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Image Entertainment presents
"I—an officer of the law—must shield a murderess!"
DVD ReviewIt's always a treat when the National Film Preservation Foundation issues another set in its series of Treasures from American Film Archives. Each set has been packed to the gills with amazing materials long hidden away, both sound and silent, that make for fascinating viewing. While the first two sets seemed almost random accumulations of motion pictures, there was always a sense that something marvelous could be lurking just around the corner. This third four-disc set instead takes a more coherent approach, looking at the use of early American films to address social problems in the first third of the 20th century. The association is a natural one, since those years were the heyday of the muckrakers and the rise of the Progressive era; the motion picture was an integral part of those years of social change and these movies, none of which have appeared on home video ibefore, were right at the heart of that change. The set includes 44 short films and four complete feature films.
Each of the discs has a theme associated with it, and disc one is centered on the problems of the cities and the change of America from a rural nation to an urban one. Among the issues dealt with are crime and juvenile delinquency, anarchism and communism, loan sharking, homelessness, poverty, disease and even traffic safety. The DVD starts off with a bang, with The Black Hand (1906), which is apparently the oldest surviving depiction of the Mafia on film, centering on the foiling of an extortion racket. Loosely based on real events, it feels somewhat stagebound but there's certainly a consciousness of pacing. D.W. Griffith's The Voice of the Violin (1909) is a short that features the appeal of anarchism, with of course redemption in the form of love. It's unusual in that it's one of the few Griffith Biographs that has its intertitles intact. Hope: A Red Cross Seal Story (1912) is unusual in that it crusades against tuberculosis, though it shows nothing of its symptoms beyond a couple coughs and is so determinedly oblique it's often difficult to know what the Red Cross Society was trying to get people to do; despite its title Christmas Seals hardly even are mentioned. The Cost of Carelessness (1913) is a primitive traffic safety scare picture, complete with children being run over by streetcars. It also notably features a film within the film, as schoolchildren watch a similar traffic safety film.
The feature is The Soul of Youth (1920), a Realart release that is one of the handful of surviving pictures directed by the notorious William Desmond Taylor. It's a beautiful print that offers gorgeous intertitles, some of which use special effects to very humorous effect. Lew Sargent, who had starred as Tom Sawyer for Taylor previously, is Ed Simpson a street urchin loved only by his dog. He begins descending down the path of crime in Denver when he is sent to the juvenile court run by the real-life Judge Ben B. Lindsey, who was extremely influential in his refusal to treat juveniles as if they were hardened criminals (though he was later driven out of the state by the Ku Klux Klan for his liberal views). Given a second chance and a possible family, Ed must decide whether he will use his skills to commit theft for a good cause. It's a bit on the hokey melodrama side, but Sargent sells his character extremely well. As a bonus, there's a four-minute clip from the documentary film Saved by the Juvenile Court (1913), featuring Judge Lindsey and his court, which may have been used by the judge as a campaign piece.
Disc 2 is entitled New Women, and for all the liberal qualities on display on the first disc there's fair amount of reactionary content here. The disc starts off with several Edison shorts poking fun at Carrie Nation and her saloon smashing ways. Trial Marriages (1906) mocks Professor Elsie Parsons' suggestions that cohabitation might be a positive way to avoid bad marriages, treating it as a way for bachelors to be victimized by various types of worthless women. The suffragette movement also is taken to the woodshed by several short films that disdain women seeking the vote as homely malcontents. Life in rural areas is examined depressingly in The Courage of the Commonplace (1913), as a woman's dreams of betterment are shattered by the economic realities of the farm. On the other hand, the Dept. of Agriculture uses the motion picture to answer the question "How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen the farm" in Poor Mrs. Jones (1926). In that picture, the title character is set straight that life in the city isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Where Are My Children? (1916) is a quite unusual feature that suffers a bit from slightly muddled intentions. It features stage actor Tyrone Power Sr. as Richard Walton, a district attorney who prosecutes a doctor providing information on birth control; unknown to Walton, he is childless because his wife keeps having abortions. While the film, directed by Lois Weber, one of the foremost creators of the silent era, is sympathetic toward the birth control movement, it also adds a somewhat ugly argument in favor of eugenics: the plain implication is that the white upper classes have a duty to have children while others should be restrained in their procreating. Things are further complicated by the daughter of Walton's housekeeper being seduced by his brother-in-law, and dying in the process of a bungled abortion procured by Walton's wife. It's surprising in its frank portrayal of female sexuality, and despite its somewhat dubious agenda it definitely packs an emotional punch.
Toil and Tyranny, disc three, includes six films, five of which are devoted to the labor struggles of the early 20th century, opening with an animated editioral cartoon that compares the I.W.W. to a rat. The virulently anti-union National Association of Manufacturers also chimes in with a picture blaming lazy and careless workers for industrial accidents. This was not a one-sided fight though, since the A.F.L. counters with Labor's Rewards (1925), the one surviving reel of which castigates unsafe workplaces and urges buying only products that bear the union label. The twelfth and final episode of the series Who Pays (1915) suggests that continued conflict of labor and capital can only end in disaster for both parties.
Cecil B. De Mille's The Godless Girl (1928) is quite an oddity. One of the few attempts in early cinema to attempt a depiction of atheism, it's alternately fearmongering and patronizing, though it also gives short shrift to the fanatical Christists who mean to stamp out atheism. In a high school, a Godless Society meets to discuss freethinking beliefs, and the school administration wants to have them all arrested. A Christist student group convinces the principal to let them handle it their own way: which is to say, by invading the meeting and beating the tar out of the atheists. Unfortunately, in the struggle a girl is killed, and both groups end up being sent off to reform school. While there, a romance blooms between the leaders of the two groups, who each decide that there are merits to the other side's way of thinking. The biggest impact is from Noah Beery as a cruelly sadistic guard at the reform school; from beatings to electrocutions that he gleefully administers, the result almost makes this into a pre-Code horror film. What its connection is to the other pictures on the disc is somewhat lost on me, but the mind control aspect certainly is congruent with the capitalist demands for conformity and obedience.
The final disc, Americans in the Making looks at different aspects of what goes into the making of the early 20th century American. Several shorts take a look at immigrant life and assimilation, including the NAM short The Making of an American, which gives this disc its title. Offering some obscure and incomprehensible safety tips, it primarily promotes adoption of American ways by Eastern European immigrants, with the promise of at least a middle class lifestyle in return. It offers a unique insight into the way that such a work force was dealt with in those days, with signs often in five languages. The flip side of immigration is examined with several pictures relating to the American Indian and their difficulties in assimilation. Ramona (1910), based on the popular muckraking 1884 novel, is directed by D.W. Griffith and features an unrecognizable Mary Pickford as the title character and recounting her travails after she learns she has native blood. The picture is too short to permit the inclusion of anything more than highlights from the story, so some familiarity with the book is a necessity to make it seem anything other than unrelated vignettes.
Redskin (1929) is a sympathetic look at Native American issues related to assimilation, centering on Wingfoot (Richard Dix), a Navajo who is forcibly raised by whites at an Indian boarding school. Winning a scholarship to a white college, he is humiliated by their racism and returns home to his tribe, which also rejects him for having adopted too much of the white men's ways. To make matters worse, he is in love with Corn Blossom, a Pueblo, giving a Romeo-and-Juliet twist to the story. Intriguingly, the film offers the scenes in Indian lands as two-strip Technicolor, while the white man's world is sepia-tinted black and white only. That allows for some spectacular color photography in the Arizona deserts. It also was released with music-and-effects tracks on disc, but only the discs for reels 1, 3 and 8 survive. Those are presented here as an alternative track. Redskin, despite its appalling theme song on the discs ("Redskin, redskin, boy of my dreams"), is entirely sympathetic to its main characters and almost uniformly condemnatory of white civilization, except insofar as it can offer modern medicine. When the natives reject that in favor of traditional superstitions, they also earn the disdain of the central characters.
Rounding out the disc are some miscellaneous shorts relating to the World War I effort and Prohibition. In addition to animated patriotic shorts issued by the Ford Motor Co., Mary Pickford stars in 100% American (never mind that Pickford was Canadian), which emphasizes self-sacrifice and the purchase of 4th Liberty Loan bonds to finance the war. Bud's Recruit (1918) is a charming early short from King Vidor that features a war-crazy youngster, surrounded by a "Peace at any price" family. In disguise, he arranges for his older brother to enlist for the army, with some surprisingly comic results. At the other end of the war, The Reawakening (1919) is devoted to the rehabilitation of the wounded veterans. A set of eight newsreels cover Prohibition from its beginnings with liquor being dumped, to a growing question as to whether it is enforceable, to its repeal to the strains of Happy Days are Here Again. It's certainly happy days when we get another volume of Treasures.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The rare prints included here are frequently very early generation sources, with elaborate detail visible and little of the dupiness that is often associated with early film. The exceptions are the Edison films, which clearly were overprinted. The Soul of Youth is gorgeous, with the exception of a series of x's scratched onto the print periodically by some long-ago projectionist. Where Are My Children? looks similarly excellent, although the final reel suffers from a bit of decomposition. Assembled from several different prints, however, it doesn't look bad overall. The Godless Girl is from De Mille's personal print, and other than some speckling is in splendid shape.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: All of the silents (nearly 12 hours' worth) have new musical scores, performed by a wide variety of ensembles ranging from solo piano to a small orchestra. They're in appropriately clean condition, with no serious issues of any kind. The pianos in particular have nice presence.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 66 cues and remote access
39 Feature/Episode commentaries by Tom Gunning, Lendol Calder, Richard Abel, Jennifer Horne, Rick Prelinger, Donald Crafton, Russell Merritt, Jennifer M. Bean, Margaret Finnegan, Shelley Stump, Gregory A. Walker, Blaine M. Bartell, Steven J. Ross, Randy Haberkamp, Cecilia De Mille Pre
Packaging: Box Set
Extras Review: In addition to the films presented, the Treasures series always benefits from a lavish presentation, and this third installment is no exception. The box includes a substantial illustrated book that includes copious notes about the films and the musical scores. These essays are also included on the discs, often with interactive links to demonstrate the description with a musical excerpt, a clip from the film, stills, or other materials. Thus, while there is a "Play All" option, there's a good deal more material available if you work through the disc one movie at a time.
All but a couple of the films presented include substantial commentaries from a wide array of film professors and historians. A few slip into narration, but most offer interesting insights that are seldom very duplicative of the textual comments. There are a couple disappointments, both on Disc 4. Jere Guldin has little to offer about Bud's Recruit, and Margaret Archuleta only has about 15 minutes of comments about Indian boarding schools before she ducks out of Redskin; it might have been useful to have someone else available to take over after she has said her bit. But the balance are more than worthwhile.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsThe National Film Preservation Foundation presents us with another solid and extensive collection of rarely-seen films in spectacular condition, packed with lavish extras. Ignore the price tag; this is another must-have.
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