(Air Date: Week Of 7/31/96)
If you ever saw the 1979 Thames television series "Hollywood: The Pioneers", you already saw know what meticulous documentarians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill are. Still available on home video, the series revealed the silent movie era, not as creaky, dusty subject matter suitable mainly for museum browsing, but as the vital, hypnotic period for art and entertainment that it really was. Well, Brownlow and Gill have produced a new BBC series that only the lucky subscribers to Turner Classic Movies were able to see in early July. Their "Cinema Europe" series is a sure bet for home video, so keep your eyes open for it at your favourite neighborhood outlet.
"Cinema Europe" bypasses American movies entirely and focuses only on films that were made in Europe. We first discover where it all began and learn that European filmmaking techniques predated cinematic innovations long assumed to originate in America. Subsequent entries, such as Art's Promised Land, The Unchained Cinema and The Music of Light show how lovely and lyrical silent films could be at their best: in Sweden, in Russia, in Germany, in France. The toning and tinting of silent pictures created and sustained moods and atmospheres we still can't take for granted in 1996 when we see them at their pristine best. There were even sound experiments as long ago as 1906, but the movies stayed silent through the late twenties.
For most of this study of European cinema, Brownlow and Gill seem affectionate and awestruck by the artistic and technical wizardry of the early masters. And then they take a sharply critical look at the British Film industry in a segment titled "Opportunity Lost". Why couldn't England make films and develop stars as well as their European neighbors did? We see a 1913 version of "Hamlet" and note that the cameraman can't even keep up with the star! Actress / screenwriter Joan Morgan is unknown here, but her acting career began in 1914 at age 9 and continued through 1938 in 37 films, as she explains in a lively series of anecdotes brimming with memories. British cinema didn't really come alive until Alfred Hitchcock, and he, as Kenneth Branagh's narration firmly reminds us, was far more influenced by German expressionism than by any homegrown celluloid endeavors. By the time we arrive, all to soon, at "End of an Era", we're convinced: in leaving the silent era, we lost something precious, magical all too often, irretrievable. You can still rent a few remaining silent treasures on video, but you may have to hunt for them or try one of the mail order houses that still stocks them.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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