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Kino on Video presents
A Christmas Past (1901-1925)

"Sometimes I meet a mean little elf named Hard Times, who upsets my sleigh, and things get lost and then the children don't get so many toys."
- Santa Claus (uncredited)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: November 12, 2001

Stars: various, largely uncredited
Director: Edwin S. Porter, G.W. Bitzer, Will Louis, D.W. Griffith, et al.

Manufacturer: CineMagnetics
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (no objectionable content)
Run Time: 01h:59m:12s
Release Date: November 20, 2001
UPC: 738329023225
Genre: holiday


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B- BB-A- D-

DVD Review

A Christmas Past collects ten vintage silent short films, produced from 1901 to 1925. These early films were presented to moviegoers during the holiday season, capturing American attitudes and stories about Christmas, Santa Claus and the spirit of giving during the early part of the past century. Some of the films are sentimental, heartwarming tales and some are fantasies; all are decidedly secular in nature, with no allusion to the Christian basis of the holiday. The quality and entertainment value varies from film to film, but all provide an interesting look back on our culture and our fascination with the Christmas season.

A Holiday Pageant at Home (1901)
Producer unknown— 04:33

This crude little short is divided into three segments, depicting a family at home and photographed stage-style with a stationary camera in three long takes; there are no intertitles for dialogue, making the film a bit difficult to fathom. The father greets his family in the first section; the two daughters introduce their little play in the second; and the third presents the play itself. The "pageant" seems to have little to do with Christmas—while the introduction involves something that looks like a prayer, the play itself consists of a family argument (?) interrupted by a cowboy wielding a gun and a huge knife. An interesting oddity from a century ago.

A Winter Straw Ride (1906)
Edison Film Manufacturing Corp.—Photographed by Edwin S. Porter— 06:29

This free-form short resembles a home movie, albeit a nicely composed and edited one. The action features a number of young men and women enjoying some hijinks in the snow, beginning with a horse-drawn sleigh ride and continuing through a chase and a climactic snowball fight. A fun little piece with a candid, unstaged feel, and an interesting look at group courtship activities of the day.

A Trap for Santa (1909)
Biograph Film Co.—Directed by D.W. Griffith— 15:39

Cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith directed this short film for Biograph, a story of a father who loses his job and abandons his family. His distraught wife is saved by an inheritance from her aunt, and when her daughters set a trap for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in the family's new home, they catch their own father, destitute and reduced to burglary. The family is reunited and all is well—an interesting, O. Henry-ish twist on the usual Christmas fare, nicely acted and photographed in the Biograph style.

A Christmas Accident (1912)
Edison Film Manufacturing Corp.—Directed by Bannister Merwin— 14:45

A heartwarming melodrama ensues when a wealthy, unhappy older couple and a poor but content young family move in next to each other. A series of mishaps and mixups (including the poisoning of the older couple's dog!) during the holiday season causes conflict, but ultimately brings the two families together.

The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus (1914)
Edison Film Manufacturing Corp.—Written by Frederic Arnold Kummer— 13:48

Billed as an "Adventure of Octavius—Amateur Detective," this story pits the clever amateur investigator against a Christmas burglar. When Octavius is asked to play Santa Claus for a wealthy family's party, he encounters a burglar, also dressed as Santa, who knocks him out and steals the presents. Of course, Octavius revives and saves the day. This film uses an unusual convention, listing the actors and their roles on intertitle cards as new characters are introduced, an innovative but apparently short-lived approach at a time when actors were often not credited at all.

Santa Claus vs. Cupid (1915)
Edison Film Manufacturing Corp.—Directed by Will Louis— 16:14

Two rivals in romance vie to play Santa at their wealthy sweetheart's family Christmas party, while a poor, despondent man, working as a chauffeur on the same estate, tries to fund his family's holiday. The suitor NOT invited to play the part waits around in a Santa Claus suit, hoping to be called, and intercepts the chauffeur's attempt to steal the presents, winning his intended's affections in the process. Notable primarily for its unsympathetic portrayal of the working class—one wonders who the filmmakers thought their audience was!

Santa Claus (1925)
Presented by Mr. & Mrs. F. E. Kleinschmidt— 28:38

Filmed partly on location in Northern Alaska, this fanciful story of Santa Claus is the most watchable piece in this collection. Taking some liberties with the established Claus-ology, the filmmakers cast walruses, polar bears and reindeer as Santa's friends and guardians, using impressive vistas of frozen lakes to illustrate Santa's snowy environment. There are some fantastic toys on display in Santa's workshop, including a miniature amusement park, and the film is more cognizant of real world realities than most Santa stories. At one point, Santa observes a bad little boy robbing a blind man and setting his dog loose; he also tells the children about "hard times" and their likely effect on Christmas bounty. Santa visits with his friends the Easter Bunny (a live rabbit) and Jack Frost (a man in a fur suit), and there's a creative slow-motion gag towards the end. Nicely realized and intelligently presented, this privately-produced film is a worthy candidate for anyone's Christmas viewing.

A Christmas Carol (1910)
Edison Film Manufacturing Corp.—From the story by Charles Dickens— 10:32

This early film version of Dickens' classic Christmas tale follows the story closely, though it telescopes the appearance of the Ghosts into a matter of minutes, using some well-conceived double-exposure effects. Competent but uninspired, and the DVD apparently presents the film at the wrong speed, visibly faster than it ought to be.

The Night Before Christmas (1905)
Edison Film Manufacturing Corp.—Directed by Edwin S. Porter— 08:34

This adaptation of the famous poem uses some Melies-style painted sets and miniatures to illustrate Santa's visit. The intertitles use an earlier version of the poem, in which the reindeer are named "Dunder and Blitzen," and Santa's sleigh ride is portrayed as a ground-based affair with no aerial travel at all. A scene of anxious children having a pillow fight on Christmas Eve provides a few lively moments, but the film is otherwise fairly staid, and Santa himself seems bored by the whole affair.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: A Christmas Past is drawn from the famous Paul Killiam Collection, and the vintage prints are generally in good condition aside from the expected flecks and scratches, perhaps because they were seasonal films, not exhibited to death during their original run. Of course, filmmaking technology and film quality limitations of the day are much in evidence; no one would mistake these for recent films, and a true restoration has not been performed. But the films themselves are in better condition than one might expect. The DVD transfer presents the films in interlaced 30-frames-per-second video format, using a 4-3-3 cadence to present the 18-fps silent footage at a natural speed (an exception is A Christmas Carol, which runs at 24-fps and is noticeably too fast). One wishes the films had been windowboxed, as most viewers will lose some edge details to overscan, and the vertical and horizontal image wobble inherent to the material occasionally confounds the digital compression's motion prediction algorithms, leading to visible "squash and stretch" in a few spots. But the films are quite watchable given their age, and this is a nice presentation overall (though a dual layer transfer might have been more appropriate given the content's running time).

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no


Audio Transfer Review: The A Christmas Past DVD features a new score by Al Kryszak, presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround format (the films themselves are, of course, silent). There's not much bass content, as Kryszak's harps, violins and handbells don't call for it, but the music fills the room nicely, with solid left/right separation and a good sense of ambience. I have mixed feelings about Kryszak's score itself—sometimes it's great fun and completely appropriate to the material, while at other times it takes on an avant-garde, Velvet Underground tone that sounds very interesting. It doesn't always mesh well with the Christmas theme, occasionally seeming to foreshadow dire events that never materialize, and it wouldn't work well as holiday background music in most households. Still, Kryszak's risk taking generally pays off, and the stereo surround presentation of the new score is very listenable.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There are no extras to speak of on the A Christmas Past DVD, beyond nicely designed menus and full motion chapter stops. It would have been nice to have a few notes about the known history of these films, spotty though it may be.

Extras Grade: D-

 

Final Comments

Kino's A Christmas Past DVD collects two hours' worth of vintage holiday shorts from the early part of last century. The transfers are good, and the films provide a window into America's long commercial and spiritual association with old Saint Nick, as well as a look at how our values and concepts of the Christmas season have changed (not always for the worse). A nice bit of holiday cheer for fans of the silent era.

 


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