The National Film Preservation Foundation has put together another excellent
set of movies from American film archives. This third set, Treasures
III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934 features 48 movies
that deal with life in America. It's a great set filled with many
rarities, from the first gangster movie and King Vidor's earliest surviving
film to Paramount's and Cecil B. DeMille's last silent pictures.
There are movies directed by D. W. Griffith, William Desmond Taylor, and
Lois Weber as well as pictures featuring Mary Pickford and Richard Dix.
There are newsreels, cartoons, features, and shorts, all of which deal
in some way with some of the social problems in America at the time.
From the women's suffragette movement to the plight of orphans and the
problems of loan sharks in big cities, these films offer a look back into
the past when America was a very different place.
Disc 1 - The City Reformed
The Black Hand (1906, 11 minutes) - This is the earliest surviving
gangster film, a simple tale of crooks who kidnap a butcher's daughter
and demand ransom. The police hide in the store owner's freezer and
jump out when a member of the gang comes for the money, then rescue the
girl. Told without close-ups the film has a very crude style.
The exteriors are shot on the streets of New York while the interiors are
poorly decorated sets.
How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900, 25 seconds) - Made in New York, this
is a humorous jab at the lawlessness of Chicago, especially the police.
Voice of the Violin (1909, 16 minutes) - D. W. Griffith directed this film
about anarchists who want to bring down America's capitalist system.
A violin teacher has fallen in love with one of his students, the daughter
of a rich industrialist. When she says that she can't marry him because
of the class difference, the teacher goes to a meeting of communists.
Like them, he wants to do away with the class structure. Their moto:
When we come into our own there will be no HIGH and no LOW: All will
be EQUAL. At his first meeting the musician is picked to be part
of a team to plant a bomb in a rich person's house. He goes along
with the plot until he discovers that the house belongs to his beloved.
By then the fuse has been lit, and his comrade knocks him out for being
a traitor and leaves him to die.
Subtle this movie isn't, with all of the actors using broad gestures
and overacting horribly. Griffith had only directing for eight months
when he created this work, and the fact that he was new to the game shows.
The climax of the film, where the hero crews through the bomb's fuse doesn't
work well since it's unclear what's happening in the long shot. The
intertitles are strange too, explaining the events in a scene before they
Usurer's Grip (1912, 15 minutes) - While the previous films were made purely
as entertainment, this film was trying to get across a message. When
a couple's child gets sick, they find that they have to borrow money from
an unscrupulous lender in order to get the money for a doctor. The
ad in the paper states a 6% interest rate (the highest allowed by law at
the time), but they end up being charged much more and have assorted 'fees'
to pay on top of that. When the family gets behind in the payments
a representative of the lender's goes to the man's place of employment
and publicly embarrasses him, which causes him to get fired. Eventually
he finds another job and this time his boss is more understanding.
The employer calls the cops on the lender and then the worker joins a consumer
credit co-operative, and not only pays off the original loan at 6% but
develops good fiscal habits and ends up saving a lot of money.
From the Submerged (1912, 11 minutes) - A homeless man is stopped from
killing himself by a kind woman and then strikes it rich. When his
new friends go slumming for entertainment, he starts to feel guilty and
searches for the woman who saved him. She turns out to be down on
her luck and homeless to, so they marry. A bit contrived and silly,
but still entertaining.
Hope - A Red Cross Seal Story (1912, 14 minutes) - A movie made to
raise awareness of TB. This drama features a woman who comes down
with the disease but has to move to another town since there are no treatment
centers where she lives. When people find out what is happening,
they start to sell Red Cross Seals and raise the money for a new hospital.
An interesting short, since it really doesn't talk about TB. The
causes, cures, or methods of stopping its spread are not mentioned at all.
The Cost of Carelessness (1913, 13 minutes) - An early traffic safety
film complete with images (reenactments naturally) of children who have
been hit by cars.
and Shadows in a City of a Million (1920, 7 minutes) - A Ford produced
film to raise money for the Detroit Community Fund.
Six Million Children are Not in School (1922, 2 minutes) - Newsreel
expose on child labor. The 6 million figure came from census figures,
and though they exaggerated a little, that worked out to ¼ of the
children not attending school.
The Soul of Youth (1920, 80 minutes) - It is doubtful that anyone would
remember William Desmond Taylor today if he wasn't murdered in early 1922
with half of Hollywood being suspected of killing him. This is one
of the films that he directed, very ably too. The story of a parentless child who turns to crime in order to feed himself is profiled in the film and alternatives to throwing
him into an adult prison is advocated.
A Call for Help from Sing Sing (1934, 3 minutes) - This newsreel, made
at the height of the depression, has Sing Sing's Warden Lawes speaking
out in defense of homeless teens.
Disc 2 - New Women
Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901, 1 minute) - Carrie Nation destroys an
illegal bar in Kansas and is persecuted for her troubles. Directed by Edwin
Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1902, 2 minutes) - Porter made this
Mr. Mom precursor a year later in which Carrie's husband has trouble with
the kids while she's off smashing saloons.
Trial Marriages (1907, 12 minutes) - When a bachelor reads of a progressive
new idea, trial marriages, he thinks he's found an easy way to sleep around.
He tries several, but the reality is far less ideal than he thought that
it would be. His marriages were certainly a trial.
Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1911, 16 minutes) - A film selling
the idea of trade schools for young women in the lower classes.
The Strong Arm Squad of the Future (1912, 1 minute) - A very politically
incorrect cartoon against giving women the right to vote.
Lively Affair (1912, 7 minutes) - What would happen if women received the
vote? According to this short women would spend their days playing
poker and fighting. This is a fairly strong anti-women's vote film.
It implies that the family unit would be destroyed if women have a say
in government, something that's best left to the men.
A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912, 8 minutes) - This British-made
film was produced by Edison, and takes a different look at the suffrage
movement. When some boys tape a "Votes for Women" flyer on a man's
back, the misunderstandings start small but soon escalate.
On To Washington (1913, 80 sec.) - Newsreel coverage of a suffragette
march on Washington.
Hazards of Helen, Episode 13 (1915, 13 minutes) - A chapter of one
of the early film serials. The Hazards of Helen ran for an amazing
119 episodes (one released every week) and they were mainly self-contained
stories without the cliffhangers that serials were later noted for.
In this chapter Helen looses her job after the office is robbed.
When she spots the criminals getting on a train after turning in her keys,
the plucky Helen decides to apprehend them and get her job back.
Instead of being overtly political, this serial employed a more subtle
form of persuasion, showing that women could do anything that a man could
do (and often more).
Where are my Children (1916, 65 minutes) - Pioneering female director
Lois Weber directs this solid film that takes a firm stand against abortion
but also promotes birth control, something that makes a lot of sense but
is rarely done even today. When a district attorney prosecutes a
doctor for performing an abortion where the woman died, he discovers that
his wives friends have frequented the doctor so that their social calendar
wouldn't be interrupted by an untimely pregnancy. A very effective
and well made film, it presents the topic without hysteria and doesn't
become preachy. (Something that would have made DeMille's Godless
Girl (on the third disc) a much better film.) Note that Tyrone Power's
father is featured in this picture.
The Courage of the Commonplace (1913, 13 minutes) - A look at life on
the farm from a woman's perspective. A young girl dreams of going
to college and saves up every cent she can to achieve her dream.
When the family horse gets too old and sick to plow however, she sacrifices
herself for the good of the family. Well done and with authentic
looking sets, this film doesn't have the happy ending that Hollywood would
insist upon all too soon.
Poor Mrs. Jones (1926, 45 minutes) - Mrs. Jones lives on a farm and
her work is never done. From keeping the electric generator going
to cooking and other chores she's always toiling over some task.
When she complains to her husband, he sends her to her sister who lives
in the big city. Discovering what city life is like Mrs. Jones learns
to appreciate what she has. Made by the Dept. of Agriculture, this
is a piece of propaganda aimed at keeping people, especially women, in
rural areas. For a government made film this was surprisingly well
done. The views of the city are especially effective and drive their
Herself as a Bride for $10,000. (1931, 2 minutes) - With her two
brother's dead, her parents about to be kicked out of their house and the
depression raging, Mary Clowes comes up with a unique way to support her
parents; she offers to marry anyone who will pay her $10,000 in advance.
After she placed an ad in the paper, several news wires picked up the story
and this short newsreel excerpt features an interview with the prospective
Disc 3 - Toil and Tyranny
Uncle Sam and the Bolshevik (1919, 40 sec.) - Anti-union cartoon from
Ford Motor Company which pictures union organizers as rats intent on ruining
Crime of Carelessness (1912, 14 minutes) - In the Triangle Factory fire
of 1911, 146 workers, mostly young women, died when the overcrowded building
caught on fire. Fire exits were locked or led to dead ends, the fire
hoses had no water pressure, and fire escapes collapsed when workers used
them. There was a great public outcry against the owners so the National
Association of Manufacturers sponsored this film to try to improve the
image of sweat shop owners. In the film a man's cigarette starts
a fire (which is how it most probably was started in the Triangle factory)
at an unnamed workshop even though non-smoking signs are posted.
The movie lays the blame on workers, the management, and safety inspectors.
While this appears to be even-handed and fair, and effective as a piece
of propaganda, it's rather insulting. Down playing the owner's role
in providing equipment that he knew was faulty and the shoddy working conditions,
it tries to paint the tragedy as just one of those things that happens.
As even the title suggest, it was just carelessness, not greed.
Who Pays Episode 12 (1915, 35 minutes) - The final episode in a serial,
this chapter deals with overworked employees at a lumberyard. When
Karl (Henry King) is fired after getting his skull cracked for daring to
take a rest, his wife dies due to her "doubled labors". A union agitator
gets the workers to strike, and an unstable Karl steals a gun which ends
in tragedy. Like the previous film, this one takes an 'everyone is
to blame' attitude that comes across as a little bit ridiculous when viewing
the film today.
Labor's Reward (1925, 13 minutes) - This is the only surviving reel,
the third of five. Produced by the American Federation of Labor,
it urges people to buy union-made good only. Fairly weak, the pro-management
films earlier on this disc play a bit better.
Listen to Some Words of Wisdom (1930, 2 minutes) - An early talkie newsreel
about the best way to beat the Depression: namely spend all the money
you have. Being thrifty will only prolong the agony. It's rather
scary to think of people taking this advice in 1930 when the Depression
was just beginning.
Godless Girl (1928, 128 minutes) - Cecil B. DeMille's last silent picture,
this is a rather odd and preachy film. When Judy (Lina Basquette)
tries to start an atheist club at her school, the good, God-fearing students,
led by Bob (James Duryea1), raid the meeting
and a brawl is started. In the melee a girl falls over a stair railing
and dies. What do the authorities do? Throw Judy and Bob into
a juvenile detention facility wear the conditions are horrible. Tom
and Judy then escape, get captured, survive a fire, and somewhere along
the line fall in love. (Naturally.) Over the top even for a
DeMille film, the plot is so convoluted and unbelievable that it's really
hard to take the film seriously.
Disc 4 - Americans in the Making
Emigrants Landing on Ellis Island (1903, 2 minutes) - Newsreel footage
of people coming to the land of opportunity.
An American in the Making (1913, 15 minutes) - A film by U.S.
Steel that shows immigrants the opportunities for employment and assimilation
in the steel industry. It also takes the occasion to throw out some
worker safety tips too.
Ramona (1910, 16 minutes) - The Helen Hunt Jackson classic is filmed
by D.W. Griffith and features a very young Mary Pickford. This one
reel Biograph short cuts much of the book, naturally, and makes much more
sense if viewers have read the original.
(1929, 82 minutes) - A Paramount film shot mainly in two-strip Technicolor,
this was their first color movie as well as the final silent film that
the studio would make. It stars Richard Dix as Wing Foot, the son
of a Navajo chief who goes off to college and tries to learn the ways of
the white people. There he isn't accepted there however and returns
to his village. When the woman that he loves, a member of a different
tribe, is going to be force to marry another against her will, Wing Foot
decides to take matters into his own hands.
An interesting film from a historical stand point, it's only mildly
entertaining today. The plot is unusual since it shows the friction
not only between whites and Indians but between different Indian tribes
too. The film was going to be all color, but the cost of the color
stock was too high forcing the director to switch to black and white film
for the scenes taking place in the white-man's world. While this
was accidental, it did create a nice effect when watching the film.
United Snakes of America (1917, 80 sec) - An animated short from Ford,
it warns good Americans about the dangers of dissenters and people who
want to keep us out of WWI.
Sam donates for Liberty Loans (1919, 75 sec.) - A patriotic cartoon that
entices people to buy Liberty Bonds to "Bring our boys home."
100% American (1918, 14 minutes) - Mary Pickford lent her talents to
this short. She plays a girl who stops spending her money on useless
items and saves up to buy war bonds instead.
Bud's Recruit (1918, 26 minutes) - King Vidor's earliest surviving film,
this movie tells the tale of two brothers, Bud, a young enthusiastic American
who can't wait to become old enough to volunteer and beat the Kaiser, and
Reggie, an effeminate young man who is old enough to join, but doesn't.
Bud's got a trick up his sleeve however. A well told film that
is very enjoyable.
The Reawakening (1919, 10 minutes) - Another film from the Ford Motor
Company. In WWI over 10% of the 2 million Americans who were sent
Europe returned wounded. This short shows how maimed vets can be
made good as new with artificial limbs. An upbeat film, it takes
a rather simplistic look at the problem.
Eight Prohibition Newsreels (1922-23, 13 minutes) - An amusing look
at Prohibition. This collection of newsreel footage shows raids on
bootleggers as well as clips from politicians of the day. It's interesting
to note how the tone of the pieces change over the ten years these clips
were filmed. A fun and enjoyable way to finish off the collection.
All of the selections were accompanied by music composed and performed
by a wide variety of musicians, and they all fit the pieces well.
There were no audio defects and the discs sounded fine.
These films were all restored by the various archives that contributed
to this set, and they look wonderful. There is some variation to
the quality of the image, and a few films show signs of decomposition,
but they generally have excellent contrast, a good amount of detail, and
a wide range of grey hues. Like the two previous sets, these films
These films all come with commentary tracks from a wide range of film
scholars and historians who offer some very interesting insights.
While a couple of commentators merely state the action that's happening
on the screen, the majority talk about the background of the film, especially
the social conditions at the time.
Each film also comes with on-screen notes which are reproduced in nice
192-page book included with the set.
Anyone who is interested in early film or American history should run
out and buy this set. Like the two previous collections, this group
of 48 movies is a must have. Highly Recommended.
1) James apparently changed his screen name to Tom
Keene, presumably in an effort to get better parts since it sounded better.
It didn't really work as he spent most of his career in b-movie westerns
and his last part was in Ed Wood's infamous Plan 9 from Outerspace.