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Diving Back Into the Archives

by Mark Zimmer

The National Film Preservation Foundation tops itself with another marvelous 50-film set, with an amazing array of extras.

Although film archives are a positive concept there is one down side. The preservation of our film heritage is an important and often overwhelming task, as hundreds of thousands of feet of nitrate deteriorate every year with no backup copies available. Slowing that trend and preserving motions pictures, especially the orphan and public domain films that don't have studio funding behind them, is vital to this task. But at the same time, all too many holdings of archives are locked up in them and seldom ever seen by the public, and one can question whether there's a huge difference between a film not existing and a film existing but never being seen and appreciated.

Happily, the National Film Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization, is conscious of both of these issues and through its Treasures from American Film Archives set brought forth 50 seldom-seen films preserved in archives across the county. Now, four years later, the NFPF has outdone itself with an even better accumulation of 50 different films, never before released on DVD or video, with ample extras.

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931 is a three-disc set, structured in the form of one program per disc, each of which is set up in roughly chronological order from the very beginnings of cinema in 1894 through the early sound era. Each program runs about 3h:10m and contains a feature, several shorts, an animated film or two, plus newsreels, industrial footage and documentary films for an engaging assortment of entertainments to fill the evening.

Program One starts off with an incredibly early sound film experiment from the very dawn of film, in Edison's studios in 1894. Footage of Annie Oakley shooting is combined with an early D.W. Griffith picture and the earliest (1910) surviving film version of The Wizard of Oz. An early Western epic by Thomas Ince, The Invaders (1912) provides a surprisingly sympathetic look at Native Americans with a sparing use of intertitles, telling the story visually. Episode 26 of the incredibly-long (119 episode) serial The Hazards of Helen provides a look at early feminism, while Gretchen the Greenhorn is one of the few surviving solo efforts by Dorothy Gish. Robert Florey's visual ballet Skyscraper Symphony (1929) sets up the last film, a genial chat with George Bernard Shaw.

The second program includes slices of life from 1901 New York City, while a bizarre retelling of Goldilocks, The Teddy Bears (1907), by Edwin S. Porter combines the story of the bears with Teddy Roosevelt. Early color films, including a 1926 ballet from the Martha Graham company, provide a look at the attempt to bring realism to the screen. The fragility of our film heritage is represented by the sole surviving reel (no. 5 of 7) from the Chinese-American film Lotus Blossom. Rin-Tin-Tin, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, has never been seen on a high-quality DVD until now, and his Clash of the Wolves (1925) would help set the template for dog movies for decades to come. One of the gems of the set is an inventive comedy from animation genius Charley Bowers, There It Is, as Scotland Yard detective Charley MacNeesha, complete with kilt and bagpipes, attempts to unravel the riddle of the Fuzz-Faced Phantom.

Program Three opens with an 1896 condensation of Joseph Jefferson's portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, which was one of the most widely-seen productions in history, seen by most of America between 1865 and the end of the century. Since Jefferson, one of the oldest actors to appear in film, was born in 1829, seeing him here connects the viewer directly with a time 175 years ago. The legendary classic The Life of an American Fireman (1903) is presented here from an original nitrate print, free of the later reediting that confused motion picture history for decades. A short from Alice Guy-Blaché (who shot an amazing 1000 films) takes a sentimental look at consumption and its effect on the family. She has a fine visual sense that, in spite of a static camera with long takes, keeps the framing and action interesting at all times. Some Hollywood promotional materials quietly contain a frankly astonishing bit of footage: one of the earliest behind-the-scenes featurettes, dedicated to the filming of the finale of von Stroheim's classic Greed in Death Valley. Eddie Cantor, in his first film appearance, makes a sound presentation of part of his vaudeville act, while we also get the first sound footage of an American president, as Calvin Coolidge holds forth on taxes (and some things never change: he derides the burden on the working man, even though only the top 5% of America actually paid any taxes).

The feature on this third program is an incredible oddity: a silent version of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (1925). Even odder, most of Wilde's dialogue and witty repartee is chucked completely making one wonder exactly what the point was: perhaps just to see if they could do it? Since the director was the renowned Ernst Lubitsch, it's surprisingly effective and an engaging little drawing room comedy. Footage of field labor shot by Zora Neale Hurston while she was working on Mules and Men gives an immediacy to her anthropological studies. Finally, trailers for six otherwise lost films remind us of the ongoing damage to our film heritage and the many silent films already lost. These include a lost Louise Brooks romantic comedy, Gary Cooper's sequel to Beau Geste, the first adaptation of The Great Gatsby and one of the most important lost films, the Emil Jannings-Ernst Lubitsch historical epic, The Patriot.

The transfers, done by Sony and Crest National, are all excellent. Since many of the films are one-of-a-kind, minor nitrate deterioration and damage is both expected and acceptable. Little artifacting is visible. The musical scores are all vivid and have excellent range, with little noise or hiss of any kind.

The set is packed with extras, not the least of which is a 208-page book accompanying the set. This volume incorporates cast and crew listings, lengthy notes on each and every film by curator Scott Simmon, and substantial notes on the musical scores provided by Martin Marks, who also plays the piano on the vast majority of the silent films. Most films also have recommendations for further reading and even other suggested DVD releases that may have slipped under the radar. Most of the films also have an optional commentary by a wide variety of archivists, historians, and academics. They're almost all excellent in quality, other than that for Lady Windermere's Fan, which is both sporadic and relies on narrative. The program notes are also available onscreen, if you don't care to pull out the book for a particular film. Each picture can be accessed individually, or each program can be played uninterrupted. The only drawback is that the chapter skip button is usually disabled (except during the features), making it hard to get back to a film once it's concluded.

At $79.95, this is again an incredible bargain, and even though a little shorter (9h:34m:50s) than the original, the quality is even higher. I very much look forward to the next set of Treasures. Essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of the motion picture. That's especially true when you consider that a portion of the sales price goes towards film preservation efforts, creating a happy circle that benefits us all.

A complete list of the contents is available at the NFPF website.