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Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality!, The

Undercrank Productions // Unrated // August 8, 2018
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted July 29, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Shorts:

If you ask most casual film fans when sound came to the movies,
they'd say in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer
While that is when they became popular, various companies were
looking to add sound to movies for years.  The earliest films
that were created with synchronized sound for public consumption
were released way back in 1913 under the Kinetophone label.  It
was a sound-on-cylinder system created by the Thomas Edison's
company, and one of the reasons that it didn't catch on in
popularity was that it didn't really work.  The sound and
visuals would often go out of synch and once that happened it was
hard to get them back together.  Now, thanks to modern
technology, the Library of Congress in association with the museum
of the Thomas Edison National Historic Park has been able to match
up the audio and video to the eight surviving Kinetophone movies
where both the film and the audio cylinders still survive. 
These have made their way to DVD courtesy of Undercrank Productions
on the disc The Kinetophone:  A Fact!  A Reality! 
Not only does the disc have all eight Kinetophone films, but there
are a couple of nice extras too.

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When Edison began working on his moving picture project, he was
actually intending to invent an audiovisual system.  In a
filing with the US patent office, he described a system that would
allow viewers to "see & hear a whole opera as perfectly as if
actually present."  Though his first films, released in 1893
and shown in a one-person viewer called a Kinetoscope, did not have
sound within a couple of years he had added a cylinder phonograph to
the Kinetoscope cabinets.  These only played music that was not
synchronized to the film, but it was a start.   

Leap forward to 1913 and the Wizard of Menlo Park released his next
great invention:  the Kinetophone.  This was a projected
film synched, by a complex series of pulleys and cords, to a
cylinder phonograph.  The actors in these productions were
filmed and recorded at the same time so all a projectionist had to
do was start both at the same point and you'd have synchronized
sound.  Well in theory at least. 

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In practice the system did not work very well at all.  Since
this was well before electronic amplification, the horn from the
phonograph needed to be near the audience, and that wasn't always
were the projector was set up.  That necessitated having two
operators who had to coordinate their efforts, which isn't as easy
as it may sound.  If the film broke and had to be spliced back
together with a frame or two removed (something that was not
uncommon) then the film would be out of synch from that point
on.  As cords stretch and slip the two machines would again
become misaligned.  While it was a good idea, it just didn't
work in practice and the system was abandoned in 1914.   

It has been reported that there were over 200 Kinetophone movies
made, only eight survive today along with their audio
cylinders.  All eight are presented here, and they're very
interesting to watch.  They present a wide range of movie
genres (though there is a musical number in just about all of them)
and show how much Edison was trying to give the people a variety of
subjects to view.  Musical Blacksmiths is an amusing
piece where a group of metalsmiths sing and tell jokes before having
lunch. The Five Bachelors is a comedy short about a group
that needs to initiate a new member into their ranks, and The Old
Guard is a drama about an old soldier who served under Napoleon who
is near death.

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One of my favorites was The Deaf Mute, a Civil War drama
that was shot outside (the only film in this collection that has an
exterior shot).  A group of Union soldiers think that there is
a spy in their midst.  When they capture someone creeping
around their camp, they're sure he's the spy even though he
proclaims to be a deaf mute.  This film runs as long as the
other ones (about 6 minutes) but it seems to end without resolving
the plot, which makes me wonder if there was a second reel

The DVD:

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The Library of Congress restored the audio to these films but…
there's only so much one can do.  These were mechanically
recorded on wax cylinders.  In other words an actor would shout
into an off-screen horn which was connected to a needle.  The
sound waves would vibrate the needle and that would cut grooves in a
wax cylinder.  Needless to say this very analog technique did
not produce a high fidelity recording.  To increase the volume
of the audio so that it could be played to a room full of people
this original recording was "amplified."  They connected it to
a machine that would read the original and cut larger grooves into a
bigger wax cylinder.  As anyone who has ever made a copy of a
cassette tape knows, this decreased the sound quality and added more

The result on this disc doubtlessly sounds better than it would have
in 1913 if you were in the audience of a Kinetoscope show, but it
does show the limitations of the technology of the time. 
There's a lot of extraneous noise and the voices are not crisp and
clear.  About what you'd expect from 1913 technology.


The video quality on these rare films varies.  Some are crisp
and clean, while others are marred with dirt and scratches. 
All of them are very watchable and, since they are often taken from
the only existing print, the best you can expect.


There are two nice extras on this disc.  The first is a
Kinetoscope film where the audio cylinder has not been found. 
Ben Model accompanies the short on piano.

The other bonus is a 25-minute history of Kinetoscope films
presented by George Willeman from the Library of Congress.  He
talks about how the films were produced, the problems associated
with their exhibition, and he also discusses how they were restored
and finally paired up again. It's a very nice documentary about the
Kinetoscope and the restoration project.

Final Thoughts:

These are rare historic films and it is amazing that they are
available on home video.  While the movies themselves may not
be as entertaining now as they were over 100 years ago, they are a
fun document on what was thrilling to our great, great
grandparents.  People who are interested in the earliest days
of film should make a point of searching this out.  It gets a
strong recommendation.

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