It’s worth remembering that before Rotten Tomatoes deems films and television shows fresh or rotten, it has to aggregate their reviews, a process that is inherently political: Whose opinions get counted toward the critical consensus and whose get left out? Typically, the site has included a wide range of current-day critics (in large measure because of the ready availability of reviews online), but its selection of reviews of classic movies has drawn on a narrower spectrum of publications. Over the past two years, though, the site’s review-curation manager, Tim Ryan, working with the review curator Sara Ataiiyan, has delved deep into the history of film criticism and included, on the site’s reviews of classic films (including ones that have been lost), an important range of critics who’d formerly been excluded—and who haven’t, until now, got their due for their insights, observations, and ideas. (Not surprisingly, many of these excluded critics are women and people of color.) In the process, Ryan and Ataiiyan are meaningfully contributing to, even significantly shifting, the history of cinema over all.

One of these newly included critics remains prominent today, albeit, unjustly, not for her writing: Iris Barry, who, in 1935, founded MOMA’s Film Library. Before then, Barry was a film critic, and a pioneering one, in London, notably at The Spectator. She also wrote a noteworthy book of movie aesthetics and appreciation, “Let’s Go to the Pictures,” in 1926. (When I wrote about Barry and reviewed her biography, by Robert Sitton, in 2014, I called for a collection of her critical writings.) Rotten Tomatoes has gathered many of her reviews and linked them to the relevant films, and they prove that she was a critic of historic, powerful insight. (The one rub to the curation is that, in order to click through and read Barry’s full reviews, a subscription to The Spectator is required.)

In 1926, moved by Robert Flaherty’s “Moana” and Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s “Grass,” Barry derided the studio-bound and script-bound artifices of the American cinema, adding, “Hollywood’s new battle-cry should be ‘away with complications’ and a return to nature.” (The silence to this day remains deafening.) Praising Josef von Sternberg’s début feature, “The Salvation Hunters,” an independent film from 1925, she wrote, “Most films reek of money: this one, with all its faults, is so sincere, so simple and so obviously cost little, that one would warm to it had it no other qualities.” (In the same piece, she anticipates the Film Library, with her lament about the near-total lack of revivals of even the best of previously released movies: “When is one to see The Last Laugh or Greed again? And who can tell us where to see the old Chaplin and the old Harold Lloyd films which sometimes reappear?”) Writing of Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Marriage Circle,” Barry discerns the qualities that place the cinema alongside the classic arts and, at the same time, distinguish it as intrinsically more modern: “Henry James could, in a light mood, have told it as minutely as Lubitsch has in pictures: but at what a length. I do not believe that any dramatist living or dead could relate it in dialogue quite so delicately, so intuitively or so effortlessly as this unpretentious film does.” Barry, though far from being the first critic, may well be the first modern critic, at least in the English language.

The wide net that Ryan and Ataiiyan have cast has caught an amazingly early film review: an anonymous and aesthetically perceptive one, from January 29, 1898, in the New-York Tribune, about a filmed version of the Passion, based very loosely on the “Oberammergau Passion Play.” One of a pair of reviews from Australia, of a locally made movie from 1906, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”—about an Australian band of outlaws who were also folk heroes—offers what may be the first criticism of scolding moralism: “It is usual for people who have a skeleton in their cupboard to keep it under lock and key. . . . The exploits of the Kelly gang, away back in the early eighties, were admittedly sufficiently daring in their character and tragic in their sequence to provide a sensational page of Australian history, but it is not the class of history to which a nation points with pride.” From the same year are the first movie reviews published by the New York–based trade paper Variety, single-paragraph notices by Sime Silverman, the editor and proprietor. An all-caps notice, bordered and in large type, declares: “Commencing with current issue, reviews of new moving pictures presented in the vaudeville theatres of New York and Chicago will appear in the department.”

One of the most fascinating figures newly on the site is John Kinloch, who wrote in the thirties and forties for the California Eagle, which was owned and run by African-American businesspeople and journalists, and provided news for the black community. The short-lived, precociously accomplished Kinloch, born and raised in Harlem, was the nephew of Charlotta A. Bass, the paper’s editor and publisher, and was being groomed to succeed her. He also aspired to work in the movie business, but he was killed in combat in the Second World War, in 1945, while still in his early twenties. (As cited in a valuable essay by the historian Robbie Lieberman, both Bass and Kinloch believed that he was drafted into service on political grounds, to hobble the publication. Footnote: quickly, a bio-pic or TV miniseries about the extraordinary Charlotta Bass!)

As a writer, Kinloch reflected the enduring paradox of the working critic: most of the movies that he reviewed were relatively disposable entertainments, neither particularly noteworthy nor particularly reprehensible, and he reviewed such films with amiable ease (occasionally noting that a B-picture or an ultra-low-budget one was a “sleeper”). But, with great movies, Kinloch rose to the occasion with insight and passion, as when, writing about Fritz Lang’s “You and Me,” in 1938—he was about sixteen at the time—he ranked it among the director’s masterworks. Reviewing Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” in the April 10, 1941, issue—he was still a teen-ager—Kinloch wrote, “The little funny man’s significance to the screen is roughly that of Shakespeare to playwriting, da Vinci to painting or Jim Farley to party politics.” Kinloch addresses the aesthetic controversy that greeted the film, centered on the ten-minute-long concluding speech in which Chaplin—playing a Jewish barber impersonating the Hitler-like tyrant Adenoid Hynkel—speaks, in effect, in his own voice. Kinloch approves of the filmmaker “tacking on a bit of his own philosophy after a quarter-century of service to the world’s collective happiness,” and concludes the piece with a flourish, paying close attention to the substance of what Chaplin is saying: “You may also note that Charley’s plea for equality and tolerance started out with the following items: ‘White man . . . black man . . . ’ ”

Kinloch paid special attention to movies on subjects of distinctive interest to black viewers (such as one about Abraham Lincoln), movies by black filmmakers, and those featuring black stars, such as Paul Robeson and Lena Horne. Perhaps his most extraordinary piece, a bold and visionary political and aesthetic treatise, was disguised as a review of the 1940 movie called “As Thousands Cheer” (also known as “While Thousands Cheer”), a musical with an all-black cast. Writing of the rise of movies, including “As Thousands Cheer,” made by white producers for black audiences, Kinloch says that “the colored motion-picture boom has been an incredible failure,” because “no real attempt to translate into celluloid the lives of black people in this nation has been made.” He complained that such “colored pictures are a tepid rehash of white ones,” and he uses an extraordinary term:



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