Early Cinema DVDs
Reviewed by Rahul Hamid
DVD review of Treasures III Social Issues in American Film, Saved From the Flames, Discovering Cinema
The explosion of the DVD market promises benefits that go well beyond saving the box-office receipts of mediocre films and allowing studios to recycle the same tired material three and four times over. The growing variety and depth of these releases has made it possible to educate oneself in cinema studies, visual anthropology, cultural and political history in a way that could never have been possible before. Beautifully restored films packaged with thoughtful liner notes and supplemented with scholarly commentary provide a wealth of information and access that was once limited only to elites living in big cities. Could the directors of the French New Wave have celebrated and been inspired by the likes of Carl Dreyer and Louis Feuillade had it not been for the French Cinémathèque? Its legendary curator, Henri Langlois, would have been thrilled to imagine how much further influence his curatorial choices could have had, were he to have had digital technology and a means of
distribution at his disposal.
In this vein the curators of the great American film archives and other distribution companies like Flicker Alley have been producing a steady stream of beautifully preserved films from the silent era. The Flicker Alley discs reviewed here focus on early attempts at sound and color and a set of rare films originally printed on highly flammable nitrate stock, while the box set from the American Film Archives is themed around social issues. In some sense these releases and others like them can keep the tradition of the autodidact film buff alive in a world where expertise in film is increasingly professionalized through the continuing expansion of the academic field of cinema studies in universities.
Flicker Alley’s “Discovering Cinema” is most obviously organized to serve a pedagogical function. The two discs, “Learning to Talk” and “Movies Dream in Color,” each center around an eponymous documentary that leads the viewer through various attempts at synch sound and color respectively. Each disc also contains a generous sampling of films made with the various techniques outlined in the documentaries. “Learning to Talk” begins with the different methods used to cue live sound performances. The variety and ingenuity of techniques is quite marvelous. Many filmmakers focused on the accompanying music. Films of popular songs were produced with an actor mouthing the words on screen, while a singer was supposed to perform in the theater. Other films were created with notes printed at the bottom of the screen, so that a musician at the movie house could play along and achieve perfect synchronization. Films were made to be projected in tandem with recordings of famous performers; the one preserved on “Learning to Talk” features the voice of Enrico Caruso as an actor lip-synchs and emotes for the great star. Another technique was to project a bouncing ball, hopping from lyric to lyric, meant to encourage the audience to sing along, a technique that found great popularity again in the Sixties and that continues to be used. While the documentary and extras contain many interesting examples from Europe and the United States, one glaring omission is the Benshi tradition of Japan. Benshi were performers who would recite alongside silent films. Their popularity and renown often superseded that of the film they accompanied. This oversight may be due to an inability to get rights to the films or recordings of Benshi, but this unique practice deserved at least a mention.
The more straightforward technological approaches to synchronization begin in the 1890s with the experiments of W.K.L. Dickson. He was the engineer tasked by Edison to invent a moving-picture device that could be added on to the phonograph in an attempt to help the record player’s sagging sales. Dickson never perfected sound cinema, but the process produced the first moving pictures. Around 1913, the Edison Company would create a synchronization system, whereby the projector and phonograph were fitted with gears and connected by a belt, but it was unreliable and difficult to operate and was not pursued by the company. This model, of attempting to synchronize sound on a disc or cylinder with a camera, was the model for various systems throughout the Twenties. But by 1920, Lee De Forest invented a system where sound and image could be connected in a single machine and eliminated many of the difficulties of two-device methods. His optical sound system attached an extra band onto
the side of the filmstrip. A special valve then converted sounds into exposed areas of light and dark on the band and another device on the projector was designed to read the band and reconvert the information back into sound. This innovation, optical sound, would be the basis for modern sound film.
“Movies Dream in Color” is organized in much the same way as the sound disc. The documentary takes the audience through the various techniques used to add color to film from the earliest hand-painted Lumière films to the two-strip Technicolor process that directly preceded the three-strip process that would become the standard. Hand painting, tinting, and stenciling are among the early methods. Later attempts at color utilized filter systems. Black-and-white stock was still used, but then was either shot and projected using color filters or shot at a slow speed and the printed on celluloid with alternating color frames and projected at double speed. Whether the technical aspects of these processes interest you or not, the films included on the DVD are beautiful to look at and of great cinematic and historic interest. The Marx brothers, the streets of 1930s New York, and the first trailers for color films are all splendidly restored and gleam with an astonishing vividness.
While “Discovering Cinema” does provide the viewer with a great deal of information and a wealth of wonderful films, one aspect of its presentation continues to trouble me. It implicitly presents a teleological argument that color and sound were the inevitable future of cinema and that each step along the way to the talking, color cinema of today was simply crude preamble. That the documentaries and the discs are presented using the logic of technological history are quite possibly the reason for this, but it is worth noting that audiences and filmmakers alike saw silent film as a complete and perfect art form. Many of the great directors—Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin—were actively suspicious of sound because it would diminish the artistry involved in pure visual storytelling by impeding the camera’s movement and diminishing the role of visual metaphor.
“Saved from the Flames” is a more eclectic collection of films, united simply by the fact that they were all printed on nitrate film stock and were in the process of disintegrating were it not for the preservation efforts of European film archives, Lobster Films, and Blackhawk films. The three-disc set is organized thematically and contains a multitude of unforgettable images. The travel films, featuring the flight of one of the last dirigibles, an introduction to New York’s Coney Island, pygmies in the Congo, street urchins in Paris, were of particular interest. The method of presentation and the perspectives that the films take provide a contemporaneous perspective on colonial attitudes, social injustice, and leisure that are impossible to glean simply by reading history books. Celebrities like Josephine Baker, the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Charles Lindbergh, Michel Simon, Jacques Tati, and Louis Armstrong all appear in various films as well. The restorations of
Georges Méliès’s magical films are accompanied by other French fantasy films distributed by the Pathé Freres Company that are much less well-known, but share his light touch, playfulness, and desire to astound.
The collection also includes unseen films with Chaplin and Stan Laurel along with a group of other Mack Sennet and European slapstick comedies. Seeing these films together illustrates the amount of imitation and influence that flowed across the Atlantic. While this flow is most often thought of in terms of either foreign directors, from Ernst Lubitsch to Guillermo del Toro, being lured to Hollywood, or foreign films being remade in the U.S. Saved form the Flames makes it clear that this exchange worked both ways and that American formulas and genres were as enthusiastically copied then as they are now. Commercials, cartoons, a D.W. Griffith short that plays on Coca Cola’s inclusion of cocaine in its secret formula (Dopokoke), a Thomas Ince Western with a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, and a reel of censored kisses from several films round out this remarkable collection of films that gives viewers a much better sense of the depth and breadth of
filmmaking from an earlier time.
“Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film” is the first of the series with a specific curatorial purpose. Like the first two, a knowledgeable collection of scholars from a wide variety of fields was convened to provide secondtrack commentary and a thick, informative booklet accompanies the set. To some degree, the thrill of discovery, the sheer pleasure of not knowing what to expect on each disc, that accompanied the first releases is missing here, but it is replaced by a rare opportunity to delve into the politics of the past and the surprising variety of approaches to it. The first disc, “The City Reformed,” takes on the numerous challenges posed by the expansion of urban centers in the early part of the twentieth century. Issues surrounding health and overcrowding predominate this genre. Hope—A Red Cross Seal Story and From the Submerged, both from 1912, depict respectively the ravages of tuberculosis, the poverty of the city slums, and the disparity between rich and
poor in the swelling cities. Also from the same year, but quite relevant today as well, The Usurer’s Grip, made by a division of the Russell Sage Foundation dedicated to providing short-term loans at reasonable rates, tells the story of a young couple who fall victim to a predatory furniture loan. These films all use a melodramatic story to personalize large social problems, illustrating how innocent everyday citizens are at the mercy of the big city.
The Black Hand (1906) and A Call For Help From Sing Sing (1934) use fear and sensationalism and seem less motivated by reform and more about allowing the audience the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing the city’s seamy side. The former film reenacts a famous hold-up and capture of a Mafia gang in New York. The mobsters are stereotypically mustachioed and the action is fast and furious. The latter is a guided tour of the prison by the then famous Sing Sing warden, Lewis E. Lawes, who warns the viewer that crime does not pay. A production by the right-wing Hearst Movietone Company, the film celebrates Lewis’s no-nonsense vindictive perspective on crime and punishment. The Cost of Carelessness (1913), on the other hand—a safety film designed to teach children how to cross the increasingly busy metropolitan streets—provides comic relief. The invaluable curator of these safety films, Rick Prelinger, notes in his audio commentary that these films were judged on how well and
spectacularly the fake accidents were staged. Cost, released by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, passes this test with flying colors. The film also provides urban historians and baseball fans a glimpse of the now defunct Brooklyn streetcars and the foolhardy “trolley dodgers” who ran amongst them and for which that borough’s team was named.
Perhaps the most interesting film on the first disc is Griffith’s The Voice of the Violin, which recounts the tale of an anarchist bomber from Germany. This 1906 film is part of an already well-established tradition of connecting immigrants with threatening political ideas from Europe and violence in American cities. Von Schmitt, the film’s main character is seduced by Marxist ideas of class and becomes obsessed with destroying the wealthy, and, save for a last-minute musically inspired change of heart, nearly does blow up a rich family. Griffith, true to form, defangs the presentation of political ideas by making Von Schmitt’s romantic disappointment the impetus for his ideological awakening.
The disc devoted to “The New Woman” approaches its topic in a similarly diverse way. Kansas Saloon Smashers and Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1901) deal with reforming women’s involvement with the temperance movement and its leader Carrie Nation. Both comic films, they trade in broad stereotypes of drunken and dissolute men and large, overly aggressive, punishing women. The films portray a deep fear that middle- and upper-class women’s voices were becoming increasingly prominent in the new century and use caricature to police traditional gender roles, and keep reformers like Nation in her place. In contrast, Manhattan Trade School for Girls introduces us to a school where immigrant girls are given an education in the higher skill industrial trades that will allow them to make a better living than the traditional women’s work such as sewing and laundering. The girls in the film, for whom high school is not an option, are shown as active and eager pupils, trained in mind and
body to be prepared for the future. This disc also contains another episode of The Hazards of Helen, one of the many silent serials dedicated to female daredevils. It also includes films on the suffrage movement. On to Washington (1913) set to the stirring Suffragist anthem, “Give the Ballot to the Mothers” by Rebecca Hazard, documents a 1913 march from Newark to Washington designed to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
Where Are My Children? (1916), directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, is about abortion and birth control (a term then only recently coined by Margaret Sanger). Weber was prominent woman director at Universal, who specialized in social-problem films. Her film, made with the assistance of her husband, is a surprising mixture of topics—eugenics, class, and the morality of reproduction are all in play. A tale of a society doctor and of a physician who works among the poor, the film denounces abortion, while at the same time it promotes birth control among the lower castes and asks who has the right to reproduce and what type and class of people will produce the most beneficial offspring. The film encapsulates the contradictions of the politics of the New Woman at this time: on the one hand, able to speak and act within the public sphere with greater freedom than ever before, but also constantly pushed back by tradition and the perceived dictates of biology.
The final discs cover the topics of labor and race. The Crime of Carelessness (1912)is a fascinating film made by the Edison Company that reenacts an event very similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 immigrant girls jumped to their deaths to avoid incineration because the factory’s fire exits of their ninth-floor workroom were blocked. The film’s twist is that it was made by a fiercely antiunion group, The National Association of Manufacturers. In this version of the factory fire, a careless worker starts the inferno; all the blame falls on him and there is no mention of company negligence. To provide the opposing point of view to this and other antiunion films on the disc, the only surviving reel of a film, Labor’s Reward (1925), made by the American Federation of Labor is also presented. The film uses what would later be called a neo-realist esthetic to make its points. A love story is the film’s foreground, but it is in the background details, the
shabby homes, inhuman factory conditions, and unfair situations where the political persuasion takes place.
The final disc, “Americans in the Making,” like the others, is carefully composed of progressive and reactionary perspectives on immigration and race. One of the most striking films is a cartoon produced by the Ford Motor Company, The United Snakes of America (1917). This prowar film depicts German newspaper editors, speculators, and labor activists as vipers strangling the U.S. effort in World War I. Another interesting industrial film, An American in the Making (1913), made by U.S. Steel, is meant to induce Eastern European workers to come to the Midwest to work in the steel industry. The film was made to counter the bad press and reports of unsafe conditions in the steel mills that were filtering back to Europe. Its tale of Bela, a Hungarian immigrant, depicts a Utopian vision of immigrant assimilation—a new job, new language, and new freedoms lead to a better way of life and happy new Americans. The issue of Native Americans also appears in several films.
Throughout the disc, the question of what makes a person authentically American is pondered. In some cases, it is race, in others virtue, even purchasing war bonds. The films all speak to a great insecurity within our highly pluralistic society, one in which if birth is not the criterion that makes you a part of the nation, then citizenship and belonging must be outwardly demonstrated and constantly reinforced. Although the themes of the separate discs appear to be discrete, after viewing them all one begins to see the connections among them and why these topics cannot easily be separated. The collection provides a nuanced and immediate perspective on American social history. All together these collections provide an overwhelmingly rich storehouse of film history for the cinephile and film educator alike.
Rahul Hamid, a Cineaste Editor, teaches film at New York University