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Feature

Film as Argument

By Bruce Bennett | HUMANITIES, November/December 2007 | Volume 28, Number 6

In his book A Personal Journey Through American Movies, director and tireless film preservation advocate Martin Scorsese describes a certain tendency in film authorship that arose after the adoption of production codes in the 1930s. Special-interest moral and political watchdogs inside and outside the film industry saw to it that movies would not provide a soapbox for unsanctioned propaganda. Artists seeking to sell a mainstream audience on anything outside of a narrow social-issue orthodoxy were obliged, in Scorsese's words, to "smuggle" potentially incendiary content into their films by means of metaphor and other forms of indirect expression.

Treasures III captures a time of more direct expression. Subtitled Social Issues in American Film, 19001934, the collection is the most recent addition to the National Film Preservation Foundation's (NFPF) series of DVDs showcasing the fruits of eleven years of effort to preserve and restore feature films, documentaries, experimental works, newsreels, and industrial films that would otherwise turn to vinegar. Like the previous editions in the Treasures series, the third volume offers an astounding variety of seminal works from every aesthetic corner of American film. "As each of these sets has evolved," says Patrick G. Loughney, head of the Library of Congress's Moving Images Division when the NFPF was founded and currently curator of motion pictures at George Eastman House in Rochester, "they dive more deeply into America's film heritage and seek out the obscure—things that are not readily considered part of America's film heritage.

But Treasures III, a dynamic and compulsively watchable descent into the maelstrom of a nascent medium (and marketplace), is the first in the NFPF series to celebrate American film's overlooked pre-smuggling infancy, when all regulative bets were off and audiences were subject to all manner of unrestricted pedagogy. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson's supposed response to D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, the forty-eight lesser known, politically varied, and gloriously evocative works on Treasures III represent opinion written with lightning.

"Film was something new: a medium that could reach millions regardless of education and language," writes curator Scott Simmon in the introduction to Treasure III's nearly two hundred-page guide. "Reformers—and their opponents—sensed that the movies made popular issues come alive in ways not possible with the printed word." Recognizing the strength of the bond between film and audience, early filmmakers courted the minds of the public through the seductive power of a story. "Here," writes Simmon, "was popular entertainment with the power to persuade."

Presented in a beautiful four-DVD package, boasting gorgeous digital transfers, complimentary new music scores, and accessibly written, authoritatively researched notes, Treasure III strikes an even more nimble curatorial balance between history and entertainment than its predecessors. One is unlikely to find a more affectionately and intelligently compiled and sequenced collection of early films anywhere.

Program One, The City Reformed, explores concerns and issues of urban life that came to a head with the massive migrations from rural areas and abroad that swelled the population of America's cities in the early twentieth century. Program Two, New Women, documents the changing role of women in the twentieth century's first two decades. Toil and Tyranny, Program Three, offers an unblinking look at how both labor and management competed for the hearts and minds of the first generation of filmgoers, and Program Four, Americans in the Making, addresses immigration, patriotism, the Native-American experience, and other ingredients flavoring America's brewing crucible of national character.

The initial shock of Program One's direct depictions of urban crime, political terrorism, credit abuse, homelessness, public health panic, traffic fatalities, juvenile delinquency, and prison overcrowding is surpassed only by the realization that a century later the basic nature of these issues hasn't changed. Program One's first film, an eleven-minute American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. one-reeler, the Mafia exposé The Black Hand, establishes much of what is fascinating about the Treasures III package. Faced with voracious demand and unencumbered by a lengthy postproduction turnaround time, scenarists at Biograph, by basing many of their films on news items only months old, enjoyed the luxury of being of-the-moment. The Black Hand's scenario depicting an honest, hardworking Italian immigrant victimized by "La Mano Nera," was loosely based on an incident that had taken place earlier the same year.

As is frequently the case in films of the era from Biograph, the scenario's dramatic tension between the gangsters, their victims, and police is in many ways surpassed by its formal tension: The presentational theatrics pantomimed by the cast, photographed on the Biograph's Forteenth Street studio's reliably two-dimensional sets, contrasts sharply with the breathtakingly detailed representational reality of exterior location scenes shot elsewhere in lower Manhattan. Like many of the other films in the Treasures III set—photographed as far afield as Denver, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, and Southern California—The Black Hand offers a window into a past that is at once recognizably familiar and yet tantalizingly exotic. "That historical distance makes us aware of our own historical distance," says University of Chicago's Tom Gunning, one of the contributing commentators.

Gunning's additional audio track for The Black Hand is characteristic of the substantial additions made by the series' twenty expert commentators. Gunning sees his contribution to the Treasures III discs as part of a mostly forgotten tradition of theatrical exhibition. "It was quite frequent to have what was known as a lecturer in movie theaters of that era," Gunning says. The lecturer, he says, provided "a running commentary, not an academic or critical commentary, but a dramatic commentary." Like the other contemporary voices on Treasures III, Gunning tempers academic insight with tremendous enthusiasm for the experience of watching the film itself, underscoring points that just a little later in the evolution of film grammar would have been highlighted with a close-up. And by conversationally foreshadowing character entrances and other plot points with a freedom that director Wallace McCutcheon did not indulge in himself, he takes pleasure in mildly subverting the era's confusion about whether to place title cards before or after the events they describe.

Program One's feature selection, 1920s The Soul of Youth, is a visually inventive and surprisingly modern film that was produced as a prestige product by Paramount's Poverty Row production subsidiary, Realart. Transferred from a 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress, the Treasures III presentation of The Soul of Youth restores this marvelously well photographed and naturalistically performed film's original color tints. In so doing, it will also go a long way, one hopes, to restoring the creative reputation of director William Desmond Taylor.

If remembered at all, Irish-born Taylor is recalled as the victim of the 1922 unsolved murder that helped to embolden moral watchdogs anxious about the corrupting influence of the behind-the-scenes lives of Hollywood's supposedly amoral jazz age elite. The identity of Taylor's killer so nagged at director King Vidor (represented on Program Four with 1918's Bud's Recruit) that the research he did on the case for an uncompleted Taylor fictional film project in 1967 became the basis for a biography published some twenty years later. First and last, The Soul of Youth evinces Taylor's prodigious visual gifts. The film's deep focus, proto-Germanic chiaroscuro, unusual angles, and deft tempos indicate that in spite of whatever dubious temporary gains moralists and media sensationalists may have made by way of Taylor's untimely death, the premature departure of this fluent stylist is a loss to film history of far greater consequence.

One of the truly enchanting highlights of the Treasures III collection is Program Two's Manhattan Trade School for Girls. Preserved by the George Eastman House, the sixteen-minute promotional documentary film detailing the benefits to New York City's low-income young women of receiving a vocational education is a fascinating time capsule on its own. But when accompanied by the ingenious score created by Elena Ruehr, one of a team of composers handpicked primarily from the ranks of students and faculty at MIT's music program by music curator Martin Marks, Manhattan Trade School is catapulted into the sublime. Ruehr combined a string arrangement of ragtime melodies written by female tunesmiths of the era with the voices of the Winsor School Small Chorus, a twenty-two-member contemporary ensemble made up of schoolgirls the same age as those seen training, studying, and exercising in the 1911 film. "Stitches and basting, even, uneven," sings the choir, giving voice to words appearing on screen in the film's intertitles and depicted on blackboards and instructional signs in the Manhattan Trade School's classrooms. Somehow antic, proud, and mournful all at the same time, Ruehr's score "does exactly what music for films of the silent era should do," says Loughney, "which is sustain a film, gently lift it off the ground, and hold it in the air while you are listening to it and seeing it."

Tasked with providing musical accompaniment to the four brief animated films on Treasures III, compoer Brian Robison met the challenge with equivalent energy. The Strong Arm Squad of the Future, Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-I.W.W. Rat, Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Loans, and The United Snakes of America are political cartoons brought to brief and awkward life through primitive animation. The films' unsubtle political agendas and nearly anxiety-inducing repetitive simplicity don't readily suggest music as a way in. "The biggest challenge for me was that they were so short," says Robison. "Here's this one-minute piece and I have to suggest Americana somehow and some kind of threat to that Americana." The other conceptual hurdle was to be creatively supportive of material that, like many of the films on Treasures III, is not for the politically squeamish. "I'm a fairly classic northeastern pointy-headed liberal," Robison says. "Yet for two of the films I had to be prowar, for one I had to be antilabor, and the other I had to be antifeminism." Nevertheless, Robison's scores, appropriately patriotic and rabble-rousing period anthems, are a sympathetic fit. The incorporation of dissonant Americana elements reminiscent of Charles Ives and subtle modern instrumental touches like treated piano elevates Program Four's suffocating 1917 pro-interventionist cartoon The United Snakes of America into the abstraction that its confused content and harsh imagery inadvertently suggest.

Though Treasures III presents restorations of films from familiar production imprints like Universal, Biograph, Edison, and Paramount, the set also documents filmmaking initiatives by the Ford Motor Company, U.S. Steel, the U.S. Deaprtment of Agriculture, and the American Federation of Labor. A particularly fascinating curio, independently made, is The Crime of Carelessness, commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers in 1912. One year before The Crime of Carelessness was released, 146 garment workers were incinerated when the Triangle Waist Company's Greenwich Village manufacturing plant caught fire. In the aftermath of the disaster, investigation revealed that the factory's vehemently antiunion management had turned a blind eye to illegally locked doors and other unsafe conditions that substantially contributed to the fire's appalling body count.

In lieu of far-reaching reforms, The Crime of Carelessness somewhat democratically—and completely inaccurately—seeks to put equal blame on labor, management, and government regulators by showing a fictional worker ignoring posted no smoking signs and a factory inspector ignoring safety violations. The aftermath of the tragic fire climaxes in a jaw-dropping symbolic confrontation in which the worker, the factory owner, and the inspector are frozen in a three-way, finger-pointing standoff that simultaneouslly evokes the accusatory tone of nineteenth-century, issue-oriented melodrama and the future films of John Woo.

A Brooklyn chauffer's bloodied body lies in the street in the 1913 traffic-safety film The Cost of Carelessness. Future 20th Century Fox house director Henry King gets a starring turn in Who Pays?: Episode 12. Marie Prevost, perhaps the single most gruesome casualty of Hollywood's golden age, is once again alive and well and encouraging Lina Basquette's atheism in Cecil B. De Mille's lurid 1928 late silent confection The Godless Girl. Over the course of four features and forty-four shorter-form films, Treasures III provides transcendent visual epiphanies, stirring moments of dramatic upheaval, and engaging historical detail from archival sources as broad as the canvas of American life they depict.

Whether intended as a tool for teachers, a research source for scholars, or a gold mine of unique, beautiful, and sometimes bizarre homegrown filmmaking Americana for home viewing, Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 19001934, is a definitive statement about DVD's place in the archival and educational food chain. "I've been in the archive business for thirty years," says Pat Loughney, "and the current digital technologies are marvelous. What the set really vindicates," Loughney says, "is using DVD for access." Internet downloads of public-domain film clips continue to grow in popularity among educators and students. But, Loughney warns, "there's a lack of scholarly standardization on the Internet and often no information about where a image came from or what source it was derived from." With the Treasures From American Film Archives series, however, "there's a sense of authentication to these documents. They're not altered or edited down."

Loughney remains skeptical about the Internet's much discussed, supposedly superior level of information access when it comes to exploring American film history. "No teacher in a classroom would talk about a literary source without giving a provenance about the edition they're using, the editor, and so on. That has yet to evolve in film studies, and, to me, the Internet is just a little loose about all that. Information is not knowledge, and the Internet confuses that an awful lot. This set upholds a very high standard for giving information on the source material, the preservation, and the music that was created for each film," Loughney says. "There's none better."

Bruce Bennett is a film critic for the New York Sun.

The National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco, California, received $350,000 in NEH funding to produce Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film: 1900-1934.