? Well, gather round, m’dears, and we shall hear the tale of the pre-WWI talkie war.

(Thanks to Undercrank Productions for the screener.)

William Dickson experimented with sound film in Edison’s Black Maria studio and assorted technologies were presented during the first decade of the 20th century but things really heated up between Gaumont and Edison in the pursuit of recording both sound and movement simultaneously.

Edison unveiled his invention in 1913 and while it caused a stir, synchronization issues (the film and soundtrack were on film and cylinder, respectively) and a fire assured that its rein would be short.

Undercrank Productions has teamed up with the Library of Congress to release all of the surviving Kinetophone shorts that have both soundtrack and visual elements. I’m pretty excited!

Here is the product page for the DVD.

The Films:

This collection includes the surviving Kinetophone shorts with intact sound cylinders and as such, it is a delightful grab bag of a variety show. We get to spot Edison film stars too, which is always fun.

“No trains will be sold after the magazines have left the depot!”

The Edison Kinetophone: A short piece introducing the new technology (and carefully omitting the fact that the French Gaumont company had beaten Edison to the punch) with

Musical Blacksmiths: This one is exactly what it says on the tin with the added charm of Leonie Flugrath, who would find much more success when she changed her name to the more marquee-friendly Shirley Mason. (She was the youngest Flugrath at Edison, big sister Edna kept the family name and middle sister Virginia is still remembered as Viola Dana.)

She is the Queen of the Fairies.

Nursery Favorites: Probably the most famous of the Kinetophone shorts due to its inclusion in the popular Hollywood miniseries. This is a gathering of nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, a cinematic universe mashup of 1913. You can read my review of the short here.

The Deaf Mute: A Civil War short and a non-musical about the Union army trying to determine if a deaf man is really a hearing Confederate officer and a spy. The tone is odd, I can’t really tell if it is meant to be a comedy or a drama, but it is quite interesting to see a talkie from before the toxic Lost Cause myth took over the American film industry.

The Edison Minstrels: Again, exactly what it says on the tin and is just what you might expect from a minstrel show of the period. It’s important to look historical racism in the face and so this is of historical interest, albeit of an uncomfortable kind. (For context, this was just a few years before a boycott campaign spearheaded by black intellectuals would put the Ebony comedy brand, which relied on stereotypes, out of business.) I did find it interesting that the “in flew enza!” joke was used in 1913 as it is usually described as having been coined during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

The Five Bachelors: Another musical short, this one concerns a bachelor club trying to find a new member to replace an old one who is “lost to us forever” i.e. married and the subsequent hazing.

The Old Guard: This one is non-musical. A English officer tries to court the granddaughter of a French soldier who still hasn’t forgotten the glory days of Napoleon. There’s even a trick shot of the old emperor at the end.

Housman (seated) sounding like Housman.

Jack’s Joke: A comedy about a practical joker. The real gem for Hal Roach fans is the presence of Arthur Housman, who so successfully played a comic drunk in classic comedies. He plays Jack’s pal and, thanks to the clear transfer, his identity is unambiguous. Even if we didn’t recognize that face, we certainly know that voice! (Housman appears in the minstrel short as well but I didn’t recognize him immediately in the powdered wig.)

The set also includes a Kinetophone film with lost cylinders, The Politician, which is accompanied by a piano score by Ben Model. Finally, we get a very good mini documentary on the Kinetophone’s history.

The picture quality (courtesy of the Library of Congress) is beautiful and it’s unlikely these films have looked this good since their original release. Certainly, they have never before been this easy to watch. No need for a two-person projection team!

These films do create a minor time warp in the brain. Add a few closeups and they could easily have been released in the 1930s. It’s a strange juxtaposition of modern sound and creaky filmmaking techniques. (Every single film uses a single, static, show-their-feet shot.)

The pre-WWI race for talkies is not given nearly the attention it deserves and this DVD will help bring these fascinating films back into the public eye (and ear). This is an absolute must-buy for anyone with even a passing interest in film history.

Availability: You can learn more and order a copy here.

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