The National Film Preservation Foundation delivers another 'Treasure' with the fascinating three-disc box set 'The West 1898-1938.'
Huzzah and hooray for the archivists and the preservationists of celluloid, American style. For they, more than the largely forgotten actors, directors, cameramen and documentarians whose work is collected here, are the heroes of Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938. The latest in the National Film Preservation Foundation’s series of wonderfully curated and elegantly packaged DVD collections, this three-disc set (plus fact-packed booklet) provides an endlessly fascinating corrective to, and occasional confirmation of, the stereotypes and myths perpetuated by John Ford’s West, not to mention the testosterone-rich frontier of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Clint Eastwood.
Curated and annotated by Scott Simmon, the knowledgeable author of The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century (Cambridge University Press, 2003), the vastly entertaining set serves several purposes. It puts 40, count ‘em, 40 dramatic and nonfiction films of historical value in the hands of the populace to whom they historically and culturally belong. Frankly, it’s a revelation of sorts to see America’s pre-industrial roots, depicted and recorded on film. We’re granted entrée, in the comfort of our living room, to a nation built on community values, a shared workload, and fair play. (Unless you were an Indian, to use the nomenclature of the day.)
The intrinsic value of these images is undeniable, so the Treasures series also functions as an advertisement for the (to some) archaic and expensive pursuit of “old movies.” Now, there are terrifically persuasive advocates of preservation, such as Martin Scorsese, but they’d be the first to acknowledge that vintage films —even the silents that comprise the great majority of The West—speak for themselves.
I confess to a soft spot for the travelogues presented here, perhaps because the pleasure of viewing unembellished source material is so immediate and thrilling. Deschutes Driftwood (1916, Educational Films Corp. of America) follows a hobo riding the rails on a since-abandoned route along the Deschutes River in Oregon. He’s harassed numerous times, and while the fictional framing interferes not a whit with one’s appreciation of the landscape over 10 wonderful minutes, the underlying social message resonates unexpectedly with present-day economic realities.
Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916, Essanay Film Mfg. Co.) offers another example of unspoiled beauty. It’s stunning to see the lake without the neon of hotels and casinos, or the hordes of people. (Yes, I realize the filmmakers went out of their way to make the vacation spot seen unpopulated and inviting, in the same way that car manufacturers advertise their new models on streets miraculously emptied of traffic and even stoplights.) What comes across in these films is a nation still amazed by its wealth of natural resources and the unlimited possibilities available to its citizens. (Unless you were an American Indian.)
The backdrop is as mesmerizing as the action in The Sergeant, a 16-minute narrative played out against the lush beauty and uninhabited (except by those pesky and amoral Indians!) solitude of Yosemite Valley circa 1910. This film was recently rediscovered in New Zealand, returned to the U.S. and preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the New Zealand Film Archive.
The dramas in The West consistently depict the hardiness of women, a revelation for those who think the West was populated only by men and horses. Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress (1912, Essanay Film Mfg. Co.) introduces a female newcomer, a single-minded teacher, to a community of men. They scheme and connive to intimidate her and win her heart, but to no avail. In the end, Billy (the hero of dozens of two-reelers) triumphs over the bad manners and cockeyed strategies of his rival.
I don’t wish to give the impression that the set is comprised entirely of shorts. The feature-length Salomy Jane (1914, California Motion Picture Corp.) stars the immortal Beatriz Michelena in a Bret Harte story set in the California mining community of Hangtown in 1852. (It was renamed Placerville a couple of years later, Simmons mentions in his authoritative and insightful notes.)
Clara Bow shines in Victor Fleming’s Mantrap (1926, Famous Players-Lasky Corp.), and Richard Dix wittily propels Gregory La Cava’s charming Womahandled (1925, also from Famous Players-Lasky Corp.), of which only 55 minutes survive.
A shout-out is in order for the underappreciated folks working behind the scenes to save the (primarily black-and-white) fragments of our collective history. We salute you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, George Eastman House, Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art, National Archives, UCLA Film & Television Archive and New Zealand Film Archive.
Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938 lists for $59.98. For more information, visit filmpreservation.org/dvds-and-books/treasures-5-the-west.
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