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.
His strategy is an incessant montage of 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 directing genius D.W. Griffith, who’s correctly credited with inventing the basic language of cinema, which is used to this day.
Docu doesn’t have a strict historical frame, but it more or less follows the evolution of American movies chronologically, structuring the footage around major social and political events such as the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthyism and Vietnam.
Within these contexts, docu often dwells on specific directors, such as Ford and Hitchcock, and stars like Davis, Stanwyck and Brando.
There also are forays into distinctly American film genres; the screwball comedy, crime-gangster, action-adventure and Western. Quotes from luminaries such as moguls Darryl F. Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer and critic Pauline Kael separate the footage in a rather arbitrary and cutesy manner.
Still, chief joy derives from seeing glorious Hollywood moments from “Gone With the Wind,””The Wizard of Oz,””The Maltese Falcon,””Casablanca,””On the Waterfront,””Bonnie and Clyde,””Taxi Driver” and other beloved works. Problem is , most of these images are by now overly familiar from other documentaries.
Fortunately, Workman decided to vary his format by including 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” and John Wayne’s entrance in “Stagecoach” and exit in “The Searchers.”
Docu should have been titled “Hollywood’s First 100 Years,” for it deals almost exclusively with the American cinema. Of its 90 minutes, there’s perhaps only one minute about the influence of European cinema on the American scene in the 1960s.
Even more annoying is the omission of the American independent movement, particularly of the past decade. Scorsese, who’s interviewed, mentions Cassavetes briefly, but viewers are deprived of the names of other indie figures.
Sheila Benson’s solid narration, delivered in an engaging, often droll style by Peter Coyote, provides smooth transitions among the numerous episodes. Technical quality of most of the footage is OK.