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More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931
Image / National Film Preservation Foundation
B&W & color
1:37 flat full frame
9.5 hours
Street Date September 7, 2004 / 79.95

Starring 17 critics, historians and preservationists
Music Curated by Martin Marks
Curated by Scott Simmon

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant gave a full rundown on the first Treasures from American Film Archives at this time four years ago (how the world has transformed since) and was delighted with its eclectic mix of rarities, antiquities and avant-garde curiosities spanning sixty years or so. For their second release, the National Film Preservation Foundation concentrates on an older selection of one-of-a-kind films that chart in minute detail the development of the film form before it was taken over by Hollywood production.

There are several full-length features here, but the surprise of the set is finding out how early and how eagerly film was used for purposes we probably think were developed much later: promotions, advertising, public relations, public service, social propaganda and even movie trailers.

The films are arranged on three discs in an easily navigated menu system that shuttles one quickly between content without a lot of animation ... as there are so many films and so many text extras, even a repeated music cue would soon induce nausea. The content is deep and thorough, with an academic slant that doesn't preclude entertainment value. Most shows are accompanied by an optional commentary track from an archivist or professor, a group with a wide range of speaking styles and senses of humor. The shows are also backed up by screen text pages detailing every known fact about each film - and if facts are a mystery, never resorting to generalities. There are also notes about the musical accompaniments chosen, which vary almost as much as the films do.

Finally there's a thick bound book that serves as sort of a published 'museum document' to augment the package, with vital stats and learned opinions on each show.

Although some films are from paper prints filed in Washington DC, the majority of what's shown here is of excellent quality. Finally we get to see silent movies properly framed (reprinting to the Academy aperture often cropped them on three sides) and in some cases in original tints and colors.

Here's a ragged breakdown of the full contents:

Disc 1:

Dickson Experimental Sound Film 1894 - One man plays the violin while two others dance - the best subject that could be rounded up in short notice?

Buffalo Bill's Wild West 1894 Annie Oakley, Buffalo Dance, Bucking Bronco - Three brief bits commemorate the famous show. Oakley tries to do her stuff on a stage the size of a small living room.

The Suburbanite 1904 - The notion of moving into a suburb is made into a farce, with movers breaking everything and the cook fighting the mother-in-law.

The Country Doctor 1909 - D.W. Griffith shows his superior style in a sentimental story of illness in the sticks.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 1910 - A clever program uses cheap effects but good stage-quality costumes and entertainingly silly dances.

Early Advertising Films Admiral Cigarette 1897 Flash Cleaner 1920 Buy an Electric Refrigerator 1926 The Stenographer's Friend 1910 - Advertisements never die. Here we get killer tobacco and an attempt to market a stenographic device that apparently never really worked.

The Invaders 1912 (short feature) - Francis Ford and/or Thomas Ince made this early Indian Western about Indian dealing with dishonest treaties.

The Hazards of Helen: Episode 26 1915 - A fun serial episode with a heroine who saves the day when the railroad breaks down ... but she apparently comes back in the next episode as a 'helpless' female who must prove herself all over again.

Gretchen the Greenhorn 1916 (feature) - Dorothy Gish in a terrific melting-pot drama. Young Gretchen arrives from Holland with a duck under her arm (it doesn't sing) and becomes involved with gangsters. Eventually she finds a nice Italian boy.

The Breath of a Nation 1919 - A Gregory La Cava / Grim Natwick animated comedy making fun of prohibition. Liquor turns an effeminate sissy into a he-man, we're given to understand here.

De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb 1920 - Another industrial film contrasts hand-blown light bulbs with the new machine age method.

Skyscraper Symphony 1929 - Film experimentalist Robert Florey makes an avant-garde film just looking up at New York's tall buildings. The first token 'art' film on this set.

Greeting by George Bernard Shaw 1928 - Shaw addresses his audience briefly in this charming record of the great author. If only we had films like this of Abraham Lincoln.

Disc 2:

The Streets of New York 1901-03 What Happened on 23rd Street, At the Foot of the Flatiron, New York "Ghetto" Fish Market -
Delightful glimses of sidewalk traffic - true documentaries. Watching the pedestrians all concerned to keep their hats from blowing away is funnier than the gag of the lady's dress being blown up by the subway grating ... 50 years before The Seven Year Itch.

From Leadville to Aspen, a Hold-Up in the Rockies 1906 - This isn't as advanced as The Great Train Robbery but it is a fascinating mix of travelogue (all the scenery seen from the front of a train) and a robbery story, with some very-well timed action, condsidering the whole film is only two or three takes.

The "Teddy" Bears 1907 - Hilarious. An abbreviated version of the nursery tale ends with Teddy Roosevelt shooting Ma and Pa bear dead, confiscating their stock of Teddy Bear toys for Goldilocks, and marching Baby bear off to captivity!

Children Who Labor 1912 - A serious use of the new medium propagandizes the need to stop child labor abuse.

Early Color Films Concerning $1,000 (excerpt) 1916, Exhibition Reel of 2-Color Film (excerpt) 1929, The Flute of Krishna 1926 - Three different approaches to color. The first is 2-lens Kodachrome, then Brewster Color (several cartoons) and then a Martha Graham performance with her students doing Indian-style dances.

Lotus Blossum (surviving reel of feature) 1921 - An adventure story filmed by Chinese Americans. The title cards have both English and Chinese text.

Gus Visser and his Singing Duck 1925 - A quickie recording of a vaudeville act. Weird performer Visser sings a ditty, punctuated by the duck quacking. It's better than Aflack! and you can't see Visser squeezing the duck or anything ...

Clash of the Wolves (feature) 1925 - A full length Rin-Tin-Tin adventure from Warners.

International Newsreel 1926 - A rare intact newsreel with full logos and titles

Now You're Talking 1927 - A longish Fleischer-animated film teaches telephone etiquette and proper treatment of Ma Bell's equipment. Includes old telephones being taken to the hospital for emergency care.

There It Is 1928 - A wacky Charlie Bowers comedy about a detective and his animated Scottish aide, a tiny fuzzy creature. Bizarre.

A Bronx Morning 1931 - another experimental film is Jan Leyda's artfully-constructed series of views of street scenes from elevated trains, etc.

Disc 3:

Rip Van Winkle 1896 - In the beginning, involved stories were told with several short films, projected separately. One shot = one film. These add up to four minutes.

Mr. Edison at Work in his Chemical Laboratory 1897 - just a shot of the genius "at work" pretending to mix chemicals. He doesn't spit on the floor once.

Life of an American Fireman 1903 - The famous movie about firemen rescuing a family that was later re-edited, confusing film history when critics assumed it introduced parallel intercutting. This is the original cut.

Westinghouse Works 1904 - A big company's record of its giant factories. One long trucking shot taken from an overhead gantry is impressive.

Falling Leaves 1912 - Alice Guy Blachés story about tuberculosis, censored because of its progressive treatment ideas.

Hollywood Promotional films Hands Up (exhibitor's reel) 1918, C-V News (filming Greed) 1923, Movie Lover's Contest 1926 - It's not very edifying knowing the kind of promo drek I cut for years was being done this early. There's hoo-haw touting a new serial, some okay shots of the crew of Greed in the desert (no stars or Von Stroheim), and an annoying quiz contest.

De Forest Phonofilms A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor 1923, President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds 1924 - Eddie Cantor's vaudeville patter and Coolidge's serious speechifying are recorded for all time. Cantor looks like he'd be more fun as President.

Inklings 1925 - Fleischer animation turns clever drawing tricks into a short subject: we see a bearded man being drawn, and then the picture is inverted and it becomes a wolf ...

Lady Windemere's Fan (feature) 1925 - An entire Ernst Lubitch silent comedy, intact and in great shape. Ronald Colman seduces May McAvoy in Oscar Wilde's story -- without dialogue.

Cockeyed 1925 - Trick cameraman Alvin Knechtel plays Weegee-like tricks with split screens. Very well done, and proves that silent cameras had excellent registration - no weave or jitter here at all.

The Passaic Textile Strike 1926 - New Jersey strikers had their own propaganda weapon to counter big business-controlled news outlets in this prologue for a Union pride film. This is the 'communist menace' as perceived in the 1920s.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp 1926 - An out of the inkwell Fleischer sing-along movie.

Zora Neale Hurston's Fieldwork Footage 1928 - Talk about ethnographic studies - this collection of filmic documents shows how rural Floridian blacks were living out in the logging camps.

Trailers for Lost Films 1923-28 - These trailers are sometimes the only surviving bits of lost features: In The Days of Daniel Boone, The Silent Flyer, The American Venus (with a short glimpse of Louise Brooks), The Great Gatsby, Beau Sabreur, and the lost Emil Jannings / Ernst Lubitsch film The Patriot.

I've already noted the technical quality of the films - all are as good as the elements preserved. The detail of the restoration goes down to the individual frame rate of the transfers, with some projected at 18, 20, 23, and 26 frames per second. These people obviously have researched everything available on these films.

Some of the archive heads who contribute commentaries veer toward the 'gracious host' method, but I prefer the enthusiasm of the college professors. They attack their film comments with everything they've got, and their theories about the effects of static scenes or the meaning of doors in sets are intriguing - even when I don't agree with them.

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894 - 1931 is an archival-quality resource disc set.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894 - 1931 rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 186 page guidebook
Packaging: 3 discs in 3 keep cases in card box
Reviewed: September 18, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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