Treasures From American Film Archives

Treasures From American Film Archives (1960)
Image Entertainment
Extras: 152 page book with Production Notes

There’s no more familiar artwork than "The Last Supper." But Leonardo daVinci’s fresco has long since ceased to represent either the artist’s own hand or the surface of color he created. A risky technique daVinci tried failed disastrously. Over the years the fresco crumbled away. Bits by others that once filled gaps have now become the work itself entirely. What’s left is just a best bet by successive generations of ’experts’ as to what it must once have been.

That’s the view we have to take with aging elements of the fragile motion picture art. Too often we even lack the context to know it as it was experienced by the audience for whom it was made. "Treasures from American Film Archives" offers an assortment of fifty rarities from 1893 to 1985 that dwell in obscurity. Yet these films have an inner life that still stirs if we are prepared to meet them halfway.

The collection samples a cross-section of motion picture history in the variety of uses to which it has been put. Culled from eighteen of America’s most prestigious archives as a project organized by the National Film Preservation Foundation, many of these films are of an interest unanticipated when they were made. At the time of writing, for instance, ’How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ is a highly anticipated blockbuster. Its author Dr. Seuss’s style is very much in evidence here in an ingenious wartime propaganda cartoon, "Spies" (1943).

"We Work Again" (1937) ostensibly documents Roosevelt’s New Deal success. More valuable in hindsight is the tidbit it records of Orson Welles’ notorious so-called "Voodoo MacBeth," his all-Black staging of the play he sets in Haiti. Welles at twenty-one enjoyed his first commercial success with this show, neatly dovetailing his Shakespeare predilection with the exigencies of the Works Project Commission.

In capturing the last moments of Welles’ production, the audio for the sequence’s start was inadvertently omitted – for the very first shot of the actor playing MacBeth, the voice is his own! As a matter of fact, it looks suspiciously as if Welles took over filming this newsreel footage altogether. Its expressionist shots are pure Welles.

"Rose Hobart" (1936) is a notorious amateur experiment by James Cornell cobbled mostly from scraps of a 1931 jungle melodrama. There’s no denying a certain fascination in the image flow, but its obviousness does not convince me that Cornell engaged the artist’s muse, only that he stumbled upon an association between shots that in competent hands would be a tool, not an end in itself. Curator Scott Simmon’s program notes gossip that when artist and sometime filmmaker Salvador Dalí attended the 19-minute show’s debut, he throttled both Cornell and his projector. Simmon submits evidence that Dali struck out in jealousy. Fat chance!

I’m the more mistrustful of "Rose Hobart" when I see it beside "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1928), another amateur experiment, but one which brings technique and polish to the equation. It puts the lie to the oft-expressed belief that "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919) was an artistic cul-de-sac. Certainly the German expressionist classic had a worthy sequel to its style here, but enriched with intriguing use of film processing, polished and with new twists.

Thomas Alva Edison is not only credited with inventing the movies, he was its principal life force through its initial two decades. Here we see Edison’s first commercially shown film, a simple half-minute of a blacksmith at work in 1893.

We’re privy to a generous selection of film shorts from 1911 and 1912 when movies worldwide reached a critical point in their development. To represent D. W. Griffith’s over 450 short films, no better choice could have been made than "The Lonedale Operator" (1911). Alone amongst the films in this collection, this thriller prototype has long been available to the public, but its restored tinting here is a revelation.

We take for granted certain conventions that simulate nighttime or what the indoors looks like before someone turns on a light. "The Lonedale Operator" has scenes of both types. Since lighting techniques to effectively convey darkness were beyond the capacity of cameras and film stock of the day, Griffith’s solution was blue tinting.

What we term the ’grammar’ of film is the way film is assembled, whether to tell a story or create atmosphere or both. This technique was refined by Griffith. "The Lonedale Operator" was renowned for the way Griffith cross-cuts just as Hitchcock would later, and for the same purpose – suspense. Not only does Griffith drive tension by cutting between parallel actions, his color use helps us distinguish between environments, further imposing his signature rhythm on the story’s telling. Various forms of coloring featured in films since their inception. This collection scrupulously observes each film’s original specifications.

Were I to choose one single entry to represent the whole, it would be Edison’s "The Land Beyond the Sunset" (1912). Griffith’s aura as undisputed ’father of film’ tends to distort our view of movies as he came to them, of how he advanced them and of what his contemporaries accomplished taking alternative approaches. Edison had no hand in the direction of his films, yet he was their co-author as surely as the sculptor Bernini orchestrated Rome’s last great facelift.

History dismisses most everything Edison produced past the turn of the century. Griffith imposes his intensity on us with his cutting rhythms, but "The Land Beyond the Sunset" has its potency in verisimilitude, its authority by virtue of measured pacing. Griffith’s tales were trite. It was how he told them that was new and exciting. "The Land Beyond the Sunset"’s story is every bit as naïve, but it by no means sells itself short.

It’s a simple linear progression, never cross-cut. What makes "The Land Beyond the Sunset" so poignant is its palpable depiction of a child’s world of brutal poverty. It never resorts to posturing. Whatever potential for mawkishness it shares with D.W. Griffith – even in his greatest films! – this simple film’s understatement and thoughtful handling elevates it to an elegy.

Edison the innovator did not take well to direction contrary to his own bent. But even if he conceded change later rather than sooner, "The Land Beyond the Sunset" demonstrates that he adapted admirably throughout the motion picture’s turbulent first twenty years of evolution. It is a fitting tribute to his own sunset as the single most dominant force in the movies.

It is a measure of our loss that this film should look so near-perfect as it does. When so lovely a gem survives in a print seasoned but not maimed, clean, sharp and toned, it can serve us as a touchstone. We must stretch our imaginations to see in our mind’s eye others that now lack the luster that they too once had.

A rare exception to the worthiness of selections is something called "Composition I (Themis)" (1940), with geometric shapes arbitrarily animated. Limited expressivity in color use, effects and texture offer what little value it has. At least this trifle contrasts with another abstract piece called "OFFON" (1968) by Scott Bartlett. Bartlett’s use of the medium makes OFFON compelling, though it should carry a health warning, the way it accelerates the heartbeat involuntarily beyond the comfort level.

The anthology includes four ’silent’ features, one per disk. As simplistic as "Snow White" (1916) is (Wicked Queen: "I’m sending her away to a boarding school for backward princesses."), it’s clear that the teenaged Walt Disney salted away bits of business from it. Many turn up in his own monumental version of the story. Technicolor in it infancy is not the sole charm of "The Toll of the Sea" (1922), given the exquisite debut performances of Anna May Wong and an astonishing infant, Baby Moran. "Hell’s Hinges" (1916) grounds us in the archetypal Western and "The Chechahcos" (1924) takes a similar approach by cinema independents to frontier taming in Alaska.

Much of this collection is ephemeral, extinct now in all but our collective memory. Yet better than many a more mainstream effort, this compendium gives us insight into conditions and the spirit of our age. We can learn a lot about values and social perspectives from every one of these films. We need only succumb to rhythms foreign to us or beauty in its rawest state, as in 1905’s fascinating "Interior New York Subway."

Each disk sorts its range of titles from earliest to latest, encouraging us to sample between disks. This has the effect of constructing a mosaic overview of motion picture art and the many uses to which it has been put.

Each item has illuminating on-disk background notes by Simmon. Where appropriate, there are also sections on musical accompaniment by musical curator Martin Marx, then on preservation and/or further reading where applicable. A handsome 152-page illustrated guidebook with identical information provides a welcome alternative.

The greater portion of the movies here requires musical accompaniment. It’s a massive challenge and Marx makes a persuasive case for his artistic choices. Occasionally he’s able to reinstate the score originally created for an item. More often, he composes accompaniment legitimately reflecting how it was originally heard. However thorough his accounting, Marx omits mention of some waggish musical interpolations – during the Hindenberg sequence, he paraphrases the mildly disguised phrase, ’Fools rush in!’

While I applaud Marx’s enhancements, I’d have appreciated an alternative soundtrack to films that originally had no sound; an authentic projector type’s signature whir would be nearer the experience. In fact, I’d have welcomed information on typical equipment used to exhibit given films and the range of viewing conditions under which they were experienced.
From its inception, DVD took up the banner from LaserDisc in restoring some measure of dignity to movies that once swayed the world. Though often battered, they at least reclaim some of the respect they deserve when we observe the subtle texture and tone of the film stock of the day, correct the projection speed and acknowledge (even if sometimes waywardly) that music and movies went hand in glove right from the start.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1928) is pristine so I was disappointed that, of all the titles here, it should exhibit edge enhancement. Many other of these films are far more problematic to compress effectively for DVD, yet most replications here are heartening indeed. No compression credits are given so it’s unclear whether individual museums commissioned their own MPEG2 transfers or if they were all done by the same production house.

So few early films have survived in a condition reasonably representing how original audiences experienced them that I’d like to have learned more about the policies of individual institutions tending to them. What are their preservation and restoration techniques, and what distinction do they make between the two? This is the perfect DVD for bookmarking, an option available on PC and more advanced DVD players. Many items have particular sequences or even shots that bear repeat viewing.

Beyond a certain point, you may feel the need to clear the palate as you might in sampling a succession of fine wines. The good news is that whether sipped or binged, what’s here is vintage. The bad news is it could seriously compromise addictive personalities – one taste leaves a ravenous craving for more.