The First 100 Years: A Celebration of American Movies

on June 05, 1995 by Lael Loewenstein
   As he demonstrated in his Academy Award-winning short "Precious Images," Chuck Workman is peerless when it comes to choosing and seamlessly editing moments representative of Hollywood's rich history. The virtue of "Precious Images" was that it stuck to a precise, limited formula in which Workman strung together brief and indelible cinematic images. By contrast, "The First 100 Years: A Celebration of American Movies" tries to cover too much ground in too short a running time. The end result is a documentary that feels maddeningly superficial, unlike recent and more specific historical summations (e.g., last year's PBS series on American cinema or the exquisite "Visions of Light").
   That's not to say the film isn't impressive, even elucidating. Aside from smartly chosen clips spanning film's century, there are priceless excerpts of interviews with Gene Kelly discussing "Singin' in the Rain" and Ingrid Bergman on "Casablanca." There are wryly appropriate quotes from legendary curmudgeons like W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx and clever insights from directors like Steven Spielberg.
   Often the power of the excerpts is diminished by the fact that they've been removed from their original contexts. Worse, some important subjects are nearly ignored: Silent genius Harold Lloyd, for instance, is but a footnote, and the Motion Picture Production Code is remarked on only in passing. Although this is, unapologetically, a history of American movies, Hollywood does owe a debt to and have points of contiguity with foreign cinema a subject the film sorely neglects. Still, covering the silent era, the studio period, the star system and the decline of Hollywood's Golden Era, the documentary is an excellent primer on Hollywood history. But it leaves you wanting much more.    Directed and produced by Chuck Workman. Written by Chuck Workman and Sheila Benson. Narrated by Peter Coyote. No distributor set. Documentary. Not yet rated. Running time: 90 min.
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