A Christmas Past (DVD)

A Christmas Past (DVD)

Given that DVD technology is practically tailor-made to deliver collections of short pieces, it's a wonder that the DVD market hasn't been flooded with more odds-and-ends anthologies like A Christmas Past. The holiday collection presents nine short, silent, black-and-white films, ranging in length from 5 to 29 minutes, and produced between 1901 and 1925, mostly by the Edison Film Manufacturing Corp. The earliest of these "cinematic Christmas cards" are crude affairs: A Winter Straw Ride is a loose assemblage of footage of a sleigh ride and some snow fights, while A Holiday Pageant At Home features stiff children prancing through some unidentifiable performance, periodically looking to the camera either for direction or out of curiosity. Edison Film's efforts to adapt The Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol are jerky and brief, and seem to exist mostly as showcases for a few special effects. In sharp contrast, the disc's sole D.W. Griffith film, 1909's A Trap For Santa, is an exaggeratedly mimed morality play with a complete story. Trap sets the direction for much of the disc's remainder; it's possible to track the development of narrative cinema through the pieces, which remain simplistic but show a growing sense of ambition. The capper is 1925's Santa Claus, a stagy, elaborate, privately produced fable that uses footage from Alaska to illustrate how Santa's North Pole realm is surrounded by ice floes and guarded by "goblins of the deep" (walruses) and the "monarch of the Arctic" (a polar bear). Even apart from the impressive sets and cute humor—Santa consults with the Easter Bunny, a live rabbit, and chats with Jack Frost, a bored-looking man in a bulky fur suit—Santa Claus is fun to watch, simply to imagine the reaction of children, some 75 years ago, upon seeing living proof of the existence of Santa's workshop, complete with toy-building elves and sweeping herds of reindeer. Today's kids, by contrast, would likely be bored silly with A Christmas Past, which seems mostly geared at film historians and silent-era buffs. But, like so many anthologies, it compensates for the modest quality of its material by piling on the quantity.

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