People think of silent movies as all ricky-ticky comedy and Keystone Kopping, but as Kevin Brownlow wrote in his book "The Parade's Gone By," the silent era "was the richest in the cinema's history," and now Maryland Public Television stations have acquired a series that supports this view--and with films Brownlow didn't even mention.
The 13-part series, "The Amazing Years of Cinema," was made in England in 1976 and shows up unheralded but welcome, starting Sunday night at 10:30 on Channel 22. Though somewhat underproduced, the series offers restored glimpses into a cinematic history that seems as distant as the dinosaur but not nearly so primitive, a fascinating primer on the neglected subject of European films made in the earliest years of the cinema and the century.
Some American films are excerpted as well, including, on the first half-hour show, D.W. Griffith's fabled failure "Intolerance," the great artist's lavish apology for what he thought to be misinterpretation of "The Birth of a Nation." But the series concentrates on the even more rarely seen work of early European filmmakers, especially the Italians, whose illustrious visual traditions were to find a splendid new outlet in the motion picture.
Part 1 of the series is called "The Epic," but Part 2, while called "The Immortals," covers the very same sorts of films, huge and preposterous spectacles dripping with extras and scenery and designed to bring the static art of the 19th century to life for audiences of spellbound and even stupified moviegoers.
According to host Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the Italians were not diddling around with little two-reelers but were making feature-length biblical and historical epics well before Americans were. The 1912 Italian version of "Quo Vadis" was, in fact, the third film version; the Italian "Spartacus" was a remake even in 1913. Scenes from these films--Here Come the Lions and The Burning of Rome--are shown in their original tinted versions.
Troy goes under siege, Hannibal crosses the Alps, and Vesuvius blows its top in some of the other films recalled. In the second installment, there are fabulous scenes from an earlier Italian version of Dante's "Inferno" (including a shot of the devil munching on a damned soul), highlights from a 1911 film version of "The Odyssey" and a few quick looks at the work of French filmmaker Georges Me'lie s, including a "Dance of the Sylphs," with hand-tinted figures, from a 1903 "Damnation of Faust."
There was a lot of damnation going on in movies even then.
"Amazing Years of Cinema," written by John Russell Taylor and produced by Philip Smith, could certainly be more comprehensive, but it is a feast of delights that should be enough to make serious film enthusiasts jump for joy, should they be able to tear themselves away from the screen for even a moment's jumping.