American Film Archives

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly sampling one of the most entertaining–and important–DVD releases of the year, the National Film Preservation Foundation‘s More Treasures From the American Film Archives box set of (mostly) silent films from 1894 to 1931. (A previous collection was released in 2000.) It’s 50 films totaling over nine hours of material spread out over three discs, and each film contains a very informative, multi-screen essay, a new score, and typically an audio commentary by one of the 17 participating critics, historians, and preservationists.

While a number of silent features retain their popularity today, a Chaplin here or a Keaton there, the history of American cinema previous to sound (and previous to television) was startling in its diversity and experimentation, and the NFPF has taken great pains to reflect those qualities in its new collection. Filmmaking was initially based in New York and included nickelodeon reels, experiments in sound and color, animation, actualities (later called documentaries), industrial films, public service announcements, advertisements (often projected on the outside of downtown buildings), newsreels, movies for amusement rides, flip-card “mutoscope” attractions, and political films. All of these and more have been included in this collection and browsing through it has delivered one unexpected and delightful joy after another.

Historic art always offers insight into a previous age, but movies in particular seem to suspend time and offer glimpses of the past with immediacy and clarity. It is shocking to learn, then, that 80% of all the Hollywood features produced in the ’20s no longer survive; only 10% remain from the ’10s. The figures for non-Hollywood American films are even worse, although exact statistics are impossible to calculate because so many films were being made for a variety of venues and audiences. This DVD collection ends poignantly with a series of trailers (so called because they followed the features) for films which have simply vanished from the earth.

Part of the reason film as an art form has had such difficulty surviving even one century is its long identification with immediate profits and its economic depreciation after initial exhibitions, as well as its material fragility. Movies scratch and tear, fade and rot; they are not immortal. Prior to 1950, the film base was highly flammable and many films were actively melted down in order to extract their silver content.

The NFPF has culled this release from the main repositories of historic films in the US: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Here are some highlights:

ïErnst Lubitsch’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, a film that transforms the playwright’s witty repartee into a refined visual satire on the upper class with its use of carefully framed compositions, expert timing, and a perfect illustration of the flawed points of view of its central characters. Lubitsch was one of Hollywood’s first German emigrÈs and this film, along with several others, helped turn Hollywood into a respected entertainment behemoth.

ïThe Suburbanite (1904), another extremely accomplished satire made 20 years before Lubitsch’s masterpiece. Its subject is the newly-forming middle class families moving to New Jersey on account of the growing railroad commute. A horse-and-buggy “moving van” arrives at a house and proceeds to destroy every piece of furniture the workers attempt to carry into the new home, resulting in a series of problems that culminate in the house cook having a nervous breakdown and being arrested. Its sarcasm and narrative is perfectly wrought, astonishingly so for such an early picture.

ïD.W. Griffith’s The Country Doctor (1909) illustrates his mastery of the new visual concept of crosscutting as well as his attention to working class life (despite his deserved reputation as a racist) when a doctor must decide between attending a neighbor’s sick child or his own.

ïEarly Advertising Films offers a fascinating look at early corporate ads, including those for Edison’s Admiral Cigarettes, an electric refrigerator (ice boxes were still in wide use in ’26), and Edison’s phonograph (which was conceived as a business tool for accurate secretarial dictation).

ïRennard Strickland’s (professor of law and history at the University of Oregon) commentary on Thomas Ince’s early Western feature, The Invaders (1912), which accurately describes the relationship between American Indians and the US government in the early 20th century and suggests that warfare between them was as recent to Ince’s viewers as the Vietnam war is to today’s.

ïAshley Miller’s 1912 film, Children Who Labor; a radical filmmaker (he later turned down the lucrative offer to direct the sequel to Birth of a Nation on account of his opposition to the rightwing source novel) whose film illustrates the travails of American child labor (more than 18% of kids 10-14 were employed by the factories) and creates a moving melodrama about social reform.

ïThere It Is, Charley Bowers’ absurd combination of stop motion, live action, and animation to depict a house haunted by a mysterious mustached man who defies gravity and lays playful siege to frightened inhabitants before a member of Scotland Yard and his sidekick (a flea in a matchbox) arrive to wreak further havoc. It’s endlessly inventive and impressively surreal.

ïJay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931), an avant-garde montage of daily life in New York, highly influenced by the work of the Soviet formalists.

ïEdwin S. Porter’s famed Life of an American Fireman (1903), which gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that his film established the principles of editing (it’s filmed largely in master shots) but nevertheless impressively assembles a narrative from a combination of interior and exterior shots and a visual connection of incidents.

ïDave Fleischer’s (the brother of Max) Inklings, animated drawings that begin with a caricature and morph into opposite extremes, skinny people into fat people, children into adults.

ïBlack anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s 16mm Fieldwork Footage, containing her documentary footage of black culture in the south of Florida, recording children’s games, life at a logging camp, and perhaps most amazingly, Cudjo Lewis, who was believed to have been the only surviving ex-slave who had been brought to America on a slave ship. Her footage is sensitive and beautifully captured, and became foundational research for her subsequent novels and folk tales.

These pieces only skim the surface of an amazingly rich collection of films.

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