Degradation of film stock has resulted in around 80 percent of American films from the 1910s and ’20s being lost forever, but thanks to the work of several organizations, a great variety of early cinematic art and entertainment survives. For the first time, early 20th-century life can be seen in moving images.
While many surviving films aren’t widely available, the National Film Preservation Foundation is trying to change that with a series of DVD boxed sets that mix film appreciation and history. More Treasures From American Film Archives 1894-1931 follows up the first Treasures set, which sprung from a collaboration between U.S. preservation organizations that have been conserving otherwise orphaned film gems for many years. The first set spanned from the dawn of cinema to 1895; the 36-year period covered by the new release creates a portrait of cinema’s formative years and the culture that surrounded its transformation—as the 186-page book puts it—“from a peep-show curio to the country’s fourth largest industry.” The project both creates interest and satiates the curiosity of those who don’t have the time and/or money to fly out to festivals and museums to watch the material.
The set contains 50 films, including four features, the Western prototype, The Invaders (1912), the light-romance/action immigrant tale Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), Rin-Tin-Tin smash hit Clash of the Wolves (1925) and Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925). While only the latter can really be called a masterpiece, all the films help illustrate the everyday entertainment of the times, rather than only the revolutionary classics.
In adapting Oscar Wilde’s first comedic play, Lubitsch decided to throw out the myriad witticisms that lightened the melodramatic plot, because too many inter-titles took away from proper storytelling. Yet the film still portrays its characters as good people trapped in a gossiping, judgmental society who can’t comprehend what’s happening. Lubitsch re-creates the essence of Wilde’s charm with his trademark attention to subtle mannerisms and suggestive sets.
Replicating the mixed-bag format of exhibitions at the time, each disc contains dramas, comedies, ads, newsreels, cartoons, experimental films, documentary footage and more. The movies go beyond their original intent to offer insight into the period’s culture. Industrial films such as a Ford Motor Co.-produced documentary on manufacturing light bulbs—made when the glass was still hand-blown—and an Edison ad for a Dictaphone demonstrate not only the technology of the time, but how it was sold. Likewise, trailers of lost films—most notably Lubitsch’s The Patriot (1928), starring the great Emil Jannings—offer glimpses into films we’ll probably never see and demonstrate Hollywood’s marketing strategy.
Collectors of oddities and Americana will find a healthy dose of pricelessly strange material. The first existing sound experiment—by W.K.L. Dickson, the most prominent U.S. film inventor, known for doing all the work at Thomas Edison’s lab—is worth half the set’s $79.95 price just for its obvious intention of never being shown. The film’s 15 awkward seconds foreshadow the clumsy transition to sound in the late ’20s, but now translates to surreal bliss that would have made Luis Buņuel jealous. In the famously small and undecorated Black Maria studio, Dickson plays the violin into a giant phonograph horn that takes up half the frame, while two men dance mechanically in the remaining space. Charles Bowers, one of the late stars of silent two-reelers, delivers There It Is (1927), a surreal ghost-story satire that incorporates stop-motion animation and special effects into an absurd story that would be at home in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. And something must be said for the 90-second sound film Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (1925), which has to be seen to be believed.
But whether displaying the gimmick acts of vaudeville or an amazingly not-ready-for-TV President Coolidge stiffly reading a speech outside the White House, More Treasures explores the ability of motion pictures to touch emotions and capture—although sometimes it’s the most bizarre interpretation of life you’ve ever seen.
MORE TREASURES FROM THE AMERICAN FILM ARCHIVES 1894-1931 Image Entertainment $79.95