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Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938

Image // Unrated // September 27, 2011
List Price: $59.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 12, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Collection:
The National Film Preservation Foundation has put together another excellent set of movies from American film archives.  This fifth collection, Treasures 5:  The West 1898-1938, features 40 films that run a total of over 10 hours spread across three discs.  Like its predecessors, this set is filled with rare and largely unseen movies and this time the focus is on the American West, both Western genre movies and vintage films portraying what life was like in the western states.  It's an excellent collection that is both educational and entertaining.

Western films have been popular since the beginning of film, both with moviegoers who enjoyed the action and romance of the old west, and with producers who were happy to cut costs by using any nearby undeveloped land in place of Texas or New Mexico.  There are several very good western genre films to be found in this collection.  One of the most interesting is The Sergeant (1910), which as filmed in Yosemite before it was a national park.  (At the time it was cared for by the US Calvary.)  This is some of the earliest footage of Yosemite and the producers definitely took advantage of the locations as the movie is filled with gorgeous landscapes, and some great action.
While most of the films in this set are shorts, there are some features including The Lady of the Dugout (1918) that boasts a real life outlaw:  Al Jennings.  Jennings wrote, produced, and stared in this movie about his life as a bank and train robber and head of the Jennings gang.  (Jennings was captured in 1897 and given a life sentence.  He was granted a full pardon by President Roosevelt in 1907.)  In this film Jennings retells some of his adventures, but casts himself and his gang as a modern day Robin Hood and his Merry Men.  After they rob a bank they give some of the loot to a starving woman and her child.  It's a fun film, and be sure to watch for a very young Ben Alexander who played Officer Frank Smith in the classic cop show Dragnet.
One of my favorite features in this collection has to be the Clara Bow film Mantrap (1926).  Made a year before she's achieve superstardom with he most well known film, The 'It' Girl, this movie shows Clara full of pep and energy.  She plays a city girl who marries a Canadian and moves with him back to the small town of Mantrap, where she proceeds to flirt with everyone there.  It's fun and funny and Clara exudes so much charm that it's easy to see why she was cast as the girl with 'it'.  The comic film is also aided by the fact that it was directed by Victor Fleming (who was behind the camera on both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz). 

There are several interesting short subjects that pretend to look at what life was like in the old west.  One of these curiosities is Life on the Circle Ranch in California (1912) that purports to show what cowboys do and how they spend their day.  It looked authentic to me until I played it with the commentary track by Donald Reeves who points out the myriad mistakes and errors that are made.
Another fun short is the early Sennett comedy The Tourists (1912).  This features a very young Mabel Normand as part of a couple taking a vacation.  When their train stops in Albuquerque NM, they get off and Mabel proceeds to buy up Native American crafts, much to the dismay of her husband.  They fight and Mabel storms off and meets the Indian Chief.  They flirt and he decides to run off with the young girl which gets his wife and the rest of the tribe in an uproar.  While the chief was played by one of the Sennett regulars, the rest of the extras were Indians who spent their time making traditional crafts just to sell to the tourists.

Speaking of tourists, there's an interesting travelogue that was produced by the Harvey Corporation and the Santa Fe Railroad Company, The Indian-detour (1926).  Harvey owned a chain of hotels, restaurants and gift shops in the west, and they teamed up with the railroad to create a three day vacation package where travelers could see authentic Indian rituals and habitats, and spend money in Harvey diners and shops.  This film promoted the excursion that ran for four decades and was one of the most popular vacations at the time.
There are also some great documentaries in this set as well, including my favorite film in this collection, We Can Take It (1935).  This film, made by the Dept. of Agriculture, was made to show what life was like in the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of FDR's programs to fight unemployment during the depression.  Men aged 18 to 25 could join.  They were given free lodging and three square meals a day as well as $30/month, of which $25 was automatically sent home to the man's family.  These youths went through a physical (where nearly 75% of them were discovered to be malnourished) and sent to work camps all across America building bridges and roads, creating parks on public lands, and even fighting forest fires.  It was a very well thought out program, with the local cities vying to get CCC camps located near them.  Not only did the area get new public works, but the local businesses reaped the benefits when the men went into town (especially after pay day) and the CCC promised to hire five local men to help run the heavy machinery.  After the work day was done, there were optional classes that the men could take in map-making and other skills related to their work that turned out to be very popular.  The final shot of this film is of a train load of CCC workers, all dressed in their green uniforms, waving goodbye from a train as they road off to home.  It was very reminiscent of the scenes of GI's going off to war which was a case of ironic foreshadowing because 90% of the men who joined the CCC would end up fighting in WWII.

In addition to all of that, the set has a rare early color film, a Gilbert M. Anderson Bronco Billy flick, newsreels of Indians arriving in Washington to talk with their representatives, a film starring Sessue Hayakawa and much, much more.  Like the other volumes, it's a fantastic and varied collection.
The DVDs:

This collection of films arrives on three DVDs, each with its own slimcase.  The three cases and a supplementary 110 page book are housed in a colorful thick-board slipcase.
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 previous sets, these films look magnificent.
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, the actors and people behind the camera, and impact it had when released.
I really appreciated the commentary tracks, especially the ones that discussed the social backgrounds to the films, such as Deschutes Driftwood and The Promised Land Barred to Hobos.  In both these commentaries the plight of homeless men looking for work are discussed and how they were treated.  There were a couple of commentaries that were a bit too analytical and took things a bit too far.  The track to Salomy Jane comes to mind.  While the commentator, Gary Scharnhorst, is obviously an expert on the works of Bret Harte (the author who wrote the book the movie was loosely based on) he goes into too much detail analyzing the Freudian symbolizism in the images of the movies.  A girl riding a horse through a stream isn't an establishing shot; it's a method of imbuing her with sexuality since a horse is a symbol of virility.  The same doesn't apply to a man riding through town apparently.  Since the movie was made in 1914, it's rather doubtful that the director was aware of Freud or his theories on sexuality.
Final Thoughts:
Treasures 5:  The West 1898-1938 us a great set filled with many rarities and little seen films.  There are newsreels, travelogues, features, and shorts, all of which deal in some way with some of the American West.  With films made by Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith and stars such as Mabel Normand and Clara Bow, there's a lot of solid entertainment here in addition to the historical and educational value of these films.  The National Film Preservation Foundation has created another must-buy collection that easily earns DVDTalk's highest recommendation.  DVDTalk Collector Series.  
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