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OBSESSED with Film Preservation: Treasures from the American Film Archives

by Mark Zimmer

A full review of everything here would challenge the length of Lord of the Rings. But from a cursory view of this set, I can tell you that I recommend this set to anyone with the slightest interest in early film as highly as anything I've ever recommended.

If you've read many of my reviews on this site, you probably have gleaned that among other things, I'm OBSESSED with both early film and film preservation, two topics which are really one and the same. All too often, early celluloid was permitted to deteriorate to the point that an estimated 85 percent of all silent films are now lost. Even when preserved, these films were rarely seen by the public, or were shown at inappropriate speeds, creating the familiar ludicrous sped-up motion that most people associate with the silent film.

On October 3, 2000, Image Entertainment, in conjunction with the National Film Preservation Foundation, quietly issued a four-DVD box set that marks a splendid beginning toward setting things right with our film heritage. Eighteen different archives, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Archive™, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian have contributed fifty films, live and animated, short and feature-length, silent and sound, on this incredible document of preservation.

This is not a review of the set; these DVDs clock in at over ELEVEN HOURS of film, and it would take me the better part of a month to do it justice. A full review of everything here would challenge the length of Lord of the Rings. But from a cursory view of this set, I can tell you that I recommend this set to anyone with the slightest interest in early film as highly as anything I've ever recommended.

Partial contents include several hilarious bits of animation, such as The Original Movie (1922) and a Private Snafu cartoon from 1943 (with the combined talents of Chuck Jones, Mel Blanc and Dr. Seuss!); John Huston's astonishing combat documentary, The Battle of San Pietro; a full William S. Hart western feature from 1916, Hell's Hinges with an incredible fiery climax; an avant-garde interpretation of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher from 1928; footage of Negro League baseball; early documentaries and early home movies (including those of Groucho Marx); transfers of Library of Congress paper prints to film; brief films from the Edison company in the first decade of cinema; the 1916 silent feature of Snow White which inspired Walt Disney to make his animated feature; footage of the Hindenburg, and an excerpt from Marian Anderson's famous Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939.

The video quality is exceptional, considering the age of many of these films. Many of them show hardly any deterioration whatsoever; others show some of the ravages of times but we're damned lucky to have any of these films survive, in any form. They are all lovingly transferred at the correct frame speed, with the silents having a newly recorded piano and organ score. This track is noiseless and from what I've seen, quite good. The audio on the sound films is somewhat on the noisy side, but that's to be expected in material of this age, shot with primitive equipment.

With the boxed set (though the box itself is a little on the flimsy side) we get a full-length book, detailing all fifty films, with reference to their importance, notes on the musical scores and information about their preservation. These notes are also duplicated on the disc for easy reference; there are also hyperlinks in the text to take you to specific screenshots. The book makes for highly fascinating reading all by itself.

Best of all, part of the proceeds goes to the National Film Preservation Foundation, so that you can help more early films be preserved and enjoyed by future viewers. At the list price of $99.99, this set is an incredible bargain; it would be cheap at twice the price. Anyone OBSESSED with early film and film preservation will definitely want this set in his or her library.

Academy Film Archive, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences(tm)

  • Luis Martinetti, Contortionist (1894, 1 minute), peepshow kinetoscope of the Italian acrobat made by the Edison Co.
  • Caicedo, King of the Slack Wire (1894, 1 minute), the first film shot outdoors at the Edison Studios.
  • The Original Movie (1922, 8 minutes), silhouette animation satire on commercial filmmaking, by puppeteer Tony Sarg.
  • Negro Leagues Baseball (1946, 8 minutes), footage featuring Reece "Goose" Tatum, the Indianapolis Clowns, and the Kansas City Monarchs.

Alaska Film Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

  • The Chechahcos (1924, 86 minutes), first feature shot entirely on location in Alaska.

Anthology Film Archives
  • Rose Hobart (1936, 19 minutes), artist Joseph Cornell's celebrated found-footage film.
  • Composition 1 (Themis) (1940, 4 minutes), Dwinell Grant's stop-motion abstraction.
  • George Dumpson's Place (1965, 8 minutes), Ed Emshwiller's portrait of the scavenger artist.

George Eastman House
  • The Thieving Hand (1908, 5 minutes), special-effects comedy.
  • The Confederate Ironclad (1912, 16 minutes), Civil War adventure, here accompanied by the original music score, in which the tough heroine saves the day.
  • The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912, 14 minutes), social problem drama about a tattered newspaper boy who yearns for a better life.
  • Snow White (1916, 63 minutes), live-action feature of the Brothers Grimm tale starring Marguerite Clark.
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, 13 minutes), avant-garde landmark created by James Sibley Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber from Poe's short story.

Japanese American National Museum

  • From Japanese American Communities (1927-32, 7 minutes), home movies shot by Rev. Sensho Sasaki in Stockton, California, and Tacoma, Washington.

Library of Congress
  • Demolishing and Building Up Star Theatre (1901, 1 minute), the time-lapse demolition of a New York building, preserved from a paper print.
  • Move On (1903, 1 minute), Lower East Side street scene, preserved from a paper print.
  • Dog Factory (1904, 4 minutes), trick film about fickle pet owners, preserved from a paper print.
  • Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909, 5 minutes), special-effects fantasy of a tormented smoker, by the Vitagraph Company.
  • White Fawn's Devotion (1910, 11 minutes), probably directed by James Young Deer and the earliest surviving film by a Native American.

Minnesota Historical Society

  • Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939, 14 minutes), small town portrait by amateur filmmakers, Dr. and Mrs. Dowidat.

Museum of Modern Art

  • Blacksmithing Scene (1893, 1 minute), first U.S. film shown publicly.
  • The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903, 1 minute), comic sketch with celebrated early editing.
  • Interior New York Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. (1905, 5 minutes), filmed by Biograph's Billy Bitzer shortly after the subway's opening.
  • Hell's Hinges (1916, 64 minutes), William S. Hart Western about a town so depraved that earns its own destruction.
  • The Lonedale Operator (1911, 17 minutes), D.W. Griffith's race-to-the-rescue drama, starring Blanche Sweet.
  • Three American Beauties (1906, 1 minute), with rare stencil color.

National Archives and Records Administration

  • We Work Again (1937, 15 minutes), WPA documentary on African American re-employment, including excerpt from Orson Welles' stage play of "Voodoo Macbeth".
  • The Autobiography of a Jeep (1943, 10 minutes), the story of the soldier's all-purpose vehicle, as told by the jeep itself.
  • Private Snafu: Spies (1943, 4 minutes), wartime cartoon for U.S. servicemen, directed by Chuck Jones and written by Dr. Seuss.
  • The Battle of San Pietro (1945, 33 minutes), celebrated combat documentary directed by John Huston.
  • The Wall (1962, 10 minutes), USIA film on the Berlin Wall made for international audiences.

National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

  • From The Keystone "Patrician" (1928, 6 minutes), promotional film for new passenger plane.
  • From The Zeppelin Hindenburg (1936, 7 minutes), movies by a vacationing American family made on board this famous lighter-than-air-craft, one year before its destruction.

National Center for Jewish Film

  • From Tevye (1939, 17 minutes), American Yiddish-language film, directed by Maurice Schwartz, adapted from Shalom Aleichem's stories.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

  • From Accuracy First (ca. 1928, 5 minutes), Western Union training film for women telegraph operators.
  • From Groucho Marx's Home Movies (ca. 1933, 2 minutes).

National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

  • From Beautiful Japan (1918, 15 minutes), early travel-lecture feature by Benjamin Brodky.

New York Public Library

  • From La Valse (1951, 6 minutes), pas de deux from George Balanchine's 1951 ballet, featuring Tanaquil Le Clercq and Nicholas Magallanes and filmed at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
  • Battery Film (1985, 9 minutes), experimental documentary of Manhattan, by animator Richard Protovin and photographer Franklin Backus.

Northeast Historic Film

  • From Rural Life in Maine (ca. 1930, 12 minutes), footage filmed by Elizabeth Wright near her farm of Windy Ledge, in southwestern Maine.
  • From Early Amateur Sound Film (1936-37, 4 minutes), scenes of family life captured by sound-film hobbyist Archie Stewart.

Pacific Film Archive

  • Running Around San Francisco for an Education (ca. 1938, 2 minutes), early political ad, shown in San Francisco theaters, that helped win approval of local school bonds.
  • OffOn (1968, 9 minutes), Scott Bartlett's avant-garde film, the first to fully merge film and video.

UCLA Film and Television Archive

  • Her Crowning Glory (1911, 14 minutes), household comedy, with comic team John Bunny and Flora Finch, about an eight-year old who gets her way.
  • I'm Insured (1916, 3 minutes), cartoon by Harry Palmer.
  • The Toll of the Sea (1922, 54 minutes), Anna May Wong in an early two-strip Technicolor melodrama, written by Frances Marion, and here accompanied a performance of the original music score.
  • The News Parade of 1934 (10 minutes), Hearst Metrotone newsreel summary of the year.
  • From Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939, 8 minutes), excerpt from a concert film, reconstructed from newsreels, outtakes, and radio broadcast materials.

West Virginia State Archives

  • From West Virginia, the State Beautiful (1929, 8 minutes), amateur travelogue along Route 60.
  • From One-Room Schoolhouses (ca. 1935, 1 min), amateur footage from rural Barbour County.