Silent DVD Archive
With this column I was hoping to start keeping a list of silent movies that are scheduled to be released. Unfortunately, the hard drive on my computer crashed the other day, and I no longer have that information. I'll start the list with the next column, so stay tuned.
For this installment, I'm going to take a look at a DVD set I've been eagerly anticipating, the Nation Film Preservation Foundation's second anthology of rare films.
More Treasures from American Film Archives
One of the problems with being a silent film buff is that after a while it is hard to find early films to view. It has often been said that 85% of silent films are no longer in existence, but where are the hundreds of films did survived? A large majority of them are in film archives, institutions that collect and restore our film heritage. The problem is that few of these saved films can be seen outside of the archives themselves. That is until now. The National Film Preservation Foundation has, once again, taken some of the most striking and interesting examples of film from the major archives in the United States and released them on DVD. In More Treasures from American Film Archives 1884-1931 fifty features and shorts, in addition to six previews for lost movies and serials, have been made readily available to the general public.
During the period that this compilations covers, movies went from a
curiosity to a disreputable form of blue collar entertainment to the fourth
largest industry in the United States. Movies grew up in this period,
people came to realize that film could create strong emotions in people,
it could educate, and entertain. The art of film making progressed
greatly too, with new techniques and methods making movies more vibrant
and able to tell their stories in a more engaging manner. Arguably
this was the most important time for the film industry. You can witness
and track these transformations in the movies included in this collection.
All of the films included in this set are rare, many coming from the only surviving complete source. This collection has behind the scenes footage of the filming of Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed, early experiments is color film and synchronized sound, a feature staring the actor whose box office draw saved Warner Brothers studio in the 1920's (can you guess who it is?), the 1910 version of the Wizard of Oz, the film of an Oscar Wilde play that uses none of his dialog, and early animation along with dramas, adventure films and even a singing duck.
This is a fantastic compilation because not only are many of the films rare and historically interesting, most of them are very enjoyable also. There are many films that you'll want to view multiple times for the sheer entertainment value. I've already watch A Bronx Morning several times, screening it for friends and family.
The best part of this set though, is that by purchasing it you are helping to preserve even more of America's film heritage. Profit from the sale of this set will be used to support more film restorations and preservation.
All of these films have been restored and look absolutely beautiful. The quality is excellent, with many of these films looking better than they probably would have if you'd seen them in a nickelodeon 100 years ago. That isn't to say that they are all perfect. Many films have missing frames or some light nitrate disintegration and dirt spots and scratches are visible in most, if not all, of the movies included in this set. This shouldn't dissuade anyone from viewing it though, since you will never see these films looking any better.
As an extra, many of the films include commentary tracks by various film scholars and historians. These were almost universally informative and enlightening and knowing a bit about the history and background of the films made them more enjoyable. The set also contains a wonderfully informative book that is nearly 200 pages long. In addition to giving the credits and transfer speed of each movie, this book also gives a synopsis and background information on the creators, producers, and technical information of the filming processes used. It is a great resource and the perfectly supplement to the DVDs.
There were many films on this collection that I really liked. Being a fan of movie serials, I was excited to see a chapter of The Hazards of Helen, and the Charley Bowers film, There it Is, was a wonderful surrealist romp. Clash of the Wolves is an entertaining feature and A Bronx Morning was an amazing look at New York at the height of the depression. This collection has something for everyone, no matter what interests and tastes you have.
This collection includes the following films:
Dickson Experimental Sound Film
(ca. 1894) 15 seconds, with optional commentary by Patrick Loughney:
This is the first surviving sound film, a combination of filming a short
while recording the sound on a phonograph. It is amazing that this
survived at all because the wax audio cylinder was separated from the film
and it is only through luck that both sections still exist. Fortuitously
they were both preserved but in different archives. It wasn't realized
that they were part of the same film experiment until recently. Note
the large horn that they used to record the sound is prominently featured
in the image. A rare and unusual film.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West (1894) 1 min.: These are short filmed segments from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The acts include Annie Oakley and her sharp shooting, an Indian Buffalo Dance, and a man riding a bucking bronco.
The Suburbanite (1904) 9 min. with optional commentary by Steven Higgins: A comedy about New Yorkers moving to the suburbs and the trials and tribulations that such a move entails. When people move out to the wilds of New Jersey, they have to expect some troubles. Historically interesting, but not as funny as it might have seemed a hundred years ago.
The Country Doctor (1909) 14 min. with optional commentary by Tom Gunning: A D. W. Griffith melodrama about a doctor whose daughter comes down with a fever, and at the same time a poor ladies daughter is also facing death. A well crafted tragic film that has several very good scenes. Griffith pans the camera and isn't afraid to have the actors move towards and away from the camera. Of special note is the small role of the doctor's elder daughter played by a young Mary Pickford.
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (1910)
13 min.: The earliest surviving film of the Braum novel. Dorothy
goes to the world of Oz and has to fight the Wicked Witch. Some interesting
effects are used to simulate the tornado and some of the more imaginative
parts of the story, but the direction is still very static. It is
interesting to compare this film with the preceding one, made a year earlier.
In this film the camera does not move at all, and everything is filmed
as a medium shot. Still a fun film, if slightly confusing if you
aren't familiar with the story.
Four Early Advertising Films (1897-1926) 10 min. total, with optional commentary on the last film by Samuel Brylawski: A series of in-theater ads. There are commercials for Admiral Cigarettes and a hand soap, Flash Cleaner (which has a misframed image imposed over the middle of the frame,) Buy an Electric Refrigerator, advertising a trade show of new fangled electric ice boxes, and The Stenographer's Friend. This last piece is an eight minute short that shows how you can improve your office efficiency by purchasing an Edison Business Phonograph instead of hiring a girl to take dictation.
The Invaders (1912) 41 min. with optional commentary by Rennard Strickland: This Thomas Ince western features Lakota Sioux Indian actors. An Indian tribe signs a treaty with the US government, giving up some of their land for assurances that there will be no trespassing or settlers on the remaining Sioux territory. But when the railroad wants to put a track across the Sioux land, the local army post is ordered to protect the advance surveyors even though it is in violation of the treaty. When the Indians find they've been betrayed, they attack the railroad men and then the army fort, with predictable results. An interesting film that actually portrays the Indians in a sympathetic light. This was unusual, since the Indian Wars of the west were still very real to people at the time this was filmed. The Indians in the film certainly had heard of the battles that their fathers participated in. The scenes of Indian life in the tribe were reenacted by people who actually lived that way in the not too distant past. A unique look at life in the west.
The Hazards of Helen; Episode 26
(1915) 14 min. with optional commentary by Jennifer M. Bean: The
early serials were often action series with a female lead, where a plucky
woman gets into a jam and has to get out of it by using her wits.
Hazards of Helen was one such chapter play and it ran a record 119
weekly episodes! The stories were mainly self contained without cliff-hanging
endings, but still the patron kept returning to see Helen's next adventure.
This chapter has Helen (Helen Gibson) taking a job as a telegraph operator
on a rail line. When a train runs out of control and is on a collision
course with a passenger train, the plucky and resourceful Helen commandeers
a motorcycle to avert a catastrophe. An action packed short with
a nice stunt of Helen riding her motorcycle into the harbor when a draw
bridge is raised.
Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916) 58 min. with optional commentary by Robert Gitt and Randy Haberkamp: This Triangle film is one of the few existing movies where Dorothy Gish has a solo staring role. Elmo Lincoln, the first person to portray Tarzan on the screen also has a small supporting role. Gretchen (Gish) comes over to America from Holland to be with her father. The father, an engraver, has fallen on had times and is tricked into making plates for counterfeiting currency by the mob. Gretchen and her new boyfriend take it upon themselves to clear her father and bring the crooks to justice.
The commentary track was very interesting and talks about the restoration
of the film; how they reproduced the tinted scenes, how the intertitle
cards were handled, and which sections had to be elongated to more accurately
match the original film. (One scene only had four frames in the print
that survived.) A very good track that has a lot of information.
The Breath of a Nation (1919) 6 min with optional commentary by Donald Crafton: A sepia toned short cartoon that depicts the first day of prohibition on 1919.
De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb (1920) 12 min. with optional commentary by Rick Prekinger: An educational film produced by the Ford Motor Company. This is an area that has been greatly neglected by historians in general, but films produced by large corporations for education and good will were very prevalent until the middle of the last century and beyond. There have actually been more industrial films made than feature films. In this movie the steps that it takes to make a light bulb are illustrated. It is amazing how much of the process was still done by hand even in 1920.
Skyscraper Symphony (1929) 9 min.: A short film that shows skyscrapers from different angles and perspectives. An abstract film that works rather well, letting you look at a familiar object from a new perspective. This has the feel of a more modern work.
Greeting by George Bernard Shaw
(1928) 5 min. with optional commentary by Donald Crafton: An early sound
film featuring the famous playwright talking to the audience and making
faces. He does a Mussolini impersonation, a person that he describes
as “most genial” and “amiable.” It is fun to hear his Irish accent
and speech mannerisms.
The Streets of New York (1901-1903) 5 min. with optional commentary by Tom Gunning: Three short films that show city streets at the turn of the century. Altogether they only last five minutes, these films provide an interesting glimpse into the past; a short look at what life was like over 100 years ago. All the men walking by are wearing hats, as are the ladies and even the young boys. There is a scene of a fish market in a Jewish ghetto which is simply a pan across the market from a window, but show so much about the daily life of people in the city back then.
From Leadville to Aspen: A Hold-Up in the Rockies
(1906) 8 minutes with optional commentary by Tom Gunning: This
short was both entertaining and unique. It starts out with a camera
mounted on a train which starts to move. A good part of the movie
is a sort of documentary showing the country side and small towns as the
train travels through them. This was actually a genre of film at
the time, dubbed “Phantom Tourism” where locations were filmed from a moving
vehicle. What sets this short apart though, is that it turns into
a drama when the tracks are blocked off and some villains rob the train.
A fun and interesting film.
The ‘Teddy’ Bears (1907) 13 min. with optional commentary by Tom Gunning: Edwin S. Porter’s film version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” with a very masculine looking Goldilocks. The film contains a short section of very early stop motion animation where a group of teddy bears dance around. The animation was very sophisticated for such an early movie, with the bears doing several acrobatic tricks. The ending was rather surprisingly too.
Children Who Labor (1912) 13 min.
with optional commentary by Steven Ross: A film with a social conscience
that rallies against child labor. The owner of a mill will no longer
hire adult men, since he can pay children less. When the owner's
young daughter, Mildred, gets lost in the city she is taken in by a poor
family. The family's only source of income is their daughter works
in the mill since the father cant find a job. Mildred stays with
the family, and ironically gets a job in her fathers own factory where
she nearly works herself to death. A great film that comments on
a lifestyle that has been forgotten today, but was all to prevalent in
the early decades of the last century. Ironically in a film that
is railing against social injustices, the black porter on the train is
played by a white man in black face.
Early Color Films (1916-1929) 12 min. with optional commentary by Paolo Cherchi Usai: excerpts from three experimental color films. The first is an excerpt from an early Kodachrome film, Concerning $1000. This film was intended to publicize Kodak’s color film camera.
The second film is an excerpt from a promotional film touting the advantages of Brewster Color. This was a subtractive method of color that was competing with Technicolor (an additive method.) There was never a feature film filmed with Brewster color because of the difficulty in developing the film, and examples of this process are fairly rare.
The last experiment is The Flute of Khrishna, a seven minute dance film that is another Kodachrome experiment. This short used a more advanced version of Kodachrome and has very interesting colors. Though the colors are more muted, they do reproduce blue and dark green well.
The commentaries that accompanied these films was, again, very interesting. Usai talks about the various color techniques used in the films, and explains how they were different from each other. He also talks about how the image on the DVD compares to the original nitrate print, and the purpose and limitations of restoration.
The surviving reel of Lutos Blossom (Reel five of seven reels) (1921) 12 min. with optional commentary by Stephen Gong: This is the first feature that was made by a Japanese-American. This is a nice tinted print, though the story is a little hard to follow, being a section in the middle of the film.
Guy Visser and His Singing Duck
(ca. 1925) 90 sec. with optional commentary by Donald Crafton: An
early sound recording of a vaudeville act: A man who sings while being
accompanied by his duck. From now on whenever I bemoan of all the
vaudeville acts that were never recorded on film, Ill recall this short
and feel a bit better. Though it is rather bad, everyone that I've
shown it to has laughed.
Clash of the Wolves (1925) 74 min.:
The person who gets top billing in this feature isn't a person at all.
Hess a dog: Rin-Tin-Tin. The star was found as a pup
in a bomb crater in Lorraine, France during W.W.I by US Air Corporal Lee
Duncan who adopted the pup. When the war was over, Duncan brought
the German Shepherd back to his home in Los Angeles. Duncan
trained his dog well, and wanted to star him in a movie. He went
from studio to studio with a script and his dog, but received only rejections.
Then one day when he was making his rounds he saw a film crew that was
having trouble filming a wolf. Lee went up to the producer and told
him that his dog could do the scene in one take. They took him up
on it and Rin-Tin-Tin preformed so well they used him for the rest of the
film. The studio that was making that film, Man from Hell’s River,
was Warner Brothers, and it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The movie
turned out to be a hit, and so was the dog. Rin-Tin-Tin went on to
make 26 movies for WB before his death in 1932 and is credited with saving
the studio. When this movie was made in 1925, he was one of the biggest
box office stars in the world. After watching this film it is easy
to see why.
Rin-Tin-Tin plays Lobo: “A half-breed wolf- combining the savage strength of the wild, with the intelligence of his dog ancestry.” A forest fire at the beginning of the film forces Lobo and his pack out into the desert where they start attacking the local cattle herds. The ranchers gather together and try to hunt Lobo down and put a $100 bounty on his head, but catching a wolf as wily as Lobo isn't easy. There is also a romantic subplot involving a lonely Borax prospector, Dave, and May, the daughter of a local rancher. (We can only hope that Dave brought in his Borax claim quickly since in 1927 a large deposit of the mineral Kernite would supplant the use of Borax as a source of Sodium Borate -Encyclopedia John) When Lobo gets a thorn in his foot, Dave pulls it out and gains a trusted ally.
From a pure entertainment point of view, this was the best feature movie presented in this collection. It was a rip-roaring action yarn with plenty of adventure and a lot of laughs. There was a comic relief character, Alkali Bill (Heinie Conklin,) who added a lot of fun to the film. I loved the scene where Alkali put a false beard on Lobo so that no one would recognize him. But the main attraction are the great chase scenes with Lobo outsmarting the ranchers and the villains after Dave. A fun movie.
International Newsreel, Volume 8 Issue 97 (1926) 13 min. with optional commentary by Blaine M. Bartell: This 13 minute newsreel is from the Hearst organization covers a little of everything. There are sports, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, natural disasters and human interest stories. There is film of Musolini and a test of early British Tanks. This is a tinted print, as many newsreels of the time were, and is complete. According to the commentary early newsreels were not stored as complete films, but each individual story was archived separately for easy retrieval. While many of the political and sports stories were saved, the human interest pieces were often not. The fact that this reel was kept in a private collection and is intact makes it a rare find.
Now You’re Talking (1927) 9 min with optional commentary by Donald Crafton: an early Fleischer cartoon that mixed live action and animation. Sponsored by AT&T, this short relates the correct way to handle your telephone so as to not damage it. An interesting look at the telephone and its uses years ago.
There it Is (1928) 18 min.: This is a wonderful Charley Bowers film that was not included in Kino’s wonderful collection Charley Bowers (reviewed here.)
The Fuzz Faced Phantom has been haunting the Frisbee home in New York,
so the residents telegraph Scotland Yard to send their best detective to
capture the specter. They send Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) and his
assistant, a bug named MacGregor, who causes as much mayhem as the Phantom
before solving the case.
I’m a big fan of Bowers odd and bizarre shorts that mix live action mayhem with stop motion antics. This movie is another fine example of his work. In Bowers world, everything is wacky; a lady cracks an egg and a chicken grows out of the yolk, an empty pair of pants dance on a dresser, and Charley’s assistant is an animated bug. This surrealistic fantasy is wonderfully irreverent. The only complaint I have is that the music, a sort of experimental jazz piece, doesn’t fit well with the movie. Like the film, the score is a little odd and not melodious, but it distracts from the movie instead of complimenting it.
A Bronx Morning (1931) 11 min. with
optional commentary by Elena Pinto Simon: An interesting mixture of an
avant-garde film and a documentary. The camera takes a train trip
to the Bronx, and takes a look at an area of New York City at the height
of the depression. Director Jay Leyda creates some wonderful images
while documenting daily like in New York. A series of fire escapes
becomes beautiful and decorative, and falling pages of newspapers seem
to dance in the air. The montages scenes that he includes are wonderful
to watch, and the music fits well with the film.
The commentary by Elena Simon is very informative. I hadn't heard of Leyda before, but she gave some background to the man. Apparently the young budding film maker bought a movie camera and created this film in order to get accepted into the directorial program of the world’s first film school, the Moscow State Film School. The program was taught by Sergei Eisenstein himself who after seeing this movie allowed Leyda in. An interesting commentary to an engaging film.
Rip Van Winkle (1896) 4 min.: A short version of the famous Washington Irving Tale.
Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory
30 sec.: A staged glimpse of the Wizard of Menlo Park at work. He
stirs a mixture being heated on a Bunsen Burner and starts a filtration.
Life of an American Fireman (1903) 6 min. with optional commentary by Steven Higgins: An Edwin S. Porter film made for the Edison Company. A mixture of staged drama with actual footage of firemen in action, this short shows horse drawn fire wagons racing to the scene of a fire. A staged dramatic element is added at the fire by including a woman and child trapped in the building. It is interesting to note that the rescue scene is shown from the interior of the building in its entirety, and then you see how it looks from the exterior. There was no cross cutting between the two scenes.
Three films from the Westinghouse Works series
(1904) 6 min with optional commentary by Steven Ross: Three industrial
films from a Westinghouse factory. These type of real life films
were know as ‘actualities’ which were very popular and prevalent in the
early days of film. In these three films we see men working on large
generators on a factory floor, women wrapping copper wire around generator
cores (it is interesting to note that all of the women are in full length
dresses,) and a scene of hundreds people leaving the factory at the end
of the day. These movies were initially shown at the Westinghouse
auditorium in the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
Falling Leaves (1912) 12 min. with optional commentary by Jennifer M. Bean: This is a rare film directed by Alice Guy Blanché who is acknowledged as being the first female director. She owned and operated a film studio, the Solax Company, in New York where she made literally hundreds of films. Unfortunately, only a few of her films survive. This one reel film is loosely based on the O. Henry story The Last Leaf. A girl comes down with tuberculosis, and is not expected to survive. The doctor proclaims that the girl will die when the last leaf falls off of a tree outside of their house. The girl’s younger sister goes outside at night to tie the leaves on the trees so her sister won’t pass away, and as she is doing this encounters a doctor that can cure her ailing sibling.
The excellent commentary by historian Jennifer Bean goes into Blanché’s history as a film director and she also points out the interesting way that the director used space in the film.
Three Hollywood Promotional Films (1918-1926) 14 min total, with optional commentary by various scholars:
The first is a promotional reel aimed at exhibitors and used to sell
a now lost western movie serial Hands Up! It gives a brief
synopsis of the serial, introduces the stars (Ruth Roland was the female
lead) and the producer. Ironically, the director isn’t mentioned.
They make a big deal of the sets and show some of the stunts that occur
in the first episode.
Next up is a some incredibly interesting newsreel footage: a behind the scenes look at the filming of Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed. Behind the scenes footage is very rare for silent films, and to have some from a film that is famous for its lost footage is a double treat. This footage shows the cast and crew on location in Death Valley in August filming the climax of the movie. One item of note: the footage shows a piano and violin combo playing music while the actors are performing. This was a common practice while shooting silent movies, but who would have expected it in Death Valley? Though the director or stars are not mentioned by name or shown in close-ups, this is still a great treat.
The last short shown in this section is “Movie Lover’s Contest #4" a contest where $10,000 in prizes were offered to viewers who could name the film as stars in various movie clips. (Of course there was a catch...you had to attend the theater for 40 straight days to see all of the contest clips, and then the prize money was divided by all of the theaters participating. So each winner received about $100.) The notes to the film give the answers to this contest.
Two De Forest Phonofilms (1923-1924) 11 min. with optional commentary by Donald Crafton: two early sound experiments. The first is A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor where the famous performer tells some jokes and then launches into a song and dance number. The second of these early sound experiments is of President Calvin Colidge giving a speech on the grounds of the White House. This was a political speech made during the 1924 election. (His two rivals for the office also made audio movies, which are not included in this collection.)
Inklings, Issue 12 (1925) 6 min.: An amusing cartoon by Dave Fleischer that starts with a hand draws pictures of children, and then the images morph into what the child will look like as an adult, with appropriately humorous intertitle cards. It finishes with an amazing stunt. The hand cuts out a silhouette of a barn from a sheet of paper. The artist then cuts out shapes of the inhabitants of the farm, a farmer, his daughter, the cow and chicken, out of the barn. When he is done he has half a dozen figures with no waste paper left over, when he then reassembles into a barn. Very creative and enjoyable.
Lady Windermere's Fan (1925) 89 min with optional commentary by Jay Carr: This is one of the most surprising films in this collection. A silent adaptation of an Oscar Wilde play sounds like it would be horrible. The dialog and witty banter are what Wilde’s plays are noted for. How could you get that to come across in a silent movie? I was imagining that people would be standing around talking, with intertitle cards flashing up with the jokes. Watching something like that would be a very tedious affair, but director Ernst Lubitsch didn’t fall into such an easy trap. Astonishingly, he didn’t quote the play at all! He was able to strip away the wonderful lines and reduce the play down to its essence. Creating a movie that is true to the original and still very entertaining.
Cockeyed: Gems from the Memory of a Nutty Cameraman (ca. 1925) 3 min, with optional commentary by Paolo Cherchi Usai: An interesting excerpt from a Pathé Newsreel. This short section features trick photography of the type that Melies experimented with decades earlier, but without a narrative structure. The odd views of the Manhattan skyline growing and moving and the scenes of cars disappearing behind trees or people walking backward while not new are decidedly bizarre.
Prologue from The Passaic Textile Strike
(1926) 18 min. with optional commentary by Steven Ross: This is a
‘docudrama’ that was made by striking workers in one of the longest and
most bitter strikes in US history, while the strike was still going on.
The film, funded by the American Communist Party, is a drama that shows
the reasons why the workers went on strike. The film tries to explain
that they workers are not striking to cause unrest but to get the right
to earn a living wage. They used the actual strikers as actors and
included footage of conditions at the mills involved in the strikes.
An effective movie.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) 4 min. with optional commentary by Donald Crafton: Another Fleischer cartoon, this one featuring Ko-Ko the clown who presents a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing along. (No relation to the Langdon film of the same name.)
Zora Neale Hurston's fieldwork footage of the
South (1928) 7 min. with optional commentary by Carla Clampton:
Zora Neale Hurston collected African-American folklore from the deep south,
going to mines and work camps throughout the southern US. Hurston
was a black woman who traveled by herself by car, quite unusual for the
1920's. These movies that she shot show the lowest of the social
classes; working, playing, and at church. A document of way of life
that no longer exists. The engrossing commentary track talks about
Hurston’s life and work and quotes from her writing at length.
Trailers for six lost films (1923-1929)
10 minutes total with optional commentary by Jennifer M. Bean, Donald Crafton,
and Tom Gunning. A great collection of trailers from the silent eta.
It is interesting to note that the plot was often not revealed in these
trailers, rather exciting scenes were shown but never put into context
of the film. The most interesting trailer was to the Ernst Lubitsch
feature The Patriot staring Emil Jannings.
I can’t stress how pleased I am with this set. In addition to being rare and unique the films in this set are very enjoyable and entertaining. The commentaries and detailed book that accompanies the set add to the value of this collection. My highest recommendation. This set belongs in the DVD Talk Collector’s Series.
Thanks to those of you who e-mailed and let me know about upcoming DVDs and with your comments and corrections. I appreciate it!
Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.
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