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June 11, 2008

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Silent Reflections – More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931, Disc 1

by HELEN GEIB

Intro to the “American Film Archives” DVD Anthologies:

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931 is the second in a series of four box sets produced under the auspices of The National Film Preservation Foundation. The series is a showcase for the vital work being done by American film archives to preserve neglected films.  

“Neglected” in this instance means films falling outside sound era Hollywood feature film production. “Films” is broadly defined to include features, shorts, avant-garde films, commercials, newsreels, cartoons, industrial and educational films, and home movies. All of the titles were either previously unavailable on DVD or VHS or available only in very poor quality versions.

The first set in the series, Treasures from American Film Archives includes examples of all of these types and surveys a century of (non-sound era Hollywood feature) filmmaking. It’s a real programming grab bag. As an advertisement for the diversity and preservation accomplishments of American film archives, Treasures is a resounding success. As a historical overview of non-commercial, non-feature, and/or silent era filmmaking it is of significant educational value.

However, its overall entertainment value is moderate to low. Artistic quality appears to play a distant third to rarity and diversity of type as a selection criterion. Enthusiasts of any of the surveyed categories are likely to find the set offers a few wonderful films mixed in with a great deal of material that is of little to no interest to them. I bought it primarily to get my hands on the principal silent features, Hell’s Hinges and the 1916 Snow White. I don’t regret the purchase, but it was a couple of years before I had worked my way through the entire set.

Fortunately, the later sets are far more focused collections. The second set, More Treasures continues to embrace a wide range of film types but is limited to the silent era and the films are chosen with an eye to quality and entertainment value. The third set focuses on silent era filmmaking about contentious social issues and the fourth set (announced for release in March, 2009) on avant-garde filmmaking between 1945 and 1985.

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931, Disc 1:

Disc 1 of More Treasures is a gem. I watched the entire disc over just two days and would happily re-watch every film, even the commercials and the educational film. There are 18 films presented roughly in chronological order, the earliest made in 1894 and the latest in 1929. The first film on the disc is a 15 second experimental sound film– yes, made in 1894!– recording a man playing a violin into a horn that’s as large as he is. The last title is also a sound film, this time filmed in the technological breakthrough sound on film process. It records a delightfully whimsical five minute monologue by George Bernard Shaw, delivered outside his home in England. In between is a wonderful collection of rare, diverse, and good films.

The Invaders (1912)

The best film on the disc is The Invaders (1912), an early feature Western produced by Hollywood pioneer Thomas Ince. It was filmed at Inceville, a ranch outside Santa Monica that made a very passable stand-in for the West, and features in its cast the players of a Wild West touring show, including a large group of Lakota Sioux. It was one of Ince’s innovations to cast Indians in Indian parts, a practice popular with audiences and critics of the day yet, frustratingly, abandoned by Hollywood within a few years. The most notable actor in the cast is Francis Ford, John’s elder brother and for some years a successful actor and director in his own right.

The film is set in South Dakota and tells of a tragic conflict between the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies and the U.S. Army in the 1860s. The film opens with the signing of a treaty prohibiting further settlement in the reservation. The spark in the tinderbox is a railroad surveying party, the “invader” of the title, that blunders heedlessly into the reservation lands. Enraged by the perceived treaty violation, the Sioux attack the surveyors and then the area’s cavalry post.

The film’s evenhandedness creates much of its dramatic power. There are no villains in this story. It is assumed that the audience knows the Sioux have been on the receiving end of treaty violations many times before. The Army meets trouble, it doesn’t seek it. The surveying party’s ignorance and over-confidence trigger the conflict, but at the same time their status as innocent outsiders earns the audience’s sympathy; they’re likable fellows in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The vigorous and assured direction and restrained performance style belie the film’s early date. The story effectively builds momentum, moving through establishing character scenes to suspenseful incipient conflict to climactic deadly confrontation. One of the plot devices is to tell parallel human interest courtship stories of commander’s daughter and army officer and chief’s daughter and surveyor. I was surprised that this seemingly unpromising storyline provided my favorite scenes in the film, a testament to the delicacy and humor of the staging and the sensitivity of the performances.

Pre-Features, Serials, Shorts, and Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916)

“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” is a one minute long set of three 1894 novelty films showing Annie Oakley’s sharpshooting, an Indian “buffalo dance,” and a cowboy riding a “bucking broncho.” Watch and let it transport you to an arcade at the dawn of moviemaking.

The Suburbanite (1904) is an amusing one reel comedy about the travails of a family that finds this newfangled suburban living’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Like many films of the pre-feature era, it has a real though entirely unintended historical interest as a visual record of everyday life.

The Country Doctor (1909) is a superior one-reel drama directed by D.W. Griffith for Biograph. A tragedy about a doctor forced to choose between attending his child and the child of another family, the power of the material transcends the archaic performance and visual style of pre-feature filmmaking. Early scenes showing the family on an excursion before the child falls ill are vital and naturalistic, among the best work I’ve seen by Griffith from his Biograph years. For added fun, you can play spot the studio logo: in the wallpaper, on wainscoting, and elsewhere in the backgrounds- an early tactic in the war against rampant film piracy.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) offers more than curiosity value as the first filmed version of Frank L. Baum’s classic stories. Adapted from the book via the intermediary of an immensely popular touring stage show, the film assumes intimate familiarity with the theatrical production. The story has an erratic continuity (rather like a highlights reel). As a modern viewer many steps removed from the film’s source material, I experienced a charmed befuddlement. The filmmakers also used the play’s staging and costuming, imbuing the production with a delightful theatricality reminiscent of Melies’ fantasies and that presages the marvelous silent versions of Snow White and Peter Pan.

There are about 25 episodes extant of The Hazards of Helen serial out of its original run of 119 episodes. At first glance that seems like a terribly low percentage, but according to the program notes it’s actually an impressively high rate of survival for a silent serial. That’s only appropriate because Helen was the toughest and most resourceful of the silent serial queens. Episode 26 (1915) finds her newly hired as a signal(wo)man on a railroad line over the strenuous objections of the local manager. She’s called on to prove her worth on her first day on the job when a runaway engine imperils two passenger trains. Needless to say, she saves the day with her quick-thinking, intrepidity, and physical courage. And all while very fetchingly costumed in the fashions of the day too. A long, heavy skirt can’t stop Helen from riding a motorcycle, jumping up and down from train cars, and swimming across a river!

The cartoon The Breath of a Nation (1919) may pun on The Birth of a Nation in its title, but its target is the onset of prohibition. It was produced, directed, and partly drawn by Gregory La Cava, who started as a political cartoonist, moved over to animation, and then began his successful two decades long career as a feature film director in 1920. The humor in Breath is biting and satirical, the animation is witty and inventive, and at six minutes long it doesn’t come anywhere near wearing out its welcome.

The second feature film on the disc is Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), an enjoyable light melodrama starring Dorothy Gish and several actors who went on to have long careers into the sound era (including an almost unrecognizably thin Eugene Pallette as the villain). The film is set in a melting pot tenement in New York City. One of its main strengths is the unforced and very considerable likability of the scenes between the immigrant neighbors. The plot is unlikely but briskly entertaining, and the performances natural and appealing.

Advertising, Education, and Art

“Early Advertising Films” is a set of four short films made between 1897 and 1926 (10 minutes total). The unlikely highlight is The Stenographer’s Friend, an advertisement for the Edison Co.’s dictaphone in the form of a mini-office dramedy. Before the dictaphone is introduced to the office: confusion and dismay. After: efficiency and calm. It’s funnier than many a silent comedy short.

De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb (1920) is a one reel educational film about… how an electric light bulb is made. I am completely serious when I write that it’s actually very interesting to watch a light bulb being made, step by step from extraction of tungsten ore to final assembly at the factory. The explanatory intertitles affect a light, punning tone; in an unexpected attention to detail, each title card includes a scene specific drawing.

Skyscraper Symphony (1929) is an intriguing nine minute experimental art film by Robert Florey, who maintained a successful parallel career as a Hollywood director. The film is a montage of shots of Manhattan skyscrapers from different angles and perspectives, filmed sometimes with a static and sometimes with a moving camera. Florey used variations in shot duration and camera placement and movement to organize the images into several segments patterned on the movements of a symphony.

All of the films have commentary tracks, and all of the silent films are accompanied by original scores. Each film also has accompanying notes about the film and its preservation, and for the silents, its score.


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  1. Jun 13 2008

    This sounds like a fantastic collection. I’m particularly charmed by early advertising shorts, which are always ridiculous and awesome. MST3K once featured a short film with a tiny animated spring named Coily, who spent the whole film explaining why springs are so important (to a guy who had frivolously wished for “no more springs”). It was like A Wonderful Life, but with springs. Or, as Coily repeatedly shrieked, “NOOOOO SPRINGS!!!!!” I guess it was an ad for a company that made springs…?

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