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directed by Charles Musser
USA 1982


Before the Nickelodeon, an award-winning and intricately detailed documentary on the genesis of early cinema, focuses on one of the craft's most ingenious pioneers: Edwin S Porter. The film is based on the research of the leading scholar of early American film, Charles Musser, who also co-wrote and directed it.

Edwin S Porter (1870-1941), director, cinematographer and cameraman was America's pre-eminent filmmaker before dramatic artistry in film construction became a necessity. He was a product of a system that was emerging out of the years of invention and would feed the thousands of nickelodeons, or cheap cinemas, which mushroomed across American from 1907. For Porter and his kind it was a technician's approach, putting together the pieces of what would succeed as narrative cinema, in the same way as the inventors of cinema's technology had learned how to put motion pictures before an audience. Having played his part, he was naturally succeeded by D W Griffith and his contemporaries, who built upon this template, replacing efficiency with poetry.

As narrator Blanche Sweet (one of D W Griffith's Biograph starlets) acknowledges, to study Porter's fortunes is to witness the emergence of the American cinema industry and Before the Nickelodeon charts Porter's illustrious career from telephone operator to projectionist and finally prestigious film director.

Excerpt of review from BFI located HERE

Theatrical Release: February 2nd, 1983 (USA)

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DVD Review: BFI - Region 2 - PAL

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Region 2 - PAL

Runtime 58:03

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 6.8 mb/s
PAL 720x576 25.00 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.


Audio English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
Subtitles None
Features Release Information:
Studio: BFI

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 1.33:1

Edition Details:
• Illustrated booklet with an introduction
• Credits and biographies of Edwin S Porter, Charles Musser and Blanche Sweet

DVD Release Date: August 28th, 2006
Keep Case

Chapters 9



Charles Musser’s "Before the Nickelodeon" attempts to reintroduce the world to little known silent era innovator Edwin S. Porter. Porter, a former inventor, rose to prominence in the cinematic community in the early days of the last century and quickly established himself as the preeminent director in pre-Griffith cinema. Yet, whatever fame he achieved during his lifetime has now been eclipsed by the memory of some of his more enduring pictures, like "The Great Train Robbery". Musser's documentary attempt to remedy this collective amnesia by telling the story of of Porter's life and work, from his days entering pre-Hollywood film making, to some of the technological, structural, and narrative innovations that he created during his career. Given that Musser's documentary is now almost 30 years old itself, it has fortunately avoided some of the pitfalls that would have likely befallen a documentary made today. Instead of quick cuts, montage sequences, and a plethora of talking heads, we get a thoughtful and well constructed linear narrative of Porter's works that relies on actual images from the era and clips from the films. Additionally, the film is narrated by the dulcet voice of Blanche Sweet, an actress from Griffiths's stock troop and features notable voice overs from Robert Altman, D.A. Pennebaker, Milos Forman, and Louis Malle. The presentation is always first class and unless you're already a scholar of the earliest days of cinema, you'll likely learn a good deal here as well.

Since the film itself is a compilation of footage that is now mostly over a hundred years old, a good deal of film looks quite rough. The earliest material shown is in terrible shape, but the further along chronologically we go and the better know the source material, the better the image looks. However, the still shots--photographs and drawings of the relevant parties and inventions--have been preserved quite well and look the part. Of course, the image quality here is only to be expected given the age, technological limitations of the day, and preservation methods (if any) employed when dealing with film stock a hundred years ago. We have what we have, and we're pretty luck to have it at all.

The audio on the disc is mastered in Dolby Digital 1.0. I suppose that the mono soundtrack was probably a good choice given that a stronger mixing would have likely exposed some of the more obvious limitations and difficulties inherent in Musser film. As it is, we still hear a good deal of hisses and clicks. Regardless, the narration is always clear enough to be easily understood, but the lack of subtitles was an unfortunate choice.

Aside from a slender booklet containing essays on the film and short biographies of the filmmaker and subject, the only extras on the disc are acknowledgments and a shorter biography of Musser.

Again, the BFI has served up a history lesson that is as interesting as it is informative. Well done and certainly recommended to anyone with an interest in early cinema.

 - Brian Montgomery


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