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from American Film Archives

Treasures from American Film Archives

Produced by The National Film Preservation Foundation

Distributed by Image Entertainment

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Treasures from American Film Archives is a hefty box containing a bounty of cinematic history and entertaining film rarities. It is the culmination of a Millenial project by 18 American film archives, coming together for the first time to present some of the treasures they are preserving. I urge anyone interested in the scope of this non-profit enterprise to investigate the link to the website of The National Film Preservation Foundation for specific details. Savant can only hope to explain the format and features of this bountiful package, and to describe some of the 50 preserved films it contains.

The unfussy but attractive navigation system on the four discs is a model of organizational thinking. When played, each disc starts with a musical intro and some graphics that lead into that disc's contents. Each film presents the viewer with a menu frame that allows them a number of choices: to play the film, and to access informational text pages on the film, the music on its soundtrack, and the archive that preserved it. If you hit the advance chapter button within a film, it returns you to this same menu, making it very difficult to become lost. Advancing to the next selection or the previous one is done from this same menu. With so many unfamiliar films and choices, somebody used some very good sense here. Along with the discs comes a fat guidebook of program notes, a very welcome sight.

So what's preserved? More variety than one would imagine. Silent shorts, silent features, avant-garde films, documentaries, newsreels, cartoons, experimental animation, travel films, industrial training films, political ads, and even home movies make up the collection of 50. Each disc has at least one longform feature. Savant watched all of the following in two very long evenings, and was never once bored:

Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert

NOTE - This is only a fraction of the contents of TREASURES FROM AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES.

THREE AMERICAN BEAUTIES, a film as simple as a greeting card, comprised of only three beautifully hand-tinted shots. A rose, a beautiful woman, and the American flag. 1906.

THE CONFEDERATE IRONCLAD, a civil war drama very similar to the Ted Turner television movie, but only sixteen minutes long. The action is primitive but the Ironclad boat is impressive; the program notes are fairly sure it was a prop that pre-existed and inspired the movie. 1912.

HELL'S HINGES, an entire silent film in perfect condition, usually only seen in stills or short clips. W.S. Hart is reformed by the love of a good woman (the sentiment is very bible-oriented) in this western classic. Clint Eastwood's HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would seem to be a remake! 1916.

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is an experimental film gone crazy - with more double exposures and artistically - inflected compositions than 50 music videos. Roderick Usher must have been a mad optical printer operator. A very perfect print (like most all of these) makes this fascinating to watch. 1928.

TEVYE is a segment of a charming FIDDLER ON THE ROOF-like shtetl story, representing the Yiddish language cinema of the '30s. Its star, Maurice Schwartz, plays Tevye the Dairyman and also directed. 1939.

PRIVATE SNAFU: SPIES is a Warners cartoon written by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr Seuss for the war effort. Geisel's inimitable rhymes tell the story of maladroit Snafu singlehandedly causing a military calamity, simply because he can't keep his trap shut. Riotously racist Jap(anese) stereotypes and vicious ribbing of Nazis reminds us that even in animation, war is war. Savant edited a Cartoon Network show last year that included clips from this short - but the copy on this disc is much better than what we had to work with. 1943.

OFFON is the quintessential experimental head-trip film, a nonstop 9 minutes of pulsing imagery fused with a strange soundtrack of noises and 'found' audio. Double exposures, video feedback and flashing flicker effects might make trouble for epileptic viewers, so take care. 1968.

THE TOLL OF THE SEA is an entire silent feature starring Anna May Wong, that also happens to be the first feature shot in 2-Strip Technicolor. The pale hues are perfectly preserved here. Its accompaniment is also the original score, shown together for the first time since the '20s. 1922.

THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO is John Huston's famous WW2 documentary, one of the best ever made. It includes the introduction by General Mark Clark, who tries to contradict Huston's main point - that San Pietro was not a key battle but an ordinary, necessary grindhouse conflict, and that glory and significance are qualities added later by politicians and the media. The program notes explain that the government took out a scene where Huston contrasted some interviews with fresh-faced young soldiers, with their corpses not much later. Huston said the government was right to yank the footage ... but his version sounds more truthful. 1945.

THEMIS is an abstract visuals-counterpointed-to-music avant-garde film, which reminds one of some of the passages of the original (extinct?) FANTASIA. It interested Savant because it very closely resembles his film-school mental ideas of what an abstract film should look like. This proves Savant's college creativity was thirty years out of date.1940.

NEGRO LEAGUES BASEBALL got me because it was simply hilarious. But it also has a double edge. While watching these incredibly talented players doing Harlem-Globetrotters tricks, only with baseballs, there's a strange consciousness (now) of how being 'talented' was once the only way for a black American to be accepted in public. The archivists don't know why this film was shot ... probably to record the skills of the amazing "Goose" Tatum. There are a number of other Negro league players to be seen in the peripheries. 1946.

THE THIEVING HAND is one of the cleverest combinations of silent comedy and vaudeville-style talent Savant has seen. It's the simple tale of a magic 'artificial' arm that, once in place in a host socket, begins stealing incessantly. Made probably only to provoke laughter, this weirdness might have something to say about the concept of charity. 1908.

WE WORK AGAIN is a depression-era morale booster about African-Americans, the kind of document Nicholas Ray is said to have filmed for the federal government. Although it shows Juanita Hall (South Pacific's Bloody Mary) leading a choir, the historical grabber here is a filmed record of the conclusion of Orson Welles' legendary Black MacBeth stage play, one of the pre-War of the Worlds highlights (stunts?) of his career. 1937.

JAPANESE AMERICAN COMMUNITIES. There are lots of home movies in this collection, from simple views of home towns to European vacations to a trip on the Hindenberg. This is the most gripping, simply a selection of shots of Japanese-American children posing for the camera, and whole families going to church. The sweet American faces of these people, who were presumably all incarcerated only ten years later, elicit tears of remorse. The social contradictions shouted by PC reformers are REAL... 1927-32.

THE WALL. Just as heart wrenching is this propaganda film about the construction of the Berlin Wall, that contains almost no propaganda whatsoever. The views of the machine gun-toting guards, the way the wall chops right through the middle of the city, are extremely sinister. And the real footage of escapes and murders in the free-fire zone are unforgettable. 1962.

THE LAND BEYOND THE SUNSET is a creepy little 'fairy tale' that starts as a silent two-reeler about NYC slum life. A mistreated tenement boy is given a ticket to a country picnic, that for him is heaven itself. He fantasizes himself a participant in the story read by a friendly woman. But the ending is very strange, maybe even macabre. A little classic. 1912.

THE NEWS PARADE OF 1934, a year we don't necessarily associate with any Earth-shattering historical significance, turns out to be a barrage of assassinations, riots and unrest in this annual newsreel recap. The curt way the narrator passes off a labor riot, without even a mention of what the issues at hand might be, is chilling in its message to us: nothing has changed in the media. 1934.

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A JEEP is a lighthearted valentine to the 'soldier's friend', with some of the most dangerous-looking footage of bouncing, flying jeeps to be seen. Didn't these things often turn over and kill soldiers? A beautifully-made film, it makes you want to go out and kiss a Jeep right on the Willys. Better rethink that line. 1943.

MARIAN ANDERSON: THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL CONCERT is the best and fairest racial document Savant has seen. The occasion is singer Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday rendition of 'America', a concert which came about because the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Anderson sing. This so outraged Eleanor Roosevelt that she arranged a solo venue for the contralto at the Lincoln Memorial. The performance is preceded by an address to the massed audience of mostly blacks by the secretary of the interior. It now seems smug and patronizing, but was probably a courageous precedent at the time. Very touching, even when the newsreel cameras stop after only the first few bars of Anderson's performance. 1939.

Image's DVD set is impeccably produced and packaged. Each of these films, if shown at all, was previously a projector-beaten 16mm print with a fuzzy soundtrack, or in the case of many films, no soundtrack at all. The accompaniments are always well-chosen and perfectly recorded. Savant will be pulling this set out for a long time to come.

There are so many other films of note here - I didn't even get to some of the longform features in the collection. The titles above grabbed Savant upfront, and made him watch all the way through. Obviously this would make an inspired classroom set, and for much more than just film studies. Treasures from American Film Archives is a nigh priceless document.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Treasures from American Film Archives rates:
Movie: Excellent, and there's eleven hours of amazing footage here.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 137-pg. book of program notes
Packaging: Boxed set of 4 carboard disc-holders case
Reviewed: September 29, 2000

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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