First 100 Years, The (1995): Chuck Workman’s Celebratory Docu of Cinema’s First Century

USA Film Fest. Dallas, April 21, 1995–A barrage of mostly familiar images bombards the audience in Chuck Workman’s The First 100 Years, a documentary celebrating the centennial of motion pictures as an art form and mass entertainment.

Though suffering from conventional structure and major omissions, film still serves as a useful compilation of memorable moments in Hollywood’s rich tapestry, chronicling its major persona, movies, and technical achievements. Ultimately though, docu, which was financed by Turner Pictures for an HBO presentation, is exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure.

Admittedly, Workman was faced with an almost impossible mission: how to organize huge amounts of cinematic info and footage into an accessible and entertaining format of 90 minutes. The strategy chosen is an incessant montage of visual images from close to 900 movies and snippets of interviews (mostly pre-recorded, but some new), spanning the silent and sound eras.

After a brief introduction, first chapter deals with the silents, focusing on the great clowns (Chaplin, Keaton), leading ladies (Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish) and genius director D.W. Griffith, who’s correctly credited with inventing the basic language of cinema, which is still used at present.

Docu doesn’t have a strict historical frame, but it more or less follows the evolution of American movies chronologically, structuring the visual footage around major political events, such as the Great Depression, WWII, McCarthy’s witch hunt, Vietnam, etc. Within these chronological boundaries, docu often dwells on specific directors, such as Ford, Hitchcock, and Kazan, or movie stars like Davis, Stanwyck, Brando and Dean.

There are also forays into distinctly American film genres, like screwball comedies, crime-gangsters, and of course action-adventures and Westerns. Quotes from luminaries like America’s sweetheart to moguls Darryl F. Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer all the way to critic Pauline Kael separate the footage in a rather arbitrary and cutesy manner.

The chief joy derives from seeing glorious moments from Hollywood’s history, such as Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Bonnie and Clyde, Taxi Driver, and other beloved works that over the years have assumed cult status. Problem is, most of these images are by now overly familiar from other documentaries, most notably “The Movies” (shown in the l970s) and MGM’s “That’s Entertainment” film series. Fortunately, Workman decided to variegate his docu with a dozen or so entire scenes from popular movies, such as the murder sequence from Psycho; the taxicab scene in On the Waterfront; the farewell scene from Casablanca; John Wayne’s entrance in Stagecoach and exit in The Searchers. Periodically, Workman inserts funny one-liners from moviegoers who recite memorable lines (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”) and plots, which attest to the centrality and immense popularity of movies in American culture.

Docu should have been titled “Hollywood’s First 100 Years,” for it deals almost exclusively with the American cinema, excluding the international dimension of film and the mutual fertilization of Hollywood and the world cinema, past and present. Of its 90 minutes, there’s perhaps only one minute about the influence of European cinema on the American scene in the l960s, and even this discussion is restricted to three well-known auteurs, Fellini, Bergman, and Truffaut.

Even more annoying is the omission of the American Independent movement, particularly of the last decade. Scorsese, who’s interviewed, mentions Cassavetes briefly, but viewers are deprived of the names of Spike Lee, Tim Burton, Soderbergh, Tarantino and other indie figures, who not only did innovative, cutting edge work, but had tremendous influence on mainstream Hollywood and its public.

Narration, delivered in an engaging, often droll style by Peter Coyote, provides smooth transition among the numerous episodes.

Technical quality of most of the footage is O.K.