Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Dorothy Gish, Rin-Tin-Tin, Eddie Cantor, Calvin Coolidge, and much more!
Directors: Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, Thomas Ince, Gregory La Cava, Alice Guy Blaché, W.K.L. Dickson, and much more!
Audio: English monaural/stereo
Intertitles: English
Video: Color and black & white, full-frame with variable aspect ratios
Studio: Image Entertainment
Features: Thirty-plus commentary tracks, film notes and stills, 200-page book
Length: 573 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"Good morning, Mr. Edison, glad to see you back.  I hope you are satisfied with the Kineto-Phonograph." - W.K.L. Dickson, early sound film (lost), 1889

Films ****

Believe it or not, the motion picture has only been in existence for barely longer than a century.  Modern films, with their ultra-sensitive film stocks and computer-enhanced visuals, bear little resemblance to movies from as recently as two decades ago.  Stereo sound technology (never mind surround sound) did not even exist in any meaningful capacity just three decades ago.  Even the widescreen format has been around for only a half-century.  As film-goers today, we are often spoiled by the astounding technological leaps and bounds seen in modern cinema.  But incredibly, the greater majority of films made since the late nineteenth century have possessed none of these qualities and, primitive though they may appear now to contemporary audiences, are more representative of the true history of the cinema.

For years, film archives across the United States have endeavored to preserve the country's cinematic history.  In 2000, several American film archives combined their collective resources to present rare but significant films in the DVD collection Treasures from American Film Archives.  Produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation, this collection re-introduced viewers to many forgotten but historically important works of cinematic heritage.  More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931, the follow-up to that impressive set, has now arrived, assembling a new collection of films reaching even further back into time.  This new collection is comprised of a dazzling array of film gems, some obscure and some not, from the early, formulative years of cinema.  Among the film archives which contributed to this collection are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, The Library of Congress, The Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.  Overall, this new set, curated by Scott Simmon, contains more than nine hours' worth of film.

More so than the previous set, this new collection exclusively covers that period in filmmaking commonly known as the silent era.  The term is actually a misnomer, as many of these films were not shown silently but with musical accompaniment - either a piano, small pit band, or even a full orchestra, depending on the importance of the film.  Several early films even boasted actual recorded sounds and were not silent at all (examples of these rare films can be found in this collection).

Included in this collection of fifty films (and six trailers) are a potpourri of genres - features, serials, documentaries, advertisements, public service announcements, sing-alongs, newsreels, cartoons, and experiments involving color, sound, or obscure photographic techniques.  The films range from brief clips to one-reelers to full-length features, documenting the transition of the motion picture from peepshow curiosities to vaudeville house attractions and photoplays and finally into a thriving entertainment industry.

Unfortunately, motion pictures, or "movies" for short, of the silent era are rarely seen today.  Part of the problem is that the vast majority, upwards of ninety percent, of films made during this period are lost forever, and most of the remaining ones are not in pristine condition.  Nevertheless, among the surviving films are some of the most influential artistic achievements in cinema, though doubtless there are still many gems yet to re-discover.

Within their historical context, these films represent a time capsule of the culture and social standards of their times.  Watching these images of yesteryear creates a sense of wonder and awe, as though we the audience were peering through a window into a time long gone.  Herein, we can recognize the genesis of rudimentary storytelling and photographic techniques which we take so for granted in today's movies.

The contents of More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931 are spread over three DVDs (or "programs").  Read on below for descriptions of the many forgotten treasures and gems rescued from obscurity in our film archives!

1) Dickson Experimental Sound Film (15 sec, 1895)

Appropriately, our journey back into time begins with none other than Thomas Edison, Inventor Extraordinaire, and his remarkable assistant, Walter K.L. Dickson.  Together in 1888, they developed the world's first motion picture camera, the Kinetograph (or Kinetoscope).  Dickson combined this machine with Edison's earlier phonograph invention to create the Kinetophone.  Yes, that's right - the "sound picture" existed from the very start of film back in the late nineteenth century!  The Edison labs had a head-start on Al Jolson by some thirty years.

Today's movies use a sound-on-film approach, but the Kinetophone employed a phonograph synchronized via a mechanical belt to the on-screen action.  The Kinetophone was introduced in various peep-show parlors and later into vaudeville theaters with some limited success.  Experimentation with the phonograph sound format continued until 1914, when a fire in the Edison labs ultimately halted any further advancements with the system.

Program One of More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931 opens with a series of extremely early Dickson films, including an extremely rare sound experiment.  The first film, obviously a test not designed for public screening, shows Dickson himself playing his violin into the Kinetophone's gigantic funnel while, nearby, a pair of male co-workers dance.  Dickson's tune is a barcarole from Les Cloches de Corneville, a 1877 French opera, though the aural fidelity is somewhat poor.  Coupled with the scratchy, cat shriek-like wail of the violin (the sound is quite primitive), this makes for a truly surreal short film, the earliest surviving synchronized sound film.

Coincidentally, the original wax sound recording for this film was of greater duration than the image portion itself.  Sound was recorded for two minutes prior to actual filming, so early conversation and even direction can be heard before the filmed images even appear.  As presented on this disc, however, only the synchronized sound portion is heard.

2) Annie Oakley (20 sec, 1894)

This next short film demonstrates the Kinetoscope's potential as an archival recording device.  The film showcases the real Annie Oakley, "Little Miss Sure Shot" of Buffalo Bill's Wild West fame, displaying her famed shooting skills in a confined studio.

3) Buffalo Dance (15 sec, 1894)

A group of Native Americans, featuring Oglala and Brulé Sioux, perform a ritual dance for the Kinetoscope.  Again, these dancers were regular performers for the Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and may even have participated in the famed "Battle of Little Bighorn" re-enactment in the show.

4) Bucking Broncho (20 sec, 1894)

Lastly, this early outdoor film features cowboy Lee Martin hanging onto his bucking broncho, Sunfish.  Martin was also another regular performer for Buffalo Bill.

5) The Suburbanite (9 min., 1904)

The Mutoscope was a popular peephole motion picture machine of the late 1890s.  It created an illusion of movement through a series of pictures flipping on a horizontal axis whenever a hand crank was operated.  The Mutoscope was intended to be a rival to the Edison Kinetoscope, and in comparison, even produced a sharper image (it used 70mm film stock).  Furthermore, the Mutoscope, being hand-cranked, did not require battery power, unlike the Kinetoscope.  However, the Kinetoscope's projection system was capable of greater film lengths and eventually surpassed the Mutoscope as the public's favored venue for film exhibition.  American Mutoscope, which produced the Mutoscope, ultimately created its own projection system, the Biograph.

The Suburbanite is an example of one such early Biograph film.  While early films tended to be documentaries, often comprised of a static single shot, films by 1904 were beginning to incorporate new editing approaches to narrate a story.  Consequently, films were increasing in length.  While film editing was still rudimentary (one reason why many early silent films are so difficult to follow today), The Suburbanite shows the definite progress achieved in less than a decade of film history.

The Suburbanite chronicles the misadventures of a middle-class family relocating to a New Jersey suburb and, as a film, represents a leap forward in terms of narrative techniques.  Intertitles, still a fresh innovation from 1903's Uncle Tom's Cabin, help to provide coherence to the story.  Multiple shots allow for multiple anecdotes, giving the story a broader scope.  We see the family arriving proudly at its new home, having comic disagreements with the movers (who eventually throw all the furniture out of their truck), "welcoming" a visit from the mother-in-law, and engaging in slapstick mayhem with a disgruntled cook (food and dishes are thrown about).  The film closes when the father of the family, exasperated by life in the suburbs, posts a "To Let" sign before his home (the film is missing its final shot, in which the father then rushes everyone out the door).

6)  The Country Doctor (14 min., 1909)

One of Biograph's best-kept early secrets was director D.W. Griffith.  Today, he is acknowledged as a master of the silent era with such remarkable films as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.  However, early in his career, Griffith worked anonymously for the Biograph company and was often unaccredited.  He directed hundreds of short films a year and was instrumental in almost single-handedly propelling Biograph to the forefront of the film industry, such as it existed back then.  With cameraman Billy Bitzer, Griffith crafted many one-reel "photoplays" which took advantage of new innovations involving editing, camera movements and positioning, and close-ups to communicate emotionally-stirring stories.  Griffith may not have invented these innovations, but his skilled direction and usage of these techniques helped to advance the art of filmmaking as never before.

Today, Griffith's films are among the most-preserved of early films, with 440 of his films produced for Biograph between 1908 and 1913 surviving today.  One example, Griffith's 1909 Biograph film The Country Doctor, displays the potential of the photoplay as a narrative medium.  In this lovingly-photographed and well-acted morality tale of a physician torn between his family and his profession, the editing is advanced enough that even modern audiences can easily appreciate and follow the storyline.

Griffith uses alternating sequences and progressively rapid parallel editing techniques to heighten the tension of the story.  Subtle pan shots frame the storyline, introducing a pastoral feel to the film, then drawing us away at the film's conclusion from the grieving family.  The passive neutrality of early silent films is replaced in this film by an emotional resonance that would become a hallmark of Griffith's future masterpieces.

The film starts as the physician, his wife, and young daughter are first seen in a calm pastoral setting, enjoying a pleasant family outing.  Later, the daughter is taken ill, and the physician applies his skills towards improving her health.  However, the child of a neighbor is also taken ill, and the physician is called away from his daughter's side to care for the other patient.  As his daughter's condition worsens, the physician is caught between treating his patient or returning to save his own daughter.  The story has a bittersweet ending - the over-confident physician, having restored his patient's health, returns home too late to a tearful wife, mourning over the death of their daughter.

BONUS TRIVIA:  A very young Mary Pickford, one of the cinema's greatest film stars, has an early role as the elder daughter in the neighbor's household.

7) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (13 min., 1910)

This one is a real treat, the first surviving film version of the classic L. Frank Baum story!  For many years, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was considered a lost film until a nitrate print was re-discovered in 1983.  Its presentation on this disc can thus be considered a small miracle, an all-too-rare occurrence in the never-ending effort to find and restore these early films.

The history behind this film is a fascinating one.  Baum himself commissioned the film from Selig Polyscope to accompany his lecture show.  In return, the company received film rights to Baum's Oz tales.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was to be the first of at least three Selig films about Oz.  One sequel, Dorothy and the Scarecrow of Oz, was known to have been made, but this film and any further unknown sequels are now lost.

For inspiration, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz draws upon the then-popular stage adaptation of the Baum tale.  Like the later famous MGM version, this film is also vaudevillian in style although the storyline is different.  As with many early films, the editing is a little choppy and only highlights key scenes, thus requiring some audience familiarity with the text to follow the plot.  This version is apparently a "musical" comedy, too, featuring a number of quick jigs and dances (involving farm animals and female soldiers of Oz, among others), but there is obviously no audible singing.  The character designs, like those in Return to Oz (1985), also accurately reflect the appearances of the characters in the original illustrations that accompanied the books.

The story begins in Kansas, introducing Dorothy, her family, and some farm animals.  Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and unties him from his post just before a cyclone hits, sending both of them and several farm animals (a cow, and mule, and Toto, all clinging for dear life to a haystack) off to the Land of Oz.

This Oz lacks munchkins or a Yellow-Brick Road.  A wicked witch (named Mombo here) is terrorizing the land, and the Wizard of Oz, ruler of Emerald City, decrees that he will abdicate his crown to whomever can free Oz from the witch's clutches.  Meanwhile, Glinda the Good transforms Toto into a big dog to protect Dorothy from an attack by the Cowardly Lion, who quickly repents and journeys the traveling party.  They soon encounter the Tin Woodsman who, after an oil job, recovers his movements, pulls out a flute, and play a jig to which everyone dances.  Dorothy then spots a sign announcing the Wizard's proclamation, and it's off to Emerald City for everyone.

Along the way, the party is ambushed near a forest cottage by Mombo and her hench-things (bats, giant spiders, and flying ghoulies).  Everyone is captured and imprisoned.  Dorothy is ordered to clean Mombo's floors with a bucket of water, which she instead deposits over Mombo's head with predictable results.

The witch vanquished, Dorothy frees her friends and it's off again for Emerald City.  The Wizard crowns Scarecrow as the new king, and there is another jig as the Wizard prepares to leave Oz for Omaha.  The film ends somewhat abruptly with Dorothy still happily in Oz.  Further sequels, or even a serial, would surely have continued the story and may have included the sleepy poppy field scene (seen in MGM's version) or Dorothy's return to Kansas.  As it stands now, we will never know for certain, although the re-discovery of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz certainly makes it one of the gems in this DVD set.

8) Admiral Cigarette (30 sec, 1897)

Next, we move on to a series of four advertisements.  Yes, even before the turn of the century, manufacturing companies were keenly aware of film's potential as a viable medium for promoting their products.  So, if all the promo ads in movie theaters today vex many audiences, they may take some solace in the fact that such ads have always existed.

This ad, a 30-second spot, uses famous personalities like Uncle Sam, John Bull, and the iconic girl-popping-out-of-a-cake to promote Admiral cigarettes.  The ad's motto is "We All Smoke."  While hardly politically-correct, this ad was certainly effective in its day.

9) Flash Cleaner (45 sec, 1920)

This next ad is for a detergent, strong enough for the workplace but gentle enough for the home environment.

10) Buy an Electric Refrigerator (30 sec, 1926)

Next, there is a quick blurb encouraging the purchase of electric refrigerators.  This clip is remarkably well-preserved and was produced by the Electric League of Pittsburgh.  Modern audiences should keep in mind that during the 1920's, less than half of all homes had refrigeration, the vast majority of which were non-electric iceboxes.

11) The Stenographer’s Friend (8 min., 1910)

Lastly, we come to what amounts to a short film in itself.  This advertisement tells a tale of an overwhelmed stenographer.  With two bosses continually piling papers before her, she is unable to keep pace with the dictations.  Soon, she is clutching her head and even weeping.

Never fear, the Edison salesman is here!  The salesman comes through the office door and proceeds to promote and demonstrate the Edison Phonograph as a time-saving device that can increase office efficacy and reduce the work load.  Using a re-usable wax sound cylinder to record dictations, the Phonograph can help the stenographer to complete all her work and leave on time!

In reality, the business Phonograph, as with all new innovations, was initially resisted for fear that it would replace stenographers at the workplace.  By 1910 though, it was an accepted and successful product, much like the hand-held dictation tape machines commonly used today in law and medical offices.

12) The Invaders (41 min., 1912)

John Wayne notwithstanding, the Golden Age of the Western occurred during the silent era, when literally thousands of Westerns were produced.  The western supplied ample potential for action and chases, with built-in heroes and villains, so movie halls of this time were routinely floated with westerns.  The Invaders, a western made by early film pioneer Thomas Ince, was an above-average production, not only for its unusually long length (nearly all westerns at the time were one-reelers) but also for its sympathetic portrayal of both sides of the conflict.  Authentic Native Americans were even cast in the film, too, another atypical feature.

The Invaders opens with a treaty between the Sioux and the U.S. government, which promises to halt further settlement into Sioux territory.  However, only one year later, that promise is broken when railroad surveyors are allowed to wander onto Sioux territory to scout the land.  They are quickly spotted, and when the Sioux peacefully ride into town to voice their protest to the local U.S. cavalry commander, their pleas are essentially brushed aside.  Inevitably, this indifference leads to a full-scale Sioux and Cheyenne retaliation in which the surveyors are overwhelmed, local telegraph lines are cut, and the local cavalry outpost is attacked.  The Indian attack is ultimately repulsed when help arrives from a nearby military fort.

The film contains some genre conventions which will be recognizable to modern audiences.  There is the typically pretty commander's daughter, whose father disapproves of her sweetheart until the young lad saves the day by gallantly riding through the Indian assault to recruit help.  There is also an analogous romance among the Sioux, in which the chief's own daughter becomes attracted to one of the young surveyors.  When a spurned Sioux suitor spots the Indian princess together with the surveyor, his alarmed report to the chief starts the fateful chain of events which soon spirals out of control.  As in the familiar Pocahontas tale, the Indian princess ultimately sacrifices her own life to warn the White Men of the impending attack.  Sadly, The Invaders ends on a down note as the survivors mourn over the dead body of the chieftain's daughter.

Although audiences might initially assume the "invaders" of the film's title to be a reference to the Indians themselves, the film makes a sly statement about the true nature of these "invaders."  The blind avarice of the typical Big Company, as personified in the railroad surveyors, can be seen as "invading" the native land.  In such a light, who is truly the villain of the story?

BONUS TRIVIA:  Ince reputedly died under mysterious conditions while abroad William Randolph Heart's yacht.  Some rumors persisted that Ince had been shot by a jealous Hearst.

13) The Wild Engine, Episode #26 from the serial The Hazards of Helen (14 min., 1915)

Serials were all the rage during the early years of cinema.  Offering sensational thrills and cliff-hanger suspense, they enticed audiences back to the theaters again and again to follow an on-going story line (in much the same addictive fashion as modern soap operas or reality shows).

The most popular serial of the day was The Perils of Pauline, whose iconic image of a damsel-in-distress, tied to the tracks in the path of an oncoming train, is still recognized today.  However, there were certainly many other serials, and The Hazards of Helen was another very popular serial.  It featured a strong female lead in Helen Holmes.  Helen was no damsel-in-distress; instead, she was frequently the action heroine, regularly performing such stunts as leaping upon moving vehicles or falling from heights.

This DVD includes one episode, The Wild Engine, from the serial.  A variant on the popular railroad cliffhangers of the day, this episode finds Helen as a newly-hired railroad worker.  Being a woman, she must work harder than the men to prove her worth.  Helen's chance arrives one day when a freak accident sends three locomotives upon a collision course.  With time running out and her colleagues unable to help, it is up to Helen to stop all three trains and to save the day.  Naturally, this involves a lot of rushing about on a motorbike with a stunt or two, such as speeding off a bridge into the flowing waters below.

Despite the age of this episode, it remains as tense and exciting today as it must have seemed ninety years ago.  Featuring suspenseful cross-editing and a charismatic heroine, The Wild Engine was typical of the Hazards of Helen serial, which ran for a remarkable 119 episodes and established Helen Holmes as one of the top serial heroines.

14) Gretchen the Greenhorn (58 min., 1916)

Dorothy Gish was one of the first true film celebrities, a predecessor to Mary Pickford's "America's Sweetheart."  The younger sister to Lillian Gish (probably the silent era's finest dramatic actress), Dorothy Gish was a skilled comedian and a silent film star in her own right.  Few of her films survive today, but in actuality Dorothy appeared in more silent films than did her sister Lillian.

Gretchen the Greenhorn was one of seven five-reelers in which Dorothy Gish appeared in 1916.  A warm and occasionally comedic tale of urban immigrant life, it was not an "event" film but, rather, was representative of the typical entertainment found in the movie halls in the 1910's.  Today, it would be comparable to any number of feel-good but inconsequential comedies in neighborhood theaters.

Gretchen the Greenhorn is the tale of Gretchen (Dorothy Gish), who has just immigrated to America, the Land of Opportunity, to re-join her father, a humble engraver.  The family is re-united at the harbor and, from there, return to the tenement housing in which Gretchen's father lives.  Gretchen is introduced to the other immigrant neighbors, including Pietro, a young Italian man who will become the love interest for the film.  The first half of the film provides an intimate look at immigrant culture and tenement life style in the New World, while the second half embarks upon the "meat" of the story.

Local counterfeiters deceive the honest father into creating engravings for U.S. currency.  When he discovers the true nefarious nature of their plans, the counterfeiters kidnapped him abroad their mercantile ship to keep him quiet.  Gretchen tries to come to her father's rescue but is captured herself.  Pietro arrives with the dock police to save the day, and the film closes with a happy wedding scene for Gretchen and Pietro.

Gretchen the Greenhorn displays a good example of tinting, an early "colorization" technique.  The film demonstrates effectively how tinting was used as a subtle means of conveying emotions or the passage of time.  This film was long considered lost until a nitrate print was miraculously donated for preservation in 1991 by Galen Biery, a private collector who had kept the film safe for years in his barn!

BONUS TRIVIA:  Elmo Lincoln, who plays a ship's captain, would later become the screen's first Tarzan!

15) The Breath of a Nation (6 min., 1919)

Movie cartoons began appearing in the 1910's.  Usually, these were fairly low-budget affairs with crude animation.  They frequently used familiar comic strip characters to off-set their low-production values and were entertaining enough for their day.  Many of these early cartoons no longer exist, so The Breath of a Nation is a rare find indeed.

Produced by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst's International Film Services Company, the cartoon itself is fairly well-preserved and still remains amusing.  As was common with many of these early cartoons, it was printed in sepia tones to reduce the eyestrain from the glare of the transparent cel drawings when projected.  Directed by a young Gregory La Cava (who later did such notable 1930's films as My Man Godfrey and Stage Door), the cartoon offers an amusing social commentary on the "horrors" of drink in the final days before the Prohibition.  It uses the popular Judge Rummy comic strip character to hook audience members.  An unreformed drunk, Judge Rummy wanders into a bar, Silk Hat Harry's Soda Fountain, and eventually causes a bit of a ruckus.

16) De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb (12 min., 1920)

Believe it or not, industrial and educational films comprise the largest number of films created over the history of cinema, accounting for over a half-million films.  This early film, by the Ford Motor Company, was part of the company's weekly educational series.  Designed to be shown in schools, churches, and other public venues, films such as this were not only educational but also made for good promotion, presenting a pleasant public image for the producing companies.

De-Light describes the process by which light bulbs are made.  Still quite fascinating to watch today, surviving films such as this are invaluable in illustrating how labor and industry once functioned in this nation's past.  De-Light employs a great number of close-ups to show how the machines and craftsmen assembled the glass bulbs, tungsten filaments, and brass bases into the completed light bulb.  This was all quite hi-tech for the time.  The incredible degree of detail in this particular film suggests that De-Light may also have been used to train factory workers, too.

17) Skyscraper Symphony (9 min., 1929)

This avant-garde documentary by Robert Florey is a montage of multiple shots of Manhattan skyscrapers.  Some are static shots, but many are panning shots which communicate the size and majesty of these large man-made structures.  The image compositions emphasize strong vertical and diagonal lines.  A handheld 35mm DeVry camera was used for many of these shots, and the resulting images would look perfectly at home in the opening scenes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Peter Child composed the new music for this film.  It is a poignant score that is occasionally evocative of a Philip Glass score (such as that for Koyaanisqatsi).

BONUS TRIVIA:  Skyscraper Symphony was considered a lost film before a single print was re-discovered in a Moscow archive in the 1990's.

18) Greeting by George Bernard Shaw (5 min., 1928)

Program One concludes with a sound clip from novelist George Bernard Shaw, shot at his English country retreat.  This film was a first-generation Fox Movietone, later the definitive newsreel of the Great Depression era, and was obviously meant to be shown as an introduction before a main feature.

As a sound film, the audio quality is slightly scratchy but otherwise decent.  One can hear the horn of a passing car, the shuffling of gravel under Shaw's feet, the chirping of birds, and of course, Shaw's own cultivated speaking voice.  The technology used a new sound-on-film process developed by Theodore Case and sold to Fox, which by December 1927 was employing the process to create sound newsreels under the new Movietone News moniker.

In this newsreel, Shaw doesn't say much of importance, although the mere sound of his voice at the time was novelty enough.  Among his comments, he makes fun of Mussolini and jokes about an autograph-seeking girl.  Coincidentally, Shaw never actually introduces himself in the entire film (although he does allude to his profession as a novelist).

19) What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (75 sec, 1901)

Program Two (on disc two) opens with a series of short films documenting the "Streets of New York."  Since the center of the film industry at this time still resided along the east coast, hundreds of short films were created to document daily splices of life in the major eastern cities, such as New York City.  Today, many of these films survive thanks to paper prints preserved at the Library of Congress.

This first short film offers a surreal sense of time travel, as we can see in the formal attire of the pedestrians and the streets lined with horse-drawn carriages.  This film was shot at a well-known "windy corner," so named by eagle-eyed gentlemen for the site's propensity to cause women's skirts to toss up suddenly (either due to the gusty breezes or the frequent ventilation grates).  That is precisely "what happens" in this Edison film.

20) At the Foot of the Flatiron (1 min., 1903)

Shown here is an American Mutoscope and Biograph clip of another very windy day at the foot of the Fuller Building.  Nicknamed the "Flatiron," this twenty-one story building was the tallest in Manhattan at the time.  Again, this film was also shot on twenty-third street, near Fifth Avenue.

21) New York City “Ghetto” Fish Market (2 min., 1903)

This Edison production shows is a scene from the Lower East Side district of New York City.  This single-shot film captures the activity at an open-air fish market as the locals wander about purchasing fish from the street vendors.

22) From Leadville to Aspen, a Hold-Up in the Rockies (8 min., 1906)

This Biograph film is an early example of the "phantom ride," a genre whose descendant, the simulation ride, can now be found in many amusement parks nationwide.  In the film's original presentation, "passengers" would enter a theater designed to resemble a train passenger car, complete with a conductor.  The film itself would be shown at the front (usually through rear-projection).  The "passenger car" would be gently rocked, with the recorded sound of a moving locomotive being piped into the theater.  Thus, there would be an illusion of an actual joyride on real train.

From Leadville to Aspen, directed by Edwin S. Porter, was part of the popular Hale's Tours simulation series.  This particular episode is comprised of countryside travelogue scenery as might be viewed from the front of a moving train.  The shots are lengthy, using extremely long takes, such that the film only has five total shots.  The travelogue portion begins the film, and a robbery portion concludes the film, alluding to Porter's own famous The Great Train Robbery, which preceded this film by three years.

This Hale's Tours film doesn't quite offer the same thrills as riding space shuttle or roller-coaster simulations, but it is clearly a precursor to those attraction rides.

23) The "Teddy" Bears (13 min., 1907)

Film audiences back in the day were arguably more sophisticated than modern audiences and were frequently expected to bring an awareness of current social, cultural, and political events to the viewing of films.  To some degree, this is one reason why silent films are occasionally difficult to follow now - they are being viewed out of their original sociopolitical context by audiences without the prerequisite foreknowledge.

For this extremely old one-reeler, also directed by Edwin S. Porter, the classic fairy tale "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" is combined with a popular anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt's 1902 bear encounter.  For anyone not old enough to remember (and that would be about, oh, 100% of viewers today), President Theodore Roosevelt was presumably on a hunting trip one day when, coming across a bear cub, he refused to shoot the poor thing.  Word of his charitable mercy spread quickly, and soon, a new toy emerged that capitalized upon this tale - a cuddly stuffed bear christened the "teddy bear."

The "Teddy" Bears follows the classic fairy tale storyline as Goldilocks enters a cabin in the woods belonging to a family of three playful bears.  When she is discovered, the three bears run her out of the cabin and pursue her through the woods, the film then evolving into a chase (the "chase" genre was very popular at this time).  They eventually come across a hunter (unidentified but clearly meant to represent Theodore Roosevelt) who quickly shoots and kills the Papa and Mama Bear.  Baby Bear is chained up and taken prisoner.  Goldilocks leads the hunter back to the cabin, which they enter and then re-emerge with armfuls of stuffed teddy bears.

Overall, the plot is slight, but the film is interesting more for its social context than its actual content.  There is also an unusual (and surreally creepy) special effects sequence in which the teddy bears all dance.  This film is somewhat ironic in nature and is not really a children's film (unjust death or captivity awaits the bears, after all).  Alternatively, it has been suggested that the film is a political satire that pokes fun at early U.S. relations with Russia, the "Bear."

24) Children Who Labor (13 min., 1912)

Along that train of thought, the political film was actually more common in the 1910's than today.  Children Who Labor is a good example of a short propaganda film designed as a cautionary tale pleading for better working conditions and child labor reforms (the film also alludes to the sexual harassment present at many factories).

Made by the Edison Manufacturing Company in association with the National Child Labor Committee, this morality play opens with a picture of Uncle Sam, highlighted by the words "GREED," as he watches a procession of child laborers marching into a factory.  It is a not-so-subtle criticism of the U.S. government's inadequate child labor laws at the time (by one census estimate at the time, around 18% of the work force was formed by children ages 10-14).

The story proper begins when a young girl hops off a train one day unbeknownst to her mother.  When the train starts to move again, the young girl is inadvertently left behind.  A friendly family of poor laborers from the local factory find her and kindly take her in.  They provide food, clothing, and shelter for the girl, who goes to work with the children in the factory.

In an ironic twist of fate, the girl's rich father, Mr. Hanscomb, buys the factory but fails to spot her during an inspection tour.  When the girl is later taken ill and carried to the immigrants' home, she is briefly seen by her mother, who also doesn't recognize her daughter.  Only when a doctor is summoned to the immigrants' home at the end of the film is the girl's true identity discovered.  The rich Hanscombs initially threaten to have the kindly laborers arrested for kidnapping until their daughter begs for sympathy.  The Hanscombs see the error of their ways, and in the end, conditions are improved in the Hanscomb factory.

25) Concerning $1000 (85 sec, 1916)

Color in films existed long before the arrival of such 1930's Technicolor extravaganzas as Robin Hood or Gone with the Wind.  As early as the mid-1910's, experiments were already on-going to develop practical ways of producing color images on film.

Achieving one color was simple, and there were several common ways to do so.  Individual frames could be hand-painted, although this was labor-intensive.  Tinting, in which the entire film was colored, could be done by dipping the film into dye or later by using specially-prepared one-color film for a desired shot.  Toning involved a process by which silver in the film's emulsion was chemically altered so that black portions of the film became brownish or colored during development (while the white portions remained white).  Sometimes, a film would use both toning and tinting.

Achieving two colors was much trickier.  Early processes were additive, meaning the black & white film image was sent through filters which "added" color to the original image.  Later subtractive processes offered better color fidelity, though.  In these processes, a beam of white light was projected through a prism that split the image through filters.  In either process, the resultant preliminary negatives were usually combined together such that the final print was a two-color, one-strip film.

The next three films, including this one, are examples of early color films using subtractive processes.  Concerning $1000 was meant as an advertising short for a new Kodak camera.  This ad, shown in a short clip here, was remarkable as the first film to utilize the 2-lens Kodachrome process.  The action was first photographed through two lens which sent the images through a red filter and a green filter.  Both negative frames were then combined onto a single two-sided emulsion print, resulting in a very early, if undoubtedly primitive, example of a color film.  In Concerning $1000, the actors have peach-colored flesh tones, flowers are red, dresses are green or pink, and the furniture is brown.  The film clip starts in an office and ends with a stroll through a flower garden.

26) Exhibition Reel of Two-Color Film (4 min., 1929)

This technology demonstration of the Brewster two-color process offers clips from a cartoon, a car commercial, a busy day in New York City, and even a parade.  The Brewster subtractive process here demonstrates its greater color fidelity over earlier processes but does not quite achieve the crisp hues of the later, successful three-strip Technicolor process (first introduced in 1932 with the famous Disney cartoon Flowers and Trees).  Nevertheless, this was a state-of-the-art demonstration for its time and an extremely rare opportunity to see color documentary footage of early Americana.

27) The Flute of Krishna (7 min., 1926)

The last of this trilogy of color films is the best - the earliest known example of a dance film choreographed by Martha Graham (the famed dancer herself does not appear although her students do).  The Flute of Krishna presents an encounter between the mythical Indian god Krishna and three alluring maidens.  The blue-skinned god is seen cavorting with the Indian maidens in a sensual dance heavily influenced by orientalism.  Then, Krishna's most devoted lover, Radha, arrives, and the second half of the film is devoted to her seduction of Krishna.

The Flute of Krishna makes good use of the Kodak color process, with a mostly muted blue-green color palette.  While the colors can hardly be proclaimed as natural in appearance, they are still remarkable to see in such an early film.  The original film score has been lost, but a new traditional Indian music score has been commissioned and works extremely well with the choreography, making this short film one of the brightest gems in this DVD collection.

28) Lotus Blossom (12 min., 1921)

Lotus Blossom is technically a lost film.  That we are able to view any of it at all now should be considered a small blessing in itself, although the film is still quite incomplete.  The original film consisted of seven reels, of which only the fifth reel, presented here, remains.  This film is also noteworthy for being one of the few remaining examples of a co-production between Chinese and American companies.

The story of Lotus Blossom, drawn from Chinese legends, concerns the creation of a sacred bell.  The previous bell has been broken, and the Ming Dynasty Emperor has commissioned a new bell.  Meanwhile, Mongolian Tartars have begun to besiege the kingdom.  The film's fifth reel picks up the story as a young man (the lover of the film's central heroine, Moy Tai) successfully assassinates a Tartar chieftain.  Moy Tai herself goes in search of an imprisoned inventor who knows the secret of crafting the sacred bell.  The reel ends soon after she meets with the inventor.

Presumably, the film would have continued with the revelation that only virgin flesh could properly fix the metal during the casting process for the bell.  Moy Tai would ultimately sacrifice herself by leaping into a cauldron of molten metal, saving the honor of the kingdom.  The new sacred bell's deep intonation would thereafter always ring with the sound of Moy Tai's name.

As no other reels of The Lotus Blossom are known to exist, viewers now can only speculate on how the film might have looked.  Reviews from the era suggest that the film, although independently produced, possessed very solid production values and was unusual for its large Asian cast and its generally positive attitude towards Asian culture (keep in mind that Asians in American films of the silent era were generally depicted as opium dealers or Fu Manchu-like criminals).

The surviving reel of The Lotus Blossom also boasts gloriously tinted images and intertitle cards with both English and Chinese text.

29) Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (90 sec, 1925)

This is a weird one.  Visser owns a duck that "sings" along with him.  The duck doesn't actually sing but rather quacks on cue during Visser's vaudeville act.  This very short Theodore Case sound film is remarkable as an early demonstration of sound technology, even if the sound quality is admittedly very high-pitched and scratchy (plus, the song is corny).

30) Clash of the Wolves (74 min., 1925)

The universal appeal of the most famous film stars during the silent era far eclipses that of modern movie stars.  It is hard to appreciate the celebrity magnitude of such stars as Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford today.  Some of the most beloved stars were not necessarily human, either.  Language was obviously not much of a barrier in films of the silent era.

There were many silent animal stars, none more celebrated than the original Rin-Tin-Tin.  Born around 1918 and discovered within a bombed-out shelter in the final days of WWI, Rin-Tin-Tin was the sole surviving pup of a brood of eight.  The soldier who rescued the pup named him after a popular French good-luck doll at the time.  He quickly discovered his pet's remarkably physical agility, and movie studios would soon recognized it, too, after Rin-Tin-Tin's record-breaking eleven-foot jump in a 1922 dog show.  Warner Brothers signed Rin-Tin-Tin to a film contract, and for the next decade, this German shepherd would rule the cinema as the most beloved animal star of the day.  At one point, he even had his own radio show!

Clash of the Wolves is a real treat from Warner Brothers and finds the canine star near the height of his popularity.  Rin-Tin-Tin is cast as Lobo, the renegade half-breed leader of a pack of wild wolves in the Wild West.  A forest fire forces the pack from its wooded shelter, and they settle in the open prairie lands and deserts of the Old Wild West.  Unfortunately, cowboys and fortune-seekers are already in the region, and Lobo is soon caught in a desperate struggle between providing for his pack and fending off the cowboys eager to claim his pelt for a rich bounty.  When Lobo is eventually injured falling upon a cactus, a friendly cowboy takes him in and nurtures him back to health.  Lobo thus becomes his faithful companion and later returns the favor by saving the cowboy and his sweetheart from the greedy clutches of a local villain, who is out to steal the cowboy's territorial claim on borax.

Clash of the Wolves is an action film through and through.  It is heavy on the chase sequences and also features many spectacular leaps, fights, and demonstrations of Rin-Tin-Tin's physical agility.  Some of the comic scenes, mostly involving the human performers, seem trite and sweetly inconsequential today, but when Rin-Tin-Tin is on the screen, Clash of the Wolves truly soars.

There have been very few Rin-Tin-Tin films, if any at all, available for home screening.  Clash of the Wolves may well be the first.  If so, let's hope that more vintage films with this classic animal star find their way to home video!

BONUS TRIVIA: According to legend, the retired Rin-Tin-Tin, in his final moments of life, was comforted in the arms of glamour star Jean Harlow.  Not a bad way to go!

31) International Newsreel (13 min., 1926)

No silent era anthology would be complete without a few Hearst products.  William Randolph Hearst was the omnipresent media mogul of his day and certainly one of the most influential men in America.  In addition to his newspapers, Hearst's media conglomerate produced movies, cartoons, and newsreels as well.  When newsreels first began appearing in 1911 with the introduction of Pathé's Weekly, Hearst was soon to follow with the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial.  This Hearst newsreel would actually persist under various names, including International Newsreel, until 1967.  One tinted episode from Hearst's International Newsreel is provided here.

Covering the contemporary topics of the day, this episode (volume 8, issue 97) looks at sporting events, college bonfires, floods in England and Wales, and other human interest stories.  Of note is coverage of the third annual Macy's parade and quick glimpses of Mussolini, not far removed from a recent assassination attempt on his life.  Most spectacularly, this newsreel concludes with a war game exercise involving many British tanks.

32) Now You’re Talking (9 min., 1927)

Contrary to any such suggestions by the title, this is actually a silent film.  Funded by American Telephone and Telegraph, Now You're Talking is an early example of a public service announcement, in this case providing instructions to the general public on the proper etiquette for the use of telephones.  While this may seem an unusually obvious topic, consider that telephones were still relatively new at the time.  An analogous situation today would be the proper etiquette on using cell phones in public locations, such as restaurants or movie theaters.

During the silent era, telephones were leased out by AT&T rather than privately owned.  Since the telephones were AT&T property, it behooved the company to make sure its telephones were not abused (thereby cutting down on maintenance).  This instructional film, an early animated effort from Max Fleischer's Inkwell Studios, offers guidelines on how to hang up the phone properly, how to avoid physically abusing the phone as an outlet for job stress, how to protect the phone from the elements or wear and tear, and how to communicate with live operators to place calls (particularly important, as many phones at the time did not have dials).

33) There It Is (19 min., 1928)

Not all silent comedy was slapstick (à la Keystone) or pathos (à la Charlie Chaplin).  There It Is, a comedy by Charley Bowers, is a celebration of the Theater of the Absurd.  The Bowers comedies were frequently unpredictable and bizarre, bending the laws of physics and logic in their absurdist plots.  There It Is offers Bowers as a Scotland Yard sleuth, complete with a bug, MacGregor, as a sidekick.  Bowers is called to investigate an American household that has suddenly become haunted by a "fuzz-face phantom." The film chronicles the non-stop madcap chase through corridors and walls of the haunted mansion as one by one characters all seem to disappear.  The film concludes when the true identity of the phantom is revealed (in a twist reminiscent of the ending to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an expressionist classic).

Charley Bowers remains relatively obscure today, but his comedy was most akin to that of the Great Stoneface, Buster Keaton.  With comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd moving onto feature films by the mid-1920's, the niche of the one-reel comedy shorts was filled by comedians such as Charley Bowers who were not afraid to experiment outlandishly.

34) A Bronx Morning (11 min., 1931)

Program Two concludes with an experimental film by a young Jay Leyda, later an accomplished film historian.  A Bronx Morning showcases shots of everyday life in the Bronx taken by Leyda in his first attempt at filmmaking.  It is also a documentation of the early effects of the Depression on urban America.  Like Skyscraper Symphony, this film contains some dynamically-composed shots of the local architecture, but it focuses more on the people themselves and their activities.

35) Rip Van Winkle (4 min., 1896)

Program Three opens with Rip Van Winkle.  This film was actually a collection of eight linked early American Mutoscope films, directed by W.K.L. Dickson, highlighting the adventures of Rip Van Winkle.  The films starred Joseph Jefferson, at the time the world's most successful actor, who early in his career had even performed in the fateful theater play Our American Cousin.  His greatest claim to fame, however, arose with an 1865 stage adaptation of Washington Irving's famous tale "Rip Van Winkle."  For decades afterwards, Jefferson would be completely identified with the lead character, his signature role and one which he was to perform even into the twentieth century.

The Mutoscope films are selections of eight short scenes from the stage play that have been re-enacted outdoors via pantomime.  As the films open, Van Winkle is seen drinking in the mountains and encountering a dwarf carrying a heavy load.  Van Winkle assists the dwarf, who leads Van Winkle to a group of other demonic dwarves.  They trick Van Winkle, giving him a strange brew which causes him to collapse into a twenty-year sleep.  The films end with Van Winkle awakening, an old and feeble man.

Rip Van Winkle is significant not only as a record of early film history but also as a rare opportunity to see one of the leading stage performers of the nineteenth century.  The story itself was so popular that at least eight further adaptations were made before 1915, making Washington Irving's tale one of the most adapted works to film (second only to the Bible) during the silent era.

These Mutoscope films survive today as 35mm paper prints, the source of this transfer.  While only a combined four minutes in length, Rip Van Winkle was an epic, relatively speaking, for its time.

36) Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (30 sec, 1897)

This short clip employs the Edison Kinetoscope to record the famous inventor mixing chemical reagents in his lab.  For a nineteenth century film, this clip is in quite good condition and is remarkable for presenting a very rare motion picture of Edison himself.

In actuality, for this film, Edison was photographed outside in a mock laboratory using natural sunlight, as electric lighting technology had not yet advanced enough to allow for indoor cinematography.

37) Life of an American Fireman (6 min., 1903)

The Life of an American Fireman was an important film by Edwin S. Porter and is considered one of the first films to tell a story using multiple shots, early editing, and even a close-up.  This Edison Manufacturing Company film combined indoor and outdoor footage with some special effects (double exposure).

The "fire" film was a genre in itself during cinema's early years.  Burning buildings, women and children in peril, heroic rescues - such were the common building blocks for these films.  Porter's innovative contribution was an early editing style that devised a new way to telling a familiar story.

The film opens with an alarm at the fire station.  The firefighters assemble and gear up their horse-drawn fire trucks.  Then, the race is on to save a burning house, where a woman and child are in peril from their second-story room.  Both are rescued and the fire is combated successfully.

Granted, this film today is not in great condition, with very scratchy emulsion, a shaky frame, and copious amounts of film stock degradation.  While the story is certainly nothing extraordinary, the film's early display of sequential story-telling is quite noteworthy.  It is also an early example of a docu-drama, combining real footage with fictional re-enactments.

The new audio track includes "Fireman's Quick March," and an old, vintage song, too, "The Fireman's Call" (1837).

38) Films from the Westinghouse Works Series (6 min., 1904)

By 1896, American Mutoscope had recognized the projector system as the future of film exhibition and had developed its own projector, the Biograph.  The company would eventually alter its name to reflect this new technology.  In 1903, the company used the Biograph to create some thirty films for the National Cash Register Company.

Pre-Hollywood movies generally existed less as story-telling devices than as documentaries or industrial promotional films.  The Biograph industrial films caught the attention of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which subsequently contracted American Mutoscope and Biograph to create a series of twenty-nine short industrial "actualities" promoting its manufacturing sites.  The three short films included on this disc focus on a huge Westinghouse site completed in 1895 in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, supposedly the largest in the world at the time.  Shot by Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith's long-standing cameraman, these films were exhibited at the Westinghouse pavilion in the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and became fairly popular internationally.

First is Panoramic View, Aisle B, a two-minute spectacular crane shot.  Floating along far above the factory floor, the camera peers downwards on the workers and their gigantic generators, converters, and other machineries while gliding from one end of the factory to the other a quarter-mile away!

The second film, Girls Winding Armatures, is a stationary shot of female factory workers affixing copper wires to electric motors.  This film demonstrates the gender division within these early factories as well as an early usage of interior lighting for cinematography (probably from new mercury vapor tubes).  The third, untitled film is also a stationary shot, this time of thousands of cheerful workers leaving a factory at the end of the day.

The musical accompaniment for these films is derived from period pieces - "The Gladiator" (J.P. Sousa), "The Wanderbilder suite" (Adolf Jensen), and "Sam Fox Moving Picture Music" (J.S. Zamecnik).

39) Falling Leaves (12 min., 1912)

"When the last leaf falls, she will have passed away."

Successful and prominent women directors, like Jane Campion or Sofia Coppola, are hardly a new phenomenon in cinema.  From the very start, there were female film directors, none more prolific or talented than Alice Guy Blaché.  Born in France in 1873, by the mid-1890's Blaché was already directing films for the Gaumont studios.  During this time, she also created at least one hundred sound-on-cylinder "phonoscènes."  In 1910, after immigrating to the United States, Blaché started the Solax Company, for which she would direct many of the company's 120 films until its dissolution in 1914.  Overall, Blaché made almost one thousand films, a staggering number by any standard.

Falling Leaves remains one of the few surviving films by Blaché.  Loosely based on the 1907 O. Henry story "The Last Leaf," this melodrama about redemption demonstrated Blaché's gentle and lyrical approach, which emphasized subtle acting over histrionic gesturings and stylistic editing.  Blaché's reminder to her actors, as printed upon a sign in her office, was simply: "Be Natural."

Falling Leaves opens with a scene of Dr. Earl Headley, a bacteriologist, proclaiming his invention of a serum that could cure consumption (or tuberculosis), then the leading cause of death in the United States.  The film then shifts to a docile scene between a young girl, Trixie, and her loving sister.  When the sister starts to develop coughing fits, a doctor is summoned and delivers the grave news to the family, "When the last leaf falls, she will have passed away."

In a touching sequence, Trixie, overhearing the news, later goes into her front yard and begins stringing up the fallen leaves back onto their tree.  She meets a passing Dr. Headley who, learning of her sister's malady, offers his assistance.  Dr. Headley injects his miracle medication into the ill sister, and three months later, she is clearly better and on the path to full recovery.

On its initial release, this film did encounter some difficulties with the newly-formed National Board of Censorship.  The Board complained about the health concerns over the depiction of a tubercular patient cuddling with her sister. Nevertheless, Fallen Leaves remains a fine example of Blaché's artistic directorial style and even featured the "Shirley Temple" of the day, Magda Foy, who was often simply known as the "Solax kid."

Musical accompaniment for the film includes excerpts from the second movement of Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, La Cinquantaine by Gabriel-Marie, and Chopin's melancholy Prelude in E minor.

40) Teaser trailer for Hands Up (7 min., 1918)

Not all movie trailers are meant for public viewing.  Some, such as this Hollywood exhibitor reel for the Hands Up serial, were meant to persuade theater owners to book their films.  Hands Up was a western serial by Cyclonic and remains a lost serial today.  It starred Ruth Roland, one of the queens of the serials who appeared in hundreds of short subjects and serials until 1923, when she retired.  Hands Up was to be a fifteen-episode Pathé production, although due to the influenza epidemic that arose during this time period (effectively scaring audiences away from movie houses in droves), it is doubtful whether all the episodes were ever completed.

This reel introduces the various western heroes (cowboys, of course) and villains (Incas, for a change) of the film.  Some stunts from the film, such as horse chases, escapes from Incan traps, and rescue sequences, are shown, including the prerequisite heroine-in-peril scenes.  To further entice theater owners, the reel shows some of the picturesque nature shots used in the film, various sets (from the throne room to the sacrificial chamber), and a wealth of promotional artwork that would come with the film (including one-sheets, lobby photos, and title cards).

BONUS TRIVIA:  The exhibitor reel for Hands Up was re-discovered buried under the former home of Ruth Roland, along with some of her other films and serials.

41) Newsreel footage from the production of Greed (4 min., 1924)

Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece Greed is one of the legendary films of the silent era.  It is not a lost film but, surviving only in a severely butchered form due to studio interference, it might as well be.  Nevertheless, even in its truncated form, Greed remains a towering achievement in cinematic history and was once numbered among the ten greatest films ever made.

Consequently, any new footage from the film will always be cherished by film enthusiasts.  The newsreel footage, by C-V News, contained on this disc offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this classic film.  It focuses mainly on the crew but also quick glimpses of Von Stroheim and some of his actors from afar.

C-V News documents the shooting of Greed's finale in Death Valley.  The location shoot was ninety miles from the nearest significant settlement and could only be reached by horseback and pack animals.  The shoot occurred during the summer in August, when ground temperatures easily reached over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Dehydration and sunstrokes were obviously very real concerns, but such were the sacrifices one made for the sake of art!

The newsreel is untinted and possibly incomplete, with signs of early decomposition.  It is highly unusual, however, for its behind-the-scene footage which, while common today, was quite rare during the silent era.

42) "The Movie-Lovers' Contest" (3 min., 1926)

Audience participation in movie halls was encouraged through a number of ways, including contests such as this one.  This particular contest, organized by the Daily Mirror with Photoplay Magazine, offered a total of $10,000 in prize money.  Unfortunately, audiences had to see all forty "photoplaylets" in the contest to solve the series of riddles.  This particular clip, the fourth in the contest, shows a swash-buckling sequence from a film about Henry the VIII; it asks for the film's name and identity of the female lead.

The answer is not obviously not provided, but for the inquisitive, the film is the 1922 Cosmopolitan picture When Knighthood Was in Flower, a Marion Davies starring vehicle.  No need to send in any replies - the contest is long over.

43) A Few Moments With Eddie Cantor (7 min., 1923)

Let's talk briefly about early sound films.  During the 1920's, Theodore Case and Lee de Forest were at the vanguard of film sound technology.  Both men even collaborated with one another to develop and refine the sound-on-film process (earlier sound processes, such as the Edison Kinetophone, had already fallen out of favor by this time).  An example of a Case sound film can be found on disc two of this DVD set, while the next two selections are examples of the Phonofilm, a synchronized sound-on-film process developed by de Forest.  By all accounts, the de Forest process achieved perfect synchronization, but early theater sound systems were essentially non-existent or of such rudimentary design that sound reproduction was terrible.  Nevertheless, de Forest created one thousand sound shorts, capturing the essence of the American vaudeville stage.

The first de Forest film here features Eddie Cantor, the famous vaudevillian of the Ziegfeld Follies.  Cantor stands upon an empty stage and addresses an unseen audience.  He performs a stand-up routine act, tossing about some flat jokes and a limerick before singing a couple of goofy but funny songs -"The Dumber They Come, the Better I Like 'Em" (from his stage hit Kid Boots) and "Oh Gee Georgy" (a Cantor signature tune).  Cantor displays the self-deprecating ethnic humor and vibrant on-stage charisma that had made him such a star (sadly, this energy was seldom captured in his later sound films).  About the only thing Cantor doesn't do is perform his trademark rolling "banjo eyes."

The audio quality of this film is obviously quite primitive.  The sound is scratchy and hollow, and Cantor's voice sounds quite buzzy and muffled sound.  Nevertheless, his unmistakable vocal style comes through.

44) A Few Moments with President Calvin Coolidge (4 min., 1924)

President Coolidge was famous for his reticence, earning himself the nickname "Cool Cal."  Once, a society lady had boasted of a wager that she could get more than three words out of him, to which Coolidge had replied, "You lose."

Thus, this second de Forest sound film is unusual not only because it is the first talking newsreel of a President but also because it presents an unusually talkative Coolidge.  Filmed in August 1924 before the national elections, this newsreel shows Coolidge giving a speech outdoors.  Coolidge drones on in a dull monotone while reading from notes in his hands.  The speech covers taxation and a need to cut down on public expenditures.  It is about as dry as can be expected.

45) Inklings (6 min., 1925)

This cartoon was part of a Dave Fleischer series of which only three have survived.  Dave Fleischer was the brother of the famous animator Max Fleischer, and this series represented one of Dave's independent endeavors at Inkwell Studio.  This particular cartoon was the twelfth in the series.

It starts off by asking audiences to identify various hand-drawn images, such as Rin-Tin-Tin.  Then, it presents a series of before-and-after drawing of faces and some upside-down pictures, too.  The film closes out with a very clever sequence involving cut-out art of a house, a farmer, and other objects from "the house that Jack built."  Much of this visual inventiveness is accompanied by whimsical intertitles.

The new score is an homage of sorts by Fred Steiner, known for his Perry Mason and Rocky & Bullwinkle scores.  Steiner's father had worked on the original Max Fleischer cartoons Popeye and Betty Boop!

46) Lady Windermere’s Fan (89 min., 1925)

One of the towering geniuses in all of cinema, silent or otherwise, was Ernst Lubitsch.  The son of a German tailor, the young Lubitsch honed his comic craft upon the German cabaret and music hall scene before gravitating towards the cinema in the 1910's.  By the end of the decade, with a string of non-stop hits such as 1918's The Eyes of the Mummy (starring Pola Negri), 1919's The Oyster Princess (a satire of American mannerisms) and Madame Du Barry, and 1920's Anna Boleyn, Lubitsch had rapidly ascended into the elite class of Germany's premier film directors.

His success would continue in America, where Lubitsch further established himself as one of the greatest pioneers of the art of cinematic narrative.  His mildly ironic directorial wit soon became known as the "Lubitsch Touch."  Through impeccable timing and a great economy of shots, Lubitsch was able to compress many ideas together into a cohesive unison, communicating ideas and emotions through subtle gestures, careful editing, and confident mise-en-scène.  Lubitsch's films usually satired those great American themes - sex and money.

Lubitsch often criticized his fellow directors in the silent era for an increasing over-reliance on intertitles to tell their story.  Cinema, to Lubitsch, was a visual medium and as such should communicate its narrative through its images, not a parade of intertitles.  One of Lubitsch's many silent era triumphs was Lady Windermere’s Fan, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's stage play, a comedy-drama famous for its verbal witticisms.  Lubitsch, not surprisingly, jettisoned nearly the entire text of the play, yet his film remained a brilliant illustration of his ability to tell a complex tale even without extensive intertitles.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is a satirical comedy about the frivolity of the British social elite.  The young Lady Windermere is planning an upcoming birthday party.  Unbeknownst to her, Lord Windermere has been contacted by a woman of leisure just returned from abroad, a Mrs. Erlynne, who offers proof that she is Lady Windermere's long-presumed dead mother.  To be the daughter of such a woman would be utterly scandalous, so Lord Windermere presents Mrs. Erlynne with a check of a not-inconsiderable sum in return for her silence.

Mrs. Erlynne is not actually a wicked person, rather a desperate one whose reputation has been stained by the improprieties of her impulsive youth.  She hopes that an invitation to Lady Windermere's upcoming party will restore her to society's good graces and will allow her to honorably marry a gentleman who has begun courting her.

The plot thickens when Lady Windermere's admirer, a Lord Darlington, reveals to her that he suspects infidelity on the part of her husband.  Lord Darlington's agenda, of course, is to steal away Lady Windermere's affections from her husband, and when Lady Windermere discovers the receipt for Mrs. Erlynne's payment, her doubts are seemingly confirmed.  Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs. Erlynne with her fan, a birthday gift from her innocent husband, should that woman of ill repute appear at the upcoming party.

Naturally, Mrs. Erlynne does appear, and Lady Windermere, despondent over her husband's apparent lack of fidelity, runs away to Lord Darlington's flat.  The film concludes when Mrs. Erlynne, wishing to protect her own unknowing daughter from the same mistakes she made in her youth, pursues Lady Windermere and averts the potential scandal.  Mother and daughter (still unawares of their true kinship) part on good terms, and all's well that ends well.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is the brightest gem in this entire DVD collection and is presented in a print that possesses good clarity and contrast levels with minimal wash-out.  For a silent film, it is in fine condition!  Lady Windermere’s Fan is truly a classic of the silent era and a wonderful demonstration of the "Lubitsch Touch," from which directors today are still drawing lessons.

47) Cockeyed: Gems from the Memories of a Nutty Cameraman (3 min., 1925)

This avant-garde short film is a random collection of effect gags, mostly created in-camera or with an optical/projection printer using hp toner.  Some of the unusual shots, which manipulate city scenes from New York City, include the city rising out of sea, a man eating a light bulb, a waterfall on the Hudson River, and various shots of trains, bi-planes, and automobiles, not to mention parades, too.  This tinted film was one of several Pathé Review "Mystery Pictures" created by Alvin Knechtel, a special effects photographer.

48) The prologue from The Passaic Textile Strike (18 min., 1926)

On January 25, 1926, thousands of textile workers across New Jersey began a year-long strike in protest of wage cuts and inhumane working conditions in the wool mills.  Extensively covered in the media at the time, the strike, funded in part by the International Workers' Aid and the American Communist Party, led to the creation of a union uniting the sixteen thousand workers together in a common voice against work site improprieties.

Originally seven reels in length, The Passaic Textile Strike opened with a fictional docu-drama prologue that illustrated the working conditions, while the rest of the film offered documentary footage of the strike and congressional hearings.  Today, five reels still survived, and the first reel, the prologue, is presented here.

The prologue is a short tale of the Breznac family as it falls in ever deepening despair due to poverty.  Young Stefan Breznac, a Polish factory worker, bring his sweetheart Kada to America.  They raise a family together over the years in New York City but must live in a small, crowded apartment.  Bad news arrives when Stefan's factory begins to issue unfair wage cuts.  Stefan's oldest daughter Vera, fourteen years of age, is forced to drop out of school to help support the family.  Vera's new boss soon makes sexual advances towards the young girl, even though he is married; when he grows tired of her, he fires her.

Stefan tries to compensate for his lower wages by working even longer hours.  He goes against a doctor's advice and eventually collapses. When he dies from sheer exhaustion, the other workers decide to act against the slave labor in the factory and form a union.  The prologue ends when Kada herself must begin night shifts at the textile mill to earn money.

Despite some melodramatic elements in the prologue, many of the hardships were factual.  Sexual abuse in the workplace was common, and workers were often underpaid and poorly treated.  The Passaic Textile Strike helped to raise public awareness of the workers' plight.  The year-long strike eventually ended with some concessions from both sides.

49) Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (The Boys Are Marching) (4 min., 1926)

The very earliest movie theaters were actually vaudeville theaters.  Often, the live acts were followed by motion picture exhibitions, although by the 1920's, vaudeville had been supplanted by movies.  In the early days, though, most vaudeville theaters or nickelodeons only had one motion picture projector, so the time required to change between reels was pre-occupied with song slides.  These were frequently led by live singers on the stage who would encourage a sing-along with the audience.

From this early tradition, the sing-along cartoon was developed in the 1920's.  The Fleischer brothers (Max and Dave) first introduced the "Oh, Mabel" sing-along cartoon in 1924 to an enthusiastic reception.  Forty more such cartoons soon followed, each featuring Ko-Ko the Clown, an Inkwell character who was second in popularity among cartoon characters only to Felix the Cat.  In each sing-along, Ko-Ko and his clown band would lead audiences via the now-familiar bouncing white ball (at first animated, but later ingeniously photographed as a white disk on a black, unseen string or stick).  Several of these sing-alongs were released as de Forest Phonofilms, but most were silent and relied upon audience participation and familiarity with the tunes.

In the selection included on this disc, animator Max Fleischer uses a bouncing-ball to entice audiences to join the Ko-Ko Glee Klub in singing the Civil War battle anthem "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp."  The ball is eventually replaced by animated clowns dancing over the words.

The musical accompaniment on this DVD for Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!, featuring vocals and a piano and horn quartet, emulates the atmosphere as might have existed at one such sing-along.

50) Fieldwork footage from the rural southern United States (7 min., 1928)

African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, before she became a noteworthy novelist, used the loan of a camera to photograph fifteen reels of film preserving the heritage of southern African-American culture.  Of these reels, only nine are known to have survived and contain black & white, occasionally grainy footage capturing children at play, a baptism in a river, a logging camp, and footage of octogenarian Cudjo Lewis, the final survivor from The Clotilde, the last arriving slave ship to America (in 1859).  No intertitles are presented with these clips, although the musical accompaniment is comprised of spirituals and bluegrass music.

Hurston's patron was Charlotte Osgood Mason, a rich supporter of the Harlem Renaissance art movement.  Mason provided Hurston with travel expenses and the 16mm camera to capture her evocative documentary footage.  Although the footage photographed by Hurston was to be spliced together into a documentary, this never occurred.

51) Trailers from six presumed lost films

Lastly, Program Three concludes with a bittersweet note that touches upon a sad truth about cinema's early years.  Despite a richness of diversity and output over cinema's first formulative decades, over ninety percent of these films are lost forever.  Trace glimpses of these films, either through stills or trailers or a few seconds of scattered footage, are too frequently all that remain of these films, if anything remains at all.

The list of lost masterpieces over time extends like a sad parade of ghostly memories - 4 Devils (by F.W. Murnau), The Sea Gull (by Joseph von Sternberg and Charlie Chaplin), London After Midnight (a Lon Chaney film), or Cleopatra (a Theda Bara film), just to name a few famous ones.

Trailers for six presumed lost films are included here as a reminder of the importance of preserving our cinematic heritage.  Those films which still remain must not be allowed to vanish as well:

i) In the Days of Daniel Boone (1923) - This red-tinted trailer shows a lot of battle scenes involving Indians and Redcoats.  The original film was a fifteen-chapter serial.


ii) The Silent Flyer (1926) - Rin-Tin-Tin was not the only dog star of the silent era.  Silver Streak was another dog star.  This red-tinted trailer shows clips from one of his lost films, including a sled dog chase across ice and snow.


iii) The American Venus (1926) - This Paramount film starred the then-current Miss America among a cast of other Atlantic City bathing beauties.  The silent era beauty Louise Brooks also appeared in the lost film.  This trailer is toned and very briefly shows a glimpse of the two-color Technicolor process.


iv) The Great Gatsby (1926) - This lost film was the first adaptation of the famous novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Again, there are more bathing beauties here, including Georgia Hale (The Gold Rush).


v) Beau Sabreur (1928) - This lost melodrama starred a young Gary Cooper with Norah Beery.  Drawing upon the popularity of Beau Geste, this trailer features cavalry charges and sabre fights.


vi) The Patriot (1928) - Another lost Paramount film, this Academy Award-winning costume drama was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starred Emil Jannings.  The epic story concerned a man who had killed his former best friend to save the nation.  The film featured early sound effects with a Russian musical score, huge sets, and a large supporting cast.

It is utterly unfathomable to me how an Academy Award-winning film, with such enthusiastic reviews in its initial release, can have joined the ranks of lost films!  But The Patriot is truly a lost film, the only remnants of what must once have been a majestic epic being this trailer, the complete original musical score (held today in the Library of Congress), and a short six-minute fragment of the film discovered in Portugal in 2001.

The Patriot is a perfect illustration of the importance of film preservation.  More than mere entertainment, from actualities to advertisements to technology exhibitions, all the films on these three discs represent a captured look at our history and culture.  The cinema is as much a window into the essence of human experience as is any portrait or sound recording.  The wonderful audio-video accessories which we take for granted today would not have been possible without the incalculable knowledge acquired from the lessons of the early cinema.  More than to ourselves but to future generations, we must be responsible for preserving these records of our past before they too crumple away with time.

Many of these films, despite their age and the limitation of their technology, remain stirring and are still quite capable of captivating audiences through their visual storytelling.  Even the documentaries help to remind us of our nation's diverse heritage and history.  The value of these films is not simply in their individual merit but in their overall collective significance, a true example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931 would be considered one of the most important releases of any calendar year.  Made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, this is surely a dream for silent film enthusiasts.  Furthermore, proceeds from the sales of this DVD set will support ongoing work in film preservation and restoration at our American archives, and that is as noble a goal as any in cinema today.

Video **

The digital restoration is exemplary, but the final image quality is clearly limited by the extreme age and rarity of these films.  The films have been mastered from the best surviving source material.  Nevertheless, most have scratch marks, tears, and signs of nitrate decomposition.  Flicker is slight but occasionally present.  Some entries are grainy and fairly contrasty with muddy details, while others are relatively clear with more exact details.  Again, the flaws in the video presentation come from the source material, not the transfer process, which is quite good and exhibits no compression artifacts.

The source prints for these films vary from paper prints and 16mm prints to 35mm nitrate prints, which naturally will have greater levels of detail and clarity.  While the vast majority of these films are in black & white, there are a few exhibiting early color techniques.

The films were copied at variable frame rates from 16-30 fps (today, the standard is 24fps), with meticulous efforts to show the films at their proper projection speed.  The films are also shown full-frame, although not necessarily at the familiar 1:33.1 aspect ratio, as a fixed standard for frame rate and aspect ratio did not yet exist in the early years of cinema.  As a result, some films are shown with black borders at the top and bottom (or even on all four sides!) in order to present the entire frame without cropping.

Audio **

Contrary to popular belief, Al Jolson was not the first person to speak in the movies.  He merely popularized the "talkie."  This few sound films in this collection demonstrate extremely early sound techniques, so the audio quality is understandably limited, with a frequently reedy and scratchy quality and poor fidelity to natural sound.  The de Forest sound films, originally projected at 21 fps, required tricky restoration to permit these films to be played properly on modern equipment without distorting the sound.

The audio quality improves significantly with the musical accompaniments, all recorded for this collection using contemporary equipment.  The new music was curated by Martin Marks and includes new music scores from composers Peter Child, Mark Harvey, Brian Robinson, Charles Shadle, and Fred Steiner.

All original audio tracks, when available, are presented in two-track mono.  All new music is presented in two-track stereo.

Features ****

When six of the major American film archives contribute to the creation of one DVD boxed set, viewers can be assured that the commentaries provided by these film archivists and historians will be the authoritative word for many of these rare films.

Each DVD is loaded with text extras.  Each film includes an "About the Film" section, curated by Scott Simmon, which supplies pages after endless pages describing each film in great detail, covering everything from its early history, its production and the techniques or equipment used, its significance in history, its preservation, further references or interesting reading materials, and much more!  While these pages contain only text accompanied by some still footage, the wealth of information they contain is quite overwhelming and of greater merit than any typical "making-of" featurette.  Almost anything that a viewer might want to know about the films can be found within these text notes.

But pity the poor composer, too!  Most of us are probably dismissive of silent film scores, and I doubt that much attention is given by audiences to any research or careful synchronization done by the belabored pianist (with occasional string, horn, or vocal accompaniment).  Thus, Martin Marks, as musical curator of this DVD collection, must surely have appreciated the opportunity to discuss every single score for all the selections in this set.  Marks goes into great details in his section of the text notes to elaborate on how certain musical pieces were chosen (or composed) for the film.

For those who prefer that old-fashioned style of reading (i.e., from a real book), The National Film Preservation Foundation has kindly included a whopping 186-page book (not including the prologue and technical notes sections, which bring the total to 200 pages) that contains all the text (and many screenshots) from the three DVDs.  The book also organizes the films by the archives which contributed them to this collection.  Each archive is further described, too, and the book lists downloadable films available at their websites.  This heavy book, with over fifty separate articles, easily contains DAYS of reading material.  It is by far the most comprehensive and informative book included with any DVD collection this year.

There are seventeen commentators on disc for this collection, and several of the contributors speak on more than one film.  Listed below are the commentators and the films in which they expound upon everything from the film's cast and story to its significance.

Blaine M. Bartell (UCLA Film and Television Archive) talks about the vintage newsreels International Newsreel and C-V News.  Robert Gitt, also of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and Randy Haberkamp (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) both contribute comments on Gretchen the Greenhorn.  Much of the discussion centers upon the preservation and restoration of the film as well as biographical information about the two Gish sisters.

Jay Carr (National Film Preservation Board) speaks up from time to time on Lady Windermere’s Fan, although his comments are generally very few and far in-between.  His remarks tend to comment upon the subtle nuances in the film that comprise the "Lubitsch Touch."

Paolo Cherchi Usai (George Eastman House) talks about the three color films in this collection and Cockeyed, too.

Donald Crafton (University of Notre Dame) is the most prolific commentator and can be found offering historical insight on The Breath of a Nation, Greeting by George Bernard Shaw, Now You're Talking, A Few Moments With Eddie Cantor, A Few Moments with President Calvin Coolidge, and Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!.  He also lays some eggs with his amusingly lousy puns for Gus Visser and His Singing Duck

Tom Gunning (University of Chicago), being a D.W. Griffith scholar, is an ideal commentator for The Country Doctor.  Gunning discusses the narrative techniques used in this film.  He also provides brief comments for the Program Two films Streets of New York, From Leadville to Aspen, and The "Teddy" Bears.

Steven Higgins (Museum of Modern Art) discusses early editing on The Life of an American Fireman and early narrative techniques on The Suburbanite.

Stephen Gong (University of California, Berkeley) fills in some of the missing storyline for  Lotus Blossom.

Carla Kaplan (University of Southern California), being a Hurston historian, discusses the novelist's Fieldwork footage and provides much biographical information about the novelist, too.  Kaplan's colleague Steven J. Ross from the University of Southern California discusses the labor films Children Who Labor, Passaic Textile Strike, and the Westinghouse Works Series.

Jennifer M. Bean (University of Washington) discusses Fallen Leaves in terms of the actresses involved, the story synopsis, and Blaché's camera framing and stage setups.  Bean also talks about the serials The Hazards of Helen and Hands Up and provides the answer for the "Movie Lovers' Contest."  She also joins Donald Crafton and Tom Gunning in commenting upon the six trailers at the end of Program Three.

Samuel Brylawski (Library of Congress) offers commentary for The Stenographer’s Friend, discussing the history of the phonograph as a dictation device and its impact upon stenography.  He also elucidates the somewhat vague on-screen instructions by the salesman on the usage of the business phonograph.  Brylawski's colleague Patrick Loughney (Library of Congress) discusses the Dickson Experimental Sound Film, particularly how the separate portions of the original Kinetophone and the original recording studio were re-assembled to re-construct this film.

Rick Prelinger (National Film Preservation Board) discusses the relevance of industrial films like De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb.

Elena Pinto Simon (Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture) talks about A Bronx Morning.

Rennard Strickland (University of Oregon School of Law) makes good use of his specialty on Indian law for The Invaders.  Strickland discusses race portrayals and film's depiction of the uneasy relationship between Indian tribes and the U.S. cavalry.

As if all of this weren't enough, there are also three complimentary postcards included with each disc in this set.  Each postcard offers a screenshot or promotional art from these early films.


What an astounding DVD boxed set!  For film students and silent film enthusiasts, More Treasures from American Film Archives is far and away the most important release of the year.  This boxed set is an essential addition to any academic film library and may well teach viewers more about cinematic history than most other DVDs in their collections...combined!  For the true film enthusiasts out there, this release gets my top recommendation.

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